Friday, February 22, 2008

a song for the palestra has come out with one of those silly surveys people take as gospel, when all such things really do is generate conversation. Anyway, this one here says Philly is the fifth-most miserable city in America. Granted, traffic's a nightmare and the homicide rate is a wee bit frightening, but methinks Forbes' methodology never included a winter evening at the Palestra for a college basketball game between any two of the city's six Division I schools. The Old Barn, which sits at 33rd below Walnut, just as it's done for more than 80 years, is quite simply a shrine, a treasure. It's nothing but an old gym, but it's an old gym with a capacity for 8,722 people (that magic number), none of whom has a bad seat, even if you're way up in the corner, way up near the rafters. You can also, from the moment you walk in, feel the ghosts of the city's basketball past, as if you've entered a museum instead of an actual live event.

On Monday night, for La Salle-Saint Joe's, my own view looked like this:

The joint was hot inside, just as it always is, no matter how cold it is outside. There are no amenities, and while the fans are packed in tight, their enthusiasm is pure, unlike the loud, annoying contrivances that permeate most every pro game; indeed, the only music during timeouts comes from the bands, as opposed to the loudspeakers. The student sections are loud and comically abusive, but in a pleasant way that keeps with the genuine sense of conviviality that exists between the schools. And even though St. Joe's team is far superior to La Salle's, just as it has been for the last 15 years or so, a little of that Palestra charm took over not long after the game started: Neither team seemed to miss, and by halftime the score was a dizzying 50-48. The haymakers continued to fly back and forth throughout the second half, La Salle answering every St. Joe's burst with one of its own to keep it close, and to keep the scoreboard churning. Darnell Harris, La Salle's sharp-shooting 3-point specialist, had no conscience, taking jumpshots from as far away as 30th Street Station, an awe-inspiring display of fearlessness, if not recklessness. "If I'm open," Harris memorably told reporters later, "it really doesn't matter." When it was over, La Salle had won a 90-89 heart-stopper that left everyone who was there breathless and gasping in disbelief: St. Joe's had somehow made 63 percent of its shots ... and lost. The La Salle kids came barreling out of the exits, chanting and shouting into the night, an uneven-but-joyful chorus that no doubt kept up all the way back to some meathead kegger near 20th and Olney. Afterward, over beers and hot beef sandwiches at the Cherry Street Tavern, a group of us were still shaking our heads over what we had just witnessed. And now, four days later, I'm still tingling at the thought of it all. Go ahead, let Forbes say Philly's a miserable place. But then let them make a pilgrimmage to the Palestra, to really feel one of the city's most unique experiences, and let's see what they have to say afterward.

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