Even though I grew up in New York and have lived in Washington my entire adult life, I have always been a Philadelphia sports fan.
It is, after all, THE best city in the country for college basketball. (Not so much the NBA these days). The Big Five may not be as important as it was years ago, but it has somehow survived all the money grabs and conference shake-ups almost intact. All five teams still play one another, even if all the games, sadly, are no longer in The Palestra.
The Palestra, which sits on the Penn campus in central Philadelphia, IS the best building there is in college basketball. There are no bad seats. The atmosphere when full—or close to full—is wonderful. Everyone in the place KNOWS the game, unlike in so many of the big-bucks buildings with corporate names on them where the fans think every single call against their team is wrong, a conspiracy–or both.
The building wreaks of history and tradition—even preserving traditions the stiff-necks at the NCAA have outlawed.
Two seasons ago I went to a Temple-LaSalle game at the Palestra. The schools had agreed to play games there in back-to-back years in large part (sigh) because ESPN agreed to do ‘Gameday,’ from there the first year. All I cared about was that they were playing in the Palestra.
It was a Saturday game—tipoff at noon. A dream come true for me: drive up in the morning; see all my Philly buddies; watch the game from the best press row location in basketball, get something to eat and be home in time for dinner.
The only sour moment of the day came when I walked onto the floor. Bob Knight, noted Donald Trump supporter (understandable since they’re basically the same person) was sitting at the TV table by himself. Seeing him there made me a little bit sad. The game was on ESPN News, meaning it was about the fifth or sixth most important game of the day—and there was Knight, who would be fired by ESPN at season’s end, assigned to it.
Knight and I had reached a sort of rapprochement years ago—eight years after the publication of “A Season on the Brink.” I described our relationship as not quite cordial, but civil. I’d interviewed him at length when I was working on the book I did on Red Auerbach, “Let Me Tell You A Story.” Knight loved Red, which is why he agreed to talk to me. He was, as he always is when he’s in the mood, terrific.
I knew Knight had talked to me because of Red—not me—and told him that I greatly appreciated it. He couldn’t have been more gracious.
Somewhere though, I again fell out of whatever ‘favor,’ I’d been. In 2010, when I was working on a book on my 25 years of writing books (“One-on-One,”) I decided that the book should end the way my book-writing career began—with Knight.
In truth, I never expected him to sit down and talk to me. But I believed I had to give it a shot if only so I could tell people when I was promoting the book that I HAD made the attempt.
As I wrote in the book, I showed up early for a game Knight was doing at Madison Square Garden—he hadn’t fallen out of favor yet at ESPN—and waited until he finished talking to a number of people.
We exchanged greetings and a handshake. I said, “have you got a minute, I’d like to ask you one question?” (The question was, can we sit down and talk at some point?)
“No,” Knight said, turning to walk away.
I followed. “Bob, it’s literally one question—yes or no answer; either one is fine.”
He stopped, turned and looked at me, pointing a finger at my chest as I’d seen him do so many times with so many people.
“Do you understand English, John?” he said. “I said NO.”
He started walking again. I started to follow, then stopped. I knew this was one of those moments he cherished—proving that he was in control.
I described the scene in the book and left it at that.
Now, seeing him sitting alone, I walked over, held out my hand and said, “Bob, how are you?”
This time I didn’t even get a handshake. Knight simply glared at me. I waited a beat, pulled my hand back and looked him in the eye, wanting to see if he’d say anything. He said nothing. Something Mike Krzyzewski had said years ago when Knight had blown him off during their nine-year feud when Krzyzewski had made an attempt to mend the fence, ran through my mind.
“That’s the period on the end of the sentence. I’m done.”
I leaned down, still looking Knight in the eye and said, “You know Bob, you’re running out of time to grow up.”
That was that. I actually feel badly that Knight refused to go back to Indiana for the 40th anniversary celebration of his 1976 championship team because the only person he hurt by not going was Bob Knight.
But that moment was the period on the end of the sentence.
The rest of the day was a joy—especially when the two student bodies renewed the old Philadelphia tradition of throwing streamers on to the court after their teams first basket. The NCAA banned the practice—of course, it was fun, it had to go, right?—years ago. The penalty for doing so was a technical foul.
So, the two coaches—Temple’s Fran Dunphy and LaSalle’s John Giannini—had made a deal. When the officials, as required, called the technical for the thrown streamers, the players sent to the foul line would step across the line on both free throws.
No one in the crowd knew about this. The students had simply been told it was okay to throw the streamers. LaSalle scored first, out came the blue-and-gold streamers. Technical foul. Both free throws were ruled no good because the shooter stepped over the line. The LaSalle fans hooted. Then Temple scored. Cherry-red and white streamers came cascading onto the floor. Another technical. First free throw waved off because the shooter stepped across the line.
THAT was the moment when everyone in the building figure it out. As one, they stood and cheered for a sweet moment of tradition. The second free throw produced the same result and a continued standing ovation. Temple won a great game, 58-57.
Can’t happen anywhere but Philadelphia.
Here’s another thing that doesn’t happen anywhere but Philadelphia: every spring, after the Final Four, the Big Five holds an awards dinner—at the Palestra. All the coaches come and they bring players with them. The Philadelphia media comes out in force and the evening is a celebration of Philly hoops—regardless of what took place during the season.
Last season, St. Joseph’s had a great bounce-back year, going from 13-18 to 28-8. The Hawks won the Atlantic-10 tournament title and reached the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament, losing 69-62 to top-seed Oregon in the West Regional. As a result, Phil Martelli was chosen as the Big Five coach-of-the-year.
Two week after the vote, Villanova won the national championship. A week later, when Martelli was handed the coach-of-the-year award he said: “This is a great honor. But Jay Wright just won the national championship. He deserves it.”
With that, he called Wright up to the podium and presented him with the award.
Only in Philadelphia. In the Palestra. The best place there is in basketball. Period.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, The DH,”—his 10th mystery for young adults (junior high school and up). His latest non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” was on the New York Times bestseller list for six months and was just selected as one of the ten best non-fiction books of the year by Harper’s Bazaar.