When thinking about iconic arenas across the country, the likes of Madison Square Garden, Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the Old Boston Garden may come to mind.
Despite these big named arenas, the oldest of the group and perhaps the most historic of all basketball arenas lie on South 33rd St. in Philadelphia at the Palestra.
Nicknamed the “Cathedral of College Basketball”, the Palestra was built in 1927 and developed its lore from hosting Philadelphia Big 5 basketball since the group’s inception in 1955. The Big 5 is an informal association of athletic programs in Philadelphia, which includes Penn, La Salle, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova.
The 85-year-old arena has also played host to more games than any college arena in history, making it the Fenway Park of college basketball.
And not only does the Palestra stand for almost a century of hoops, but it also represents the return of Philadelphia natives who call the State College their current home when the Nittany Lions (4-3) play La Salle (4-1) on Wednesday.
“There’s going to be some major energy and butterflies in my body, I’m sure on Wednesday,” said coach Patrick Chambers, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square, Pa. “The Palestra is a special place in my heart. Two of my brothers went to Penn, I was a Big 5 junkie and I went to all the doubleheaders and tripleheaders… snuck into games and all that good stuff.”
Chambers, who was an assistant under Jay Wright at Villanova from 2004-09, has experience coaching at the Palestra, but not as a leading man.
However, the second-year Penn State head coach isn’t the only member on the Lions’ staff with ties to the Philadelphia area.
Associate head coach Eugene Burroughs played with Chambers in high school at Episcopal Academy, which lies just 30 minutes outside Philadelphia, and assistant Brian Daly was a four-year letterwinner for St. Joseph’s from 1988-92.
While the return will most likely bring about old memories and friends, the coaches are focused on the primary task at hand — beating the Explorers.
“We’re all excited to go back to Philadelphia and go back where we all played at our roots. I’m sure you’re going to see family and friends and things like that, but it’s a business trip,” Chambers said.
Even though the game will be a “business trip,” that doesn’t mean Chambers and company won’t make sure their players understand the history of the Palestra and allow them to soak in the experience.
The chance to play in the arena that hosted legendary Big 5 teams such as the 1984-85 Villanova national championship team and, more recently, the 2003-04 undefeated St. Joe’s Hawks will be appreciated by current Lions and Philadelphia natives D.J. Newbill and Brandon Taylor.
“I think the Big 5 battles [were historic]. I think those teams kind of set the tone and made the Palestra what it is,” said Newbill, who played for North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School.
Newbill and Taylor, who played AAU basketball for Team Philly, are expecting family and friends to attend the game, and understand the privilege of playing at the Palestra considering the history that has came before them.
“All my family lives in Philly, so I’ve been in Philly since I was a baby... My dad always tells me stories [about the Palestra] so I know there’s a lot of history,” Taylor said.
Considering the players’ Philadelphia connections, the Lions’ head coach said it will be quite the experience for Newbill and Taylor, and it’s important that the whole team comprehends the level of “nostalgia” of the arena.
“When you’re a young kid and your dad and brothers bring you down to games, you want to play there. You want to be a part of that history. You want to be on the floor in that packed house,” Chambers said. “...And now we’re going to be able to taste that a little bit.”