The Palestra Endures as a Basketball Cathedral

By Scott Shetler, March 1, 2018

Walking through the halls of the Palestra feels like strolling through another era. With its old-fashioned wooden bench seating and lack of luxury boxes, the Palestra almost resembles a high-school gymnasium more than a major university arena.

Yet the Philadelphia venue has endured, becoming one of college sports’ most iconic sites. Sometimes referred to as “the Cathedral of College Basketball,” the Palestra has been the home of the Pennsylvania Quakers since 1927 and has hosted more NCAA games than any arena in the country.

While the Palestra is Penn’s home court, the other programs in the Philadelphia Big 5–Temple, Villanova, La Salle, and St. Joseph’s–still play games here now and then. It will also host the Ivy League’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments this month.

Fans can get closer to the action here than almost anywhere else, and that combination of intimacy and history make the venue unique.

The Palestra hasn’t changed much over the years. Sure, a big video screen was installed a few years back and the lower-level bleachers were replaced. But the building still gives off the vibe of a different time.

That’s especially true while viewing the exhibits throughout the concourse. Decade-by-decade displays highlight the great players, coaches and teams of the past, like the 1979 Penn team that reached the Final Four before falling to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad. Walls of photos showcase some of the visiting legends who once played in this building, including LeBron James, Julius Erving, and David Robinson.

The Palestra has hosted everything from rock concerts to pro tennis tournaments in the past, but these days the 8,722-capacity venue is mostly used for college athletics, prominent high school games, and the occasional political rally or graduation ceremony.

The best way to experience the Palestra is to attend a college basketball game, but those who visit during the offseason still have the opportunity to go inside and see the memorabilia if they plan ahead. Though the Palestra does not offer regularly scheduled tours, Penn Director of Athletic Communications Mike Mahoney says he is happy to accommodate interested fans who contact his office to request a private tour.

While it’s common in sports to bulldoze older venues in favor of new arenas with corporate boxes, there have not been any discussions about replacing the Palestra. Expect the venerable building to keep hosting basketball games for many years to come.

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