Friday, February 29, 2008

A Cathedral of Basketball

Speaking of the Palestra, a recent film by former UPenn basketball player Mikaelyn Austin on the history of the Palestra.

Built in 1926, the Palestra has become both a symbol of college basketball, and of an earlier age; built without the benefit of modern conveniences such as amped-in sound and luxury boxes, it nonetheless remains, with perhaps Cameron Indoor, as the classic on-campus basketball gym. From the unique lighting (currently only on one side of the court) to the sound-proofing (none, so all crowd noise rattles around the concrete-and-steel interior), walking into the gym is like stepping back in time.

The film works in both vintage footage from the 1950s and 1960s, together with interviews from some of the personalities who stalked the sidelines -- Chuck Daly, Rollie Massimino, and Bill Raftery, among others. The emphasis is clearly on the Big 5 rivalries, and the era in college basketball -- and Philadelphia civics -- that has come and gone.

The film points to the 1979 Magic/Bird NCAA Final as the death-knell for the Big 5, and hence the Palestra as the hub of basketball in Philly. But while that Championship Game did usher in a new era for the NCAA, the irony is that the Big 5 helped 'kill' itself:

* UPenn itself was a participant in the 1979 Final Four, the last Ivy team to advance past the first weekend (although in 1983, Princeton won two games, one of which was a 'preliminary' round.)

* Two years later, St. Joseph's knocked off the consensus #1 team, DePaul, in the Blue Demons' opening game (St. Joe's had to beat Creighton to have the right to play DePaul), and lost in the Elite Eight.

* Villanova, on the back of their own Elite Eight appearances in 1982, and 1983, pulled one of the great upsets in Finals history by beating Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas in 1985. (1985 also marked the expansion of the tournament to its current format, with 6 rounds and 64/65 teams.)

With the explosion in the popularity of the NCAA tournament, the value of the television rights followed. At-large bids to the "Big Dance", rather than bragging rights in the City, are what matters, because at-large bids turn into real dollars.

By 1991, CBS signed a 6-year, $1 billion contract for exclusive rights to the tournament. Currently, CBS pays over $500M per year ($6B over 11 years) for the exclusive rights to the Tournament.

One small point on the film: more could have been made about the Penn/Princeton rivalry; and while there is plenty of more modern footage as well, not all of it pleasant for Tiger fans.

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