The Palestra, Penn’s basketball arena, has been one of the most challenging road venues in college basketball since the Quakers emerged as an Ivy League power in the 1970s by winning six straight titles between 1970 and 1975.
With a capacity of 9,200, the Palestra was the largest indoor arena on the East Coast when it was constructed in 1927. While many other universities have traded in tradition for massive multi-sport complexes, the Palestra remains devoted to basketball, having hosted more college basketball games than any arena in the nation. The so-called “Cathedral of Basketball” stands today as one of the most admired arenas in the Ivy League and in the Northeast as a whole.
“I love the Palestra,” captain Alex Gamboa ’05 said. “I’ve always felt like it’s a great shooting gym and I just love playing there.”
On January 1, 1927, the Quakers hosted the Bulldogs for the first game in the newly-constructed palace of basketball, winning 26-15 in front of a sold-out crowd — a trend that has continued, as evidenced by last season’s game at the Palestra. According to Sam Kaplan ’07, students fill the stands lining the court, creating an irreverent ruckus.
“It was a sold-out game,” Kaplan said. “The fans were right on top of you with lots of signs and crazy chants. The fans are really good there.”
While only 6,215 fans actually attended the game, the charged atmosphere almost overwhelms the floor night after night, sweeping up both the home team and the visitors in its passion.
“It’s such a great venue to be playing in that the visiting team is just as fired up as we are,” Penn head coach Fran Dunphy said.
Last year, the Elis lost at Penn by a closer margin than in that first face-off in 1927. The 69-61 loss marked the seventh-straight loss to the Quakers at the Palestra. Penn boasts a serious home-court advantage, with a 727-314 overall record and a 290-60 league mark.
Still, big numbers mean very little on the court, as the Quakers were beat at home by Rider Jan. 12. Penn has since bounced back, picking up three road wins culminating in a big victory against St. Joseph’s on Tuesday — at the Palestra. Penn was technically on the road against St. Joseph’s as the schools are both members of the Big 5, which also includes LaSalle, Villanova and Temple.
“We were fortunate enough to win the game against St. Joseph’s on Tuesday night,” Dunphy said. “It was their home court and they had more fans than we did.”
A yearly playoff between the Big 5 squads has taken place since 1955 at the Palestra.
“Going way back, its one of those things where the house was split with each side cheering for his team,” Dunphy said. “Even though [the Palestra] is on Penn’s campus, it’s truly Philadelphia’s basketball court.”
Dunphy loves his gym, almost personifying it in every breath, expounding upon the Palestra’s “personality,” “aura,” “character” and “charisma.”
But when the ball is tipped off at seven, it is just another game of five-on-five.
“It’s any other gym that we can go in and beat the whole team,” Kaplan reasoned. “You can’t get caught up in all the hoopla.”