A Museum in the Cathedral The Palestra, spiritual home of Philadelphia hoops, puts its epic history on display

March 19, 2001

Jack Scheuer is a 68-year-old Philadelphia-based correspondent
for the Associated Press. For 28 years he has played pickup
basketball in the Palestra, where he has launched his set shot
during so many Wednesday lunch hours that no one challenges his
claim to being the leading scorer in the history of the arena.
But for three months last fall the University of Pennsylvania,
landlord of that mecca of hoops, denied access to its
most-whiskered gym rat.

Scheuer had no idea that he was being sidelined for a good cause.
Several summers earlier Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky, on a
visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., had
thought, We've got history equal to this. The Palestra's
concourses and outer lobby needed gussying up anyway, so why not
festoon the walls with blowups of old photos and fill the display
cases with artifacts documenting the building's past? Bilsky and
Audrey Schnur, the athletic department's director of major gifts,
found three donors to underwrite the project, and on Dec. 7 the
Quakers unveiled what's essentially a museum of Philadelphia
basketball.

The renovation cost $1.9 million, more than 2 1/2 times what the
Palestra cost to build in 1926. The new terrazzo floor in the
concourse; the original brick walls, cleansed of old mustard
stains; and the restored display cases trimmed with oak
wainscoting have all kept Penn on the good side of the
preservation police, since the Palestra is located in the
university's historic district. Old friends--and the new friends
the Palestra is making, like the Maryland basketball team, which
strolled the halls in December on orders from coach Gary
Williams--regard the temple at 33rd and Walnut as holier than a
mere landmark. At Indianapolis's retro Conseco Fieldhouse, the
nostalgia feels imposed. At the "new" Palestra, the past peers
through the years like pentimento.

If you find yourself in these halls, standing in line--and because
of the Palestra's famously few rest rooms and concession stands,
you will--drink in the history of Penn basketball as well as the
exploits of Philly's Big Five (the fraternity comprising Penn and
neighbors La Salle, St. Joseph's, Temple and Villanova) and such
visitors as Wilt Chamberlain, Calvin Murphy and Kobe Bryant, the
last of whom is depicted as a senior at Lower Merion High,
unfurling a move that foreshadows his pro career. Submit to the
nods to Palestra culture, including characters such as Bernie
Schiffran, the demonstrative fan known as Yo Yo; vendor Charley
Frank, "the Doggie Man"; and broadcaster Les Keiter, who's still
a hero in town for defying a police order to evacuate the arena
during the 1965 Bomb Scare game between St. Joseph's and
Villanova.

The four other Big Five schools are understandably reluctant to
vouchsafe to Penn their most treasured relics, so the 1985
Villanova NCAA championship banner in one display case is a
knockoff. But Bilsky hopes that Big Five fans and alumni will
hear about the new concourses and pass along their own
memorabilia. One Palestra tradition that goes unrepresented is
rollouts, the long rolls of shelving paper, each bearing a
message, that students used to unfurl slowly in the stands.
Perhaps the wits who rolled out PENN HAS HOT DOG STARTERS AND
WEANS AND FRANKS ON BENCH or HAWKS BANK ON MCFARLAND TO CHASE
MANHATTAN will exhume these inspired banners and forward them to
Penn for display.

The Big Five nearly died of indifference during the 1980s and
'90s. However, black hats such as Villanova coach Rollie
Massimino and Temple president Peter Liacouras have moved on. The
Big East, of which Villanova is a member, no longer holds
hegemony over college basketball in the Northeast, and two years
ago all five schools finally realized that it was worth
leveraging their natural rivalries and shared tradition. They
resurrected full round-robin play, and now five of the 10
city-series games are played inside Penn's Quaker meeting house.

"We no longer have the doubleheaders and the streamers thrown
after the first basket," Bilsky says, "but the schools and
coaches all realize that while conferences may come and go, the
Big Five has been around 50 years, and we'll never duplicate it."

Scheuer, who's back at his weekly game, didn't think he'd live to
see the Big Five's resurrection. It took only one look at the new
hallways for him to forgive the Penn officials for his brief
exile. "The best thing they did is what they didn't do," he says.
"They didn't touch anything inside."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS "Conferences may come and go," says Bilsky (above), "but the Big Five has been around 50 years."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)