When Penn State plays La Salle today at the Palestra, it will be a homecoming for several Nittany Lions and an opportunity to play in one of the most revered and historic venues in college basketball history.
The 9 p.m. game will be televised on the NBC Sports Network.
On March 8, 1965, Edward G. Rendell was a senior at Pennsylvania. Well before he became the 45th governor of this state, Rendell was an avid college basketball fan.
So it’s no surprise that he was at the Palestra when Penn State played Princeton in the first round of the 1965 NCAA tournament.
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“I went to Penn, I didn’t go to Penn State, but I was just a big basketball fan,” Rendell said over the phone from his office in Philadelphia. “I was there by myself just because I loved college basketball — and it was a memorable game.”
The Tigers beat the Nittany Lions 60-58 that day, led by 22 points from future senator and Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame member Bill Bradley.
With the score tied at 58 in the waning moments, Penn State captain Bob Weiss slipped and lost control of the ball near his own basket, Rendell recalled. The ball wound up in Princeton hands and then in Penn State’s basket with just seconds remaining.
“The Palestra was packed and it looked like Princeton had more fans than Penn State,” Rendell said. “When the Palestra is packed in March, the temperature inside can be about 85 degrees, so I remember it was very hot. And I remember Bradley was unbelievable.”
“It was dramatic right down to the end,” Rendell continued. “Literally, that layup went in with a second or two on the clock and it wouldn’t have happened had Bob Weiss not slipped.”
Such is the power of the Palestra — the epicenter of college basketball in Philadelphia, if not the country — housing more college basketball games than any other arena in the nation, but still leaving indelible impressions that can linger in the mind some 47 years later.
Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers has his own Palestra memories having grown up in the Newtown Square suburb of Philadelphia and attending Philadelphia University.
“I can’t wait,” Chambers said on Monday. “I’ve never coached in the Palestra as a head coach, only as an assistant. So there’s going to be some major energy and some butterflies in my body I’m sure on Wednesday.”
The veneration in his voice as he uttered the name was unmistakable.
“I grew up going to the Palestra,” Chambers continued. “It’s a special place in my heart. I had two brothers go to the University of Penn. I was a Big Five junkie. I went to all the double-headers, triple-headers and snuck into games and all that good stuff,” he said with a wry smile.
More than just a homecoming, Chambers said the Nittany Lions are looking at this game as a “business trip.” The lifeblood of any quality college basketball program is recruiting and Chambers’ Philadelphia ties have already paid dividends.
“Win or lose, it’s not so much Philadelphia, we have to win the state,” Chambers said of Pennsylvania’s competitive recruiting landscape. “We’re in the middle of the state, we have to recruit Pittsburgh and Philly, and all the other surrounding areas to make sure we get the best players available.”
On Tuesday, Penn State announced that John Johnson, a Philadelphia native and sophomore guard at Pittsburgh, would join the team after the completion of the fall 2012 semester.
In November, Johnson informed Jamie Dixon, the Panthers’ head coach, that he would transfer from the school. Per NCAA rules, Johnson will not be eligible for the Nittany Lions until the end of the fall 2013 semester.
“I think we’ve done a good job of winning the state over the last year and a half,” Chambers said on Monday. “Then you have to go out and spread your tentacles and get as many good players as you can. And I think we’re trying to do that, but win or lose on Wednesday we have to continue to recruit in (Philadelphia). The Big Ten is a heck of a conference and now we’re stretching to the East Coast, which is great. That opens up more doors, I believe.”
The game will also be a homecoming for D.J. Newbill, who played high school basketball at Strawberry Mansion. Brandon Taylor, who played AAU basketball for Team Philly, went to nearby Trenton Catholic Academy.
Newbill leads the Nittany Lions in scoring at 14.7 points per game. Since taking over the point guard position after Tim Frazier’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury, Newbill leads the team in assists (3.4) and is second in rebounding (5.6).
La Salle (4-1) enters the game on a three-game winning streak after dispatching Hartford, Villanova in overtime and Rider. Junior guard Tyreek Duren’s 16.4 points per game leads the Explorers, who average 70 points per game and have equaled or exceeded that mark three times this season.
Penn State (4-3) has broken 60 points just twice this season, both losses. In fact, in its three losses this season Penn State gave up over 76 points per game.
Jermaine Marshall has led the Nittany Lions in scoring in the last three games, averaging 20 points per contest during that span. Sophomore forward Ross Travis has led Penn State in rebounding in four consecutive games. He also leads the Big Ten in total (7.7) and offensive (3.4) rebounding.
The meeting will be just the fourth between the two schools. Two of those meetings occurred while the Explorers were ranked No. 2 in the nation (1954, 1968). They won both contests.
In homage to the school’s 150th anniversary, La Salle will wear throwback uniforms made by Under Armour and modeled after the Explorers 1968-1969 team, which went 23-1.
Before the game, Chambers said he will guide his team through the halls of the Palestra, replete with plaques, photos and artifacts emblematic of its place in college basketball history.
“I’ll take the guys around and let them see the museum so to speak in the corridors of the Palestra,” Chambers said. “I think that it’s important that they understand that the building they’re playing in has a lot of nostalgia.”
“There’s so much rich tradition down there when it comes to college basketball. And now hopefully we’re going to have a chance to taste that a little bit.”