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� 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."