One man's life is inside the Palestra

Game "progress" eliminated some of the fun. The streamers tossed onto the court after the first made basket, for example, were eliminated for safety reasons and now would result in a technical foul.

Finances killed the rest. All five schools have their own on-campus arenas, season-ticket holder bases to satisfy and bills to pay. Why split the revenue when a home game puts it all in your wallet?

Fans get it. No one likes it.

"I grew up in a tiny little row house" Harrell says. "We'd have Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner there, all of us crowded together. Then you have six or seven kids and they move out and get their own homes, bigger homes.

"Sooner or later you start going to their house for dinner, but you know what happens? You sit around and talk about the dinners you had at [the old house], because those were fun, those were the memories. Do you get what I'm getting at? That's the Palestra."


Harrell heads up from the court to the concourses, taking one of the four ramps that wind their way up from the floor. Halfway up a ramp, he stops and laughs.

The quirks of the place mean that the ceilings above the ramps slope, the concrete running pretty low to one side.

"I ran into [former Princeton coach] Pete Carril here one time," Harrell says. "He was coming in with his team. One guy comes down, 'Bonk.' He hits his head. Another guy does it and Carril says, 'How long those things been there?' Those Ivy Leaguers, let me tell you."

Ivy Leaguers, well, Harrell would know. He is one, Penn Class of 2000 -- "aught, aught," he jokes.

The refurbished concourses are easily the best new thing about the Palestra. In 2000, Penn took all of the pictures that hung around the building with little explanation and less context and gave them a purpose. The Palestra concourse is now a veritable museum, with displays dedicated to each of the Big 5 schools, the Ivy League, the great coaches and players who played here, even the media.

Here you really get the essence of what makes the place so special -- Ramsay, Dick Harter and Chuck Daly coached here; Guy Rodgers, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Lionel Simmons played here.

Tucked into the edge of one wall display is a tribute to Penn's greatest success story.

That would be Harrell.

After graduating from West Catholic, he went to St. Joe's for one day and two classes -- rhetoric and algebra. Instead he opted to work, starting in the mail room at GE.

Twenty years later, he was laid off. After getting by with a few odd jobs, he landed at Penn. Along with his Palestra duties, the former CYO football coach helped out with the lightweight football team. A player on the team challenged him to go back to college.

Tuition remission made Penn the cheapest option and so at the age of 46, he applied, and was accepted on the condition that he passed an English class.

The first assignment was to write about a favorite place and before the class left, the professor asked a few students to share their ideas. One talked about a favorite holiday getaway in the Poconos, another about Paris.

"Paris? I've been maybe five places. I wrote about the john," Harrell says. "I said it was my favorite place because it's the one place where I could sit and relax and pick my horses."

Ten years later, Harrell graduated with a degree in American civilization and a minor in anthropology.

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