Underwhelmed at Quakers’ storied Palestra

“O-ver-rat-ed!” (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap), echoed in the home arena of the Pennsylvania Quakers last Friday.

The jeers that deafened me weren’t directed at the Yale bench, though they could have been. Nor were they actually coming from the Penn fans, or even audible to any ears other than mine.

These chants, you see, were inside my head. The subject? Neither team on the floor, nor the fans sparsely settled inside the arena. Instead, the sufferer of my internal taunting was the Palestra itself.

Everyone I’d ever met who’d been to the Palestra had described it to me as a minor miracle of basketball architecture. By all accounts, it was unequivocally one of the best places in the nation, let alone in the Ivy League, in which to see a college basketball game. I was told that history surrounds the place, which is so big it makes unaccustomed Ivy opponents feel like tiny trespassers in the temple. “See the Palestra,” they said, “and you’ll never forget it.”

And as we approached the building Friday evening, I have to admit I was pretty excited. Even though it cost $12 to park, I forked out the money happily for a chance to see the place. Once through the outer gates, I was indeed quite impressed with the displays of Ivy League and Big Five history that lined the walls of the concourse, which excited me even more.

On the cusp of completing my Ivy basketball pilgrimage, I took a deep breath, marched down the tunnel and made my way into the stands. I then proceeded to feel — underwhelmed.

Sure, there were a bunch of Ivy League banners hanging from the ceiling, but they couldn’t hide the fact that the place was, well, less than special. The ceiling wasn’t any higher than the top of Yale’s own John J. Lee Amphitheater, and the only thing that seemed to enable the place to hold so many people was the full complement of stands behind each basket and bench seating that allowed for fan-cramming. The place also had a depressing light blue hue that reminded me of an indoor pool. Instead of awe-inspired, I felt slightly queasy, though that could have been the terrible Philadelphia cart food.

My preconceptions shattered, I decided to reassess and rank, in my humble opinion, the best arenas in the Ivy League:

1a. The Palestra (Penn — 8,722) — Yeah, yeah, I know: “You just got finished complaining about it! What are you thinking?” But hey, I never said the Palestra wasn’t one of the best in the Ivy League, just that it wasn’t an arena worthy of being “the most storied gymnasium in the history of collegiate athletics” like www.ivyleaguesports.com says it is. Its arched ceiling is quite nice, but seems to limit crowd noise (though I must admit the place was nowhere near capacity for the Yale game). And like I said before, the light blue hue of the place was quite unsettling. Who does Penn think it is? Columbia? None of my dissatisfaction with the building can take away its history, however, and the concourses and food service were hands down the best in the league.

1b. The John J. Lee Amphitheater (Yale — 2,800) — Now you might say I’m homering, you know, for the home squad, and you’re probably partially right. But the Lee Amphitheater has definite charm. First of all, its location in the cathedral that is the Payne Whitney Gymnasium can’t be matched, no matter how hard the Soviets may try. It’s plenty tall, allowing for great views from every seat, yet it manages to trap every decibel of noise. And the multitiered box seating at the ends of the court almost inadvertently provide the Bulldogs with luxury boxes. The lighting is also very good, and the two huge Yale banners on the opposite wall from the entrance frame the court perfectly. The Lee Amphitheater’s biggest drawback is its limited capacity, which shrank to 2,800 from 3,100 after a fire marshall’s assessment during last season’s magical Penn-Princeton homestand.

3. The Jadwin Gymnasium (Princeton — 6,854) — I also visited the Jadwin for the first time over the weekend, and my impression of Princeton’s home court can be summed up in three words: way too big. The place is absolutely humongous (roughly 250,000 square feet), and while that might initially be quite impressive, it makes for an awkward basketball environment. Because the arena is so big, only one set of stands is permanent; the other three sides are rolled-up bleachers. The lopsided feeling is only worsened by the immense height of the ceiling that cuts fan noise in half, thus preventing the atmosphere from getting frenzied. However, the Jadwin does have a cubic scoreboard suspended from the ceiling.

4. Lavietes Pavilion (Harvard — 2,195) — Nestled next to Harvard Stadium, the Lavietes Pavilion features an enclosed lounge that looks onto the court. Normally, this might seem like a nice feature, but the glare off the immense windows of the lounge can cause shooting woes on one end of the court. Maybe it’s the Johns’ sneaky attempt at homecourt advantage, but it prevents the otherwise palatable arena from having any real charm.

5 (Tie). The Pizzitola Center (Brown — 2,800) and The Leede Arena (Dartmouth — 2,100) — These two arenas are so nondescript and boring they hardly merit description. There’s nothing really bad about them, but there’s nothing really good either. They feel like small arenas for lower-tier Division I programs. Which in fact they are.

7. The Newman Arena (Cornell — 4,473) — This arena stands as the only Ivy basketball arena I have not experienced firsthand. But my ranking is not entirely arbitrary. The Newman, like the rest of Cornell, is in the middle of nowhere. Thus for inaccessibility alone, the basketball home of Jerry Seinfeld’s nemesis receives a low ranking.

8. Levien Gymnasium (Columbia — 3,400) — It looks like a high school gym, and it reeks of chlorine from the nearby pool. No wonder the Lions are perennially terrible.

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