Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa Hawkeyes headed to basketball's Philadelphia cathedral

Iowa plays Penn State Saturday in storied Palestra

The Palestra (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
The Palestra (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

IOWA CITY — The last time an Iowa men’s basketball team played in Philadelphia was in 1980, when it beat Georgetown in the NCAA East Regional final to advance to the Final Four.

A University of Pennsylvania student from Philadelphia named Fran McCaffery was in the crowd at the Spectrum that day.

Two years later, McCaffery was a senior Penn player in the NCAA Tournament. His Quakers team had a crazy season, starting 3-0, losing its next nine games including its first two in the Ivy League, then winning 12 straight to win the Ivy and get that league’s automatic berth in the NCAAs.

Penn’s home games then and now were in the Palestra, an 8,725-seat gym on Penn’s campus. It opened in 1927. It is called the Cathedral of College Basketball. It has hosted more college basketball games than any building in the world.

It will have two more on Saturday. In the evening, Penn plays Ivy League archrival Princeton. In the afternoon, McCaffery’s Iowa team will battle Penn State, which moved this home game from State College to Philly. It’s a clash of Top 25 teams who built nice bodies of pre-New Year’s work. It is sold out.

As of Thursday afternoon, the cheapest seats for the game at Stubhub.com were $104. Most were going for more.

McCaffery’s father, a Philadelphia beat cop for 28 years, worked as a ticket taker and later as a security officer in the Palestra and got sons Jack (a longtime Philly sports writer) and Fran into games.

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What games they were. Philadelphia’s Big 5 — La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova — all would play each other every year. Saturday night doubleheaders in the Palestra were big events.

“My memories are a little bit different because it starts with my mom and dad bringing myself and my brother to games when we were kids, like young,” McCaffery said. “You want to sit up in the student section, you want to watch the games, you want to throw streamers, watch the really good players, maybe get to meet them, something like that.

“Then as a high school player, you want to get your team to the Palestra. Here, it’s kind of we want to get to the state tournament. We want to get to Wells Fargo Arena. There, you want to get to the Palestra. That’s where you want to go. So I had the opportunity to do that.

“Then you hope to be recruited by one of those five teams so you get to play there. Well, I got recruited by the one that that’s our home arena, so we practiced there every day and played pickup there in the summer.”

If you won the Big 5 championship, you had done something. It’s still contested today, but from 1955 to 1991 it was a round-robin event held exclusively at the Palestra.

“The thing that was really special about it is throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” McCaffery said, “there were always doubleheaders, so you went and you stayed there for six, seven hours, and you watched four teams play, and nobody left.”

An outright Big 5 title eluded McCaffery in his three years of eligibility at Penn. In his junior season of 1980-81, all five teams went 2-2.

McCaffery was a starting guard for the 1981-82 Penn team that lost to Chris Mullin’s St. John’s club in the NCAA tourney. He wasn’t much of a scorer, but did average 3.9 assists and 1.9 steals, and was named the team’s Most Inspirational Player.

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His college coach, Bob Weinhauer, will be at Saturday’s game. Weinhauer took Penn to the Final Four in 1979, the year Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team bested Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the championship.

McCaffery said that as a kid he went to Catholic League high school games on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, and to the Palestra on Saturdays.

“Where else would you want to be, right?” he said.

The Palestra, he said, has “been there a hundred years. A hundred years from now, it will still be there.”

Here’s how you learn basketball: You play high school, college and summer ball against top-tier talent. You watch the coaching styles of the many greats who worked in the city like Chuck Daly, Rollie Massimino, Don Chaney, and many others including Weinhauer.

“It definitely impacted me as a player, as a coach,” he said.

McCaffery said “He’s a Philly guy” needs no explanation in basketball circles.

“Everybody understands what that means,” he said. “He played or coached in Philadelphia, and he was influenced by watching — when I’m watching Paul Westhead score 107 points a game (at La Salle) before the clock and before the 3-point shot. They were trying to score in four seconds, and nobody did that before.

“Jack Kraft (at Villanova) played a match-up zone. Nobody played a match-up zone in those days. … John Chaney and Don Casey (at Temple) played the zone kind of better and differently than most other teams.”

All cut their teeth in the Palestra and then took hard-nosed teams beyond Philadelphia. Four of the Big 5 schools are among Division I’s 45 all-time winningest programs. Penn is 20th.

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Penn State is an interloper. The school is 193 miles west of Philadelphia, and its men’s basketball history is weak by Philly’s standards or anyone else’s. But mighty Michigan State played the Nittany Lions at the Palestra in 2017, and Penn State rose up to upset the Spartans, 72-63.

Last January, an announced crowd of 7,733 attended the Iowa-Penn State game at the school’s 15,261-seat Bryce Jordan Center. There will be about a thousand more people in the Palestra Saturday, and it may be a thousand times louder.

“It will be loud in there,” McCaffery said. “The atmosphere will be spectacular.”

This should be fun.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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