One man's life is inside the Palestra

Harrell, of course, knows his floors. Before he retired, his workday started at 5 a.m. and would run until 1:30, except on game days. Then he'd come back to watch the game and work, sometimes well after midnight.

He was charged with keeping the lower part of the Palestra orderly -- neatening up the locker rooms, cleaning the media room. The court was his pride and joy. He used Squeaky Clean, a chemical solvent, to wipe it down.

And he would sweep it, lovingly and deliberately walking up and down the court pushing his 6-foot-wide, white-fringed mop in front of him at every halftime, dressed in his blue shorts, midcalf white socks and gray Penn athletics T-shirt.

"We played Princeton up at their place [in 1999] and they set up big screens so people could watch the game here," Harrell said. "At halftime, I came out and swept the floor in front of the TV. The people went nuts."

The old floors, the ones underfoot of the laundry room, also run on the opposite side of the gym, in a reception and adjoining media room.

The age of the 87-year-old boards isn't what makes them special.

"Look at them," Harrell says. "They go the wrong way."

Sure enough, the planks are laid to run horizontally, not vertically -- perpendicular to the baskets out on the court. It's hard to grasp just what that might look like in a game, but naturally Harrell has a solution. Over in the reception room, there's a photograph of an old game with the wrong-way flooring. It's jarring, like looking at a lined piece of notebook paper on the court.

"They said [old Saint Joseph's coach] Jack Ramsay used to claim that gave Penn an advantage," Harrell says. "Maybe that was true."


No surprise, the visiting locker rooms at the Palestra aren't much to look at -- though former Penn coach Fran Dunphy insisted they were the nicest in the Ivy League.

Bare-bones lockers, old showers, all shoved into a space that is tiny when empty, bound to be cramped when filled with big and tall basketball players.

A blackboard hangs on a back wall in an alcove created by a covered soffit that cuts diagonally from ceiling to wall.

This is where visiting coaches stand to address their teams.

Harrell ducks under the soffit, where a tiny piece of paper is taped. Only someone standing facing out to the locker room can see it.

"Coach Tom Gallagher, St. Philomena, CYO basketball," it reads. Harrell put it there.

Gallagher was Phil Martelli's coach at St. Philomena, a man who had a profound impact on the Saint Joe's coach.

Martelli has done more than a few favors for Harrell over the years and the note is Harrell's simple gesture of thanks.

"Phil is a good man," Harrell says, "but all of these guys are. They all had chances to go someplace bigger. They stayed. That means something."

Martelli was the last Big 5 coach to stop playing city series games at the Palestra. Once St. Joseph's Hagan Arena was renovated he followed his coaching brethren back to his campus digs, taking the essence of the place with him.

Technically, the Palestra is Penn's home gym, but the Big 5 games were its lifeblood. It was a true neutral court, with the teams splitting the house and the gate. The pep band took roost in the upper-level seats, the students commandeered either end, and on a good day, with a good game, fans would fill in up to the corners, as the old-timers say, to the farthest reaches of the place where one section runs into another and the view is less than ideal.

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