Ask any college basketball fan what their bucket list arenas are, chances are you’ll get a lot of the same answers: Phog Allen, Cameron Indoor, Assembly Hall, Hinkle, the list goes on and on.
The Palestra absolutely belongs on that list.
As someone who has spent their entire life within the confines of Indiana, much of my college basketball viewing experience has been limited to arenas in Indiana and its neighboring states. I’ve done Assembly Hall countless times, and I’ve experienced Hinkle more than most people.
After making a trip to the Palestra on Friday night, I can genuinely say it’s as good as any basketball arena that I’ve been to.
When you first come into sight of the Palestra, you can already sense the mystique and allure of the building. Built in 1927, it’s one of the oldest venues in college basketball, and has the charm to back it up.
Inside the halls of the building, it’s almost as if you’re walking into a time machine. Old pictures, relics and other blasts from the past line the walls. Memories of classic Penn teams, Big 5 counterparts and everything in between provide an opportunity for fans of all ages to reminisce on the times of old.
Moving down to the court, you start to see what makes the Palestra one of the nation’s best places to watch game. The building almost feels church-like, which feels appropriate given that its nickname is the Cathedral of College Basketball. The arching steel beams, the windows looking down up on the church and the historic banners hanging from the rafters give it a feel that most gyms simply can’t provide.
As you get down to media seating, you truly get a sense for how intimate it really is in there. The fans are mere inches away from you, and you can feel the vibrations in your feet with every bounce of the ball and squeak of a pair of sneakers. You feel connected to the game being played in front of you.
There’s a difference in a sound of the PA system too. It’s a subtle difference, and one you wouldn’t notice unless you have been to enough arenas to discern between the different sounds. It’s loud, but not loud in the sense of the pulsing stereo systems you find in modern arenas. No, it’s loud in a way that the PA announcer’s excitement can be felt naturally as it booms through the building. Hinkle is the same way. Maybe it’s just something about old buildings.
All of this is well and good, but all of it is second-to-none when it comes to the actual game experience. The Palestra gets LOUD. Last night’s game between Brown and Penn was a high-scoring, back-and-forth overtime tilt that featured very little separation between the two teams. It wasn’t even close to a sellout crowd, but there was a large enough contingent to make its presence known. Both teams brought the energy, and the Quaker faithful matched it.
As the game went on, you could feel the energy crescendoing with each passing moment. A post bucket by the Quakers gets an audible applause. A stop by the Quaker defense gets the fans on their feet. Another bucket and stop sends the crowd into a frenzy. That momentum carried over into overtime, and it’s hard not to the think that the crowd helped propel the Quakers to victory.
Following the game, Penn lined up for its postgame tradition of singing the school song in front of the fans. Fans, cheerleaders, players and coaches all participated in the moment. It’s a little thing, but it’s something pure that adds to the experience.
Friday night only assured me of what I was thinking before the game: the Palestra is absolutely a bucket list item for college basketball fans. Make it a point to make a trip there. Trust me, it’ll be well worth your time. The game’s iconic halls spare no excuse, and Palestra is included in that vaunted class of destination.