The year was 1985, and the sports world was in turmoil. The Los Angeles Lakers won the third of the five NBA championships they would win in the eighties. The North American Soccer League was “suspending operations,” bringing to an end the professional version of the beautiful game in the United States for the foreseeable future.
The Chicago Bears and Gary Fencik ’76 were doing the Super Bowl Shuffle. Bill James published the first edition of his Historical Baseball Encyclopedia, changing the game forever. The Edmonton Oilers won their second Stanley Cup in as many years, with three more to come in the next five seasons.
In a year when so much was happening on the pro level, what concerned Dallas-based sports writer Joe Rhoads was not something the players were paid to do. Rhoads was interested in college basketball. It was a good year to be paying attention, because on April 1, in one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history, Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas would lose the championship game to the 10-point underdog Villanova Wildcats, 66-64.
Like midmajority.com’s Kyle Whelliston would do 20 years later, Rhoads spent much of 1985 traveling the country watching college basketball games. But of all Rhoads’ reflections on his heroic odyssey, it was not his notes on the Villanova-Georgetown that have remained lodged in fans’ collective memory.
The most enduring images from Rhoads’ trip were not from North Carolina, or Vegas, or L.A. They were from Philadelphia, Penn., from the place he called “the best place to watch a college basketball game in America.” They were from The Palestra.
On Saturday night at seven, the 3-1 second-place Yale Bulldogs travel to that very same arena, once the largest in America, the “palace of college basketball.” The Elis have lost eight straight in Philly, and they will be facing the defending Ivy League champions, the Penn Quakers — the team that beat Cornell by 40 points just a few weeks ago.
If they win, the Bulldogs have a solid chance of getting something out of the “14-game tournament” that is the Ivy League basketball season. If they lose, odds are that Penn will take the title home again, extending the 17-year streak of Killer P’s monopoly on the Ancient Eight’s single NCAA tournament berth.
For the players, it is just another away game. It’s a very important one, but one that will come down to misses and makes, fouls and free throws. Business as usual.
For the band, which will be there Saturday, and for the fans who decide to make the trip, it is much more than that. Watching a game at The Palestra is almost a religious experience. It is a chance to see your team play in the place that has hosted more games, more opponents, and more NCAA tournament history than any other arena in the nation. For an Ivy League basketball fan — for any college basketball fan — this is the ultimate place to watch a game.
The Palestra makes an ordinary basketball game into a feast for the senses. In The Palestra, you don’t just see the game. You smell it. You feel it. You can taste the tension, the “magic in the air.”
But if there is one thing that sets The Palestra apart, it’s the acoustics. Sure, Cameron is loud. So is John J. Lee. But they are not like The Palestra. The Palestra is where you really hear the game.
“The Palestra has the acoustics of a big bass drum,” Rhoads wrote. “It is a basketball echo chamber where every sound is amplified, where 100 people sound like a thousand, where a thousand sound like 10,000, and where 10,000 sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.” We could pack John J. Lee Amphitheater to the brim every game, and it still would not sound like Penn’s house does when it is half full.
Like most Yale fans, I have high hopes for this weekend. I want to see men’s hockey continue to succeed. I want to see the women’s hockey team finally turn their season around. And I think that men’s basketball really has a chance of beating Penn and Princeton and moving into first place in the league. The Bulldogs are going to have to play smart and play hard and cut down on turnovers, but they can do it.
Even if the Yale teams lose this weekend and everything collapses, even if the Elis start looking too far ahead and don’t take it one game at a time, even if the entire winter season turns out to be a complete failure, I know that the fans and band members who make the trip to Philly this weekend will remember it as one of their best experiences with Yale sports. By all means, go to support our team. That is what good fans do. But go for the atmosphere, too. Go for the experience. There are some things every Yalie should do at least once — the Naples Challenge, The Game, football tailgates, the Yankee Doodle, cups at Mory’s. It may not be in New Haven, but making the trip to The Palestra is one of them.
“There are other great gyms, other great crowds,” Rhoads wrote. “But they are not The Palestra. It is the best basketball gymnasium in the country — by far.”
E-mail me if you need a ride.
Nick Baumann is a senior in Morse and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column on Yale and Ivy League sports appears on Thursdays.