The Cathedral of Basketball.
A fitting name for the sacred hardwood that is The Palestra, at the University of Pennsylvania. It is the rare arena that manages to transcend both the teams that have called it home, the games that were played there.
More than gym, it cradled the very ecstatic act of basketball.
It’s full story does not need to be told here, but in summary, It was built in 1927 as the crown jewel venue of the burgeoning sport. An early single span arena (architecture nerd note: The single spanning is one of the main reasons it remains in use today) built to house, a then unheard of, 9,000 spectators in a Chart-ian flood of baffled light.
This monument was birthed less than 3 decades after, in the naked infancy of the game, the first professional basketball contest was staged on December 1st, 1898, in gritty Textile Hall on Kensington Avenue. That match in turn played a scant 6 years(!) after the first peach basket was affixed to a post in a Springfield, Massachutes YMCA…
We’ll get back to the Palestra, but let’s take a moment to digress to that turbulent, beer-soaked Hall in Kensington, 114 years ago….
As the Beautiful Game was just achieving a form recognizable to our contemporary eyes in the late 1890’s, the Trenton Nationals emerged as the pre-eminent traveling team, seeking out for-pay games throughout the mid-Atlantic coast.
They headlined and birthed the National Basketball League in 1898, a 6 team union featuring the Trenton Nationals, Camden Electrics, and Millville Glassblowers, from Jersey; and The Germantown Nationals, Kensington Hancocks, and Clover (now the neighborhood of West Frankford) Wheelmen, from Philadelphia.
Here are the Germantown, Trenton and Camden squads…
Here is what The Inquirer had to say about that first game in front of a packed house of raucous Kenso’s
“About 900 people were present, and the cheers and hisses were mingled with good and bad playing.
No less than forty-one fouls were called during the game, and the people who were present unjustly hissed the referee who only enforced the new National League rules, which makes all rough playing and three men in a scrimmage, now fouls. The play had only started when Harrison ran with the ball and Ruckhardt scored the first point on a free throw, the first score in the National League”
Boo-ing the local ref?! Proof Positive that Kensington is ALWAYS Kensington.
41 fouls in 40 minutes, the bruising Kensington Hancocks were able to foul and pummel the Trenton squad out of their uptempo attack and took an 11 to 6 lead into the half, and had the Nationals facing an embarrassing upset loss in the first game of the National Basketball League
Alas, Trenton was able to ignite it’s famed transition game in the 2nd, and ran all over the Hancocks for 15 second half points, and a close 21-19 victory for Trenton
The last days of Textile Hall, later the People’s Theater, later the Desomond Theater, and Finally the Kent Movie Theater, lost to fire in the mid 1990’s…
More on the original Philly ballers, the Germantown Nationals, Kensington Hancocks, and Clover Wheelman later in the season…
Now let’s jump ahead 68 years and down 11 El stops to the Glorious Palestra on South 33rd Street, March 31st 1967. The Sixers were bidding farewell to West Philly, as the concrete modernism of the Spectrum rose at Broad and Pattison, ready to recieve the 1967-68 squad.
By way of tribute to this Font of Basketball, the Sixers played the first game of each of thier playoff series on The Palestra’s holy hardwood. And in the Philly/Boston conference finals, one last match between the dominant Gemini Ballers of this era. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
Unquestionable one of the great rivalries that modern sport has ever seen. Two peerless players, Chamberlain dominating the individual accolades, while Russell collected an mind boggling 11 NBA Championships in 13 Seasons. Let’s take a quick look at two
The Celtics came into this game as the Defending Champions, having won the LAST 8 NBA CHAMPIONSHIPS. I repeat, 8 consecutive championships! But this is the year the Sixers and a 30 year old Chamberlain would break through and serve the Celtics their only defeat in a string of 10 NBA titles.
An older Chamberlian, (years removed from his impossible ’63 season where he averaged 50pts and 25reb per game) posted season averages of 24pts and 24reb, ramped it up during this Playoff run to produce averages of 22pts/29reb/9ast while 47.9 minutes per game. C-R-A-Z-Y!
Here is your box score from the closing moments of the NBA at The Palestra, as two of the greatest teams ever assembled bid farewell to the Holy Land of Hoops. Hal Greer went off for 39, Chamberlain and Jones for 24 a piece as the Sixers ran the older Celtics squad off the Court.
What the heck, Let’s watch this summary of the entire ’67 NBA playoffs
And with these Playoffs, The Palestra and the NBA would find a bitter sweet parting. Bigger arenas beckoned for the Association, though The Palestra would remain the Sanctum Sanctorum of Philadelphia’s amateur game.
Lastly it was fitting farewell between Philadelphia’s greatest arena and Philadelphia greatest player, Wilt Chamberlain.