Commentary

City rivals make room for each other in Philadelphia's cathedral of hoops

Originally Published: January 27, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Years ago, Phil Martelli decided that for halftime, he'd need a private, quiet place to think. So the Saint Joseph's coach took to the showers, requesting only a lone folding chair in a stall.

There, alone amid the cold tiles and dripping faucets, Martelli contemplates offensive strategies and defensive adjustments.

When Martelli walked into the locker room for his first home game of this season, the chair was right where it was supposed to be. This time, though, the shower stalls were different -- older and more cramped -- and in an arena nine miles from the Saint Joe's campus.

As their Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse undergoes a year's worth of renovations, the Hawks have turned into a team without a true home, schlepping their hoops wares to another arena for 14 dates this season.

But Saint Joe's isn't playing in just any old bandbox. The Hawks' new home is the storied Palestra, a gym that Saint Joe's guard Darrin Govens calls "our cathedral of basketball."

It's a cathedral, all right. But this cathedral happens to be the property of the University of Pennsylvania.

[+] EnlargePenn V. St Joe's
Drew Hallowell/Penn AthleticsSaturday's game between Penn and Saint Joe's put the Quakers in the odd position of being the road team at the Palestra.

On the court, the two schools are not friendly. Heck, they can't even agree on the status of their series. Penn says the Hawks lead 45-33, while Saint Joe's says the record is 45-32. So the concept of the fierce rivals' sharing the building is like imagining the Carolina Tar Heels squatting in Cameron Indoor, Missouri temporarily setting up shop in Allen Fieldhouse or the Chicago White Sox borrowing Wrigley.

But Philadelphia, a sports city not known to outsiders as being particularly collegial or cooperative, is precisely that when it comes to college basketball. Fifty-four years ago, athletic directors at the city schools agreed to a full 10-game round-robin schedule, blessing the city series with the obvious name -- the Big 5. Other than Penn, no team really had a home court, so the schools agreed the Palestra would host all the games.

Ever since, the building that sits on the University of Pennsylvania campus has belonged to everyone.

"I'm not sure this could happen anywhere else," Saint Joe's athletic director Don DiJulia said. "There's something in the water in Philadelphia."

It's hard to explain to anyone who hasn't been raised in it, born into it or baptized by it -- who never heard late Saint Joe's announcer John McAdams intone, "college basketball's most historic gym" during pregame introductions, or listened to old-timers tell of superfan Yo Yo and his underhand free-throw show at the half.

The Big 5 and the Palestra are as dear to Philadelphians as their cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Iggles and Phightins. It's a tradition that soared, died, was reborn and still fosters an old-school camaraderie in a nouveau age of trash talk and posturing.

Students today pack their iPods and cell phones for games, yet they still unfurl their rollouts. The players sport high-tech Nikes and shorts down to their knees, yet treat each game with reverence. The coaches wear pricey suits and cash thick paychecks, yet still smile like kids when they reflect on playing these games in this particular building.

Penn versus Saint Joe's
University of PennThe Big 5 and the Palestra are just about as Philadelphia as it gets.
The Big 5, with all its tradition and history, is also the reason DiJulia knew he needed to make only one phone call when his program was searching for a home for the 2008-09 season.

"There was absolutely no hesitation on our part, none whatsoever," Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky said. "I just told everyone, 'We need to make this work.'"

And so Bilsky pulled his staff together, marketing people and facilities people, game operations staff and basketball coaches, and asked them to rearrange, plot and plan … for another school.

It was not exactly a logistical symphony. The Palestra is home to Penn's men's and women's basketball, as well as its volleyball and wrestling teams. There are games, matches and practices to be scheduled. There are shootarounds for visiting squads. There are even the weekly pickup games among media types. Squeezing in another 14 games and a handful of practices was like shoehorning Charles Barkley into a thong.

But Bilsky said yes because that's what you do. You say yes in the Big 5 and then figure out how to make it work.

"The administrations must have done a great job, because when I submit a practice schedule, no one ever says it won't work," said Penn coach Glen Miller, who's new to the city but already well schooled in how things run here. "It's been seamless. I just can't wait until after we play one another [and eliminate a live scouting NCAA violation] so I can come in here and watch some good A-10 games."

The scheduling crunch was made easier by two simple factors: The Hawks have a practice court and use the Palestra only about once a week, and the Quakers play their Ivy League games on Fridays and Saturdays, leaving the weekdays relatively free.

When all was plotted and planned with the strategic effort of warfare, there was only one real conflict: Saint Joe's was scheduled to play Rider on Nov. 14, the same day the Quakers were to host Harvard in volleyball. So the Hawks simply moved downtown to the Wachovia Center.

Really, the Hawks have been the only team inconvenienced. Instead of strolling through campus to get to home games, the players board a bus, leaving extra early to account for the traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway that will inevitably turn a 10-minute commute into a 30-minute ride. They also don't get to shoot on their "home" baskets very often and technically don't have a home locker room.

Accustomed to packed gyms at the Fieldhouse, they've had good crowds at the Palestra, but 3,000 fans in a 3,200-seat Fieldhouse looks and sounds great. In a 9,000-seat Palestra, it can feel somewhat empty.

But you won't hear much whining from anyone associated with Saint Joe's. Not when the gym the Hawks share is an 81-year-old building whose hallways practically creak with history.

"It gets so loud, you can't hear yourself talk," said Govens, who grew up in nearby Chester and played high school playoff games at the Palestra. "I'm looking forward to our new field house, but this isn't a bad place to call home."

On Saturday, the two schools spent the most unusual evening of this unique season. Saint Joe's was the home team … while Penn was the owner of the gym.

Because the Hawks play all their Big 5 games at the Palestra -- a throwback rarity, as the other three schools have moved home games to campus -- the particulars were worked out long ago. The universities agreed to split the house: 4,500 tickets for Penn, 4,500 for Saint Joe's. Each school takes its own gate, with the home team responsible for that particular game's expenses each season.

Seating is dissected at the midcourt line, which means the Penn season-ticket holders accustomed to sitting in one section of the sideline chair backs have to shuffle over a bit.

"Well, it's Saint Joe's game, so we had to move," said Phillies team president David Montgomery, a member of Penn's Class of 1970. "But hey, they gave us good seats."

Montgomery is a fixture at Penn games. He usually sits opposite the visitors bench about halfway up from the floor on the end of a row. For years, while his team was mired in mediocrity, he sat there undisturbed. Now, as president of the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies, a few more people find their way to his section. But he sits among friends and cheers for his Quakers just as he's been doing since he was a student.

[+] EnlargeRent's Due
Drew Hallowell/Penn AthleticsThe Penn student section made sure to remind Saint Joseph's who the real home team was Saturday.

Ordinarily, Montgomery sits next to Ed Rendell, who graduated from Penn in 1965. Rendell missed this City Series game because of a commitment to the Academy Ball, celebrating the 152nd anniversary of the Penn Academy of Music.

"That won't sit well with him," Montgomery said. "Some fancy affair instead of a basketball game? He won't like that."

That's the trouble with being governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The sports-junkie guv won't love the result of this particular game -- an 80-68 Saint Joe's win -- but what will resonate with Rendell is the same thing that struck Montgomery: a packed Palestra on a Saturday night.

Montgomery flew home from Chicago on Saturday afternoon and arrived at the game late. When he walked in, he was thrilled to see people stuffed into the darkened corners up by the rafters, a sure sign of a Palestra sellout.

There were no streamers after the first bucket, as the tradition was outlawed some 20 years ago, but there were rollouts and clever chants. Penn students unrolled a "You are the homeless" banner, which was immediately followed by a "This is our house" chant from the Saint Joe's students.

Band music reverberated off the walls, and coaches yelling two feet from the shaky press table were drowned out by the noise.

It was, in other words, just like it always has been.

"C'mon. It's a Saturday night in January," Martelli said. "It's really cold outside. They're 4-9 and we're a nondescript 10-7, and the place is full. But people are cheering for their team, not against our team. I didn't hear one time how bald I am.

"It's just Philadelphia -- a Saturday night at the Palestra."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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