It’s been a while. But I’ve been busy. So let’s get back to adolescence. This one appeared, on line, at THE BROAD STREET REVIEW, May 6, 2009, it’s title changed to “Growing Up At the Palestra, 1958.” It received a couple of nice responses, including one from Tink Van Patten’s brother or cousin.
Stanley Kessler’s father taught school with the guy who hired ushers for Penn football games. Stanley and I worked the fall of ‘56 and again in ‘57. You got $1 a game. You walked the ticket holders to their seats on the long, wood benches that ran up the sides of Franklin Field. You flicked the seats with a rag. If you had a rich alum or a sport on a date, you might catch a tip. I worked every game and don’t remember a moment or a player’s name. The end of the second season, the guy asked if we wanted to usher the Palestra. You got $2. You got no tips. You showed no one to their seats. You stood in the entranceway to your section and pointed up or down. You watched the games.
The Palestra was on 33rd between Spruce and Walnut. It had been Penn’s home court for 30 years; but, in 1955, four other Philadelphia area schools, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova, had joined the Quakers in an informal conference, The Big Five, agreeing to play each other and most of their “home” games there. It meant double-headers, three nights a week. Half-times and between games, the hallway that surrounded the arena’s core was a-jangle with buzz and laughter and “How you been, man?” “How’d you like my boy?” Fan and athlete circled flesh pressed against flesh, plaques on the wall conjuring heroes who had passed. There had never been anything like it.
Eighty percent of the players were local. They had played each other in school, in summer leagues, and on playgrounds. The rivalries were intense, the competition fierce, and the skill level high. (And that season, coming in to test them were Oscar Robertson, of Cincinnati, Jerry West, with West Virginia, and Philadelphia’s greatest player, Wilt Chamberlain, with Kansas.) If you were a basketball fan, you had rooted for your favorites from court-side through these levels; and, since the NBA allowed teams preferential rights to players from their areas, into the pros. (When Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959, with Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, and Guy Rodgers, four of its five starters were local.)
Rodgers was a senior at Temple in 1957-58. He led a prototypical Philadelphia team: small, highly talented guards (himself and Bill “Pickles” Kennedy); undersized, over-achieving forwards (Mel Brodsky and Jay “Pappy” Norman); and an earnest, if limited center (Tink Van Patton). All but Van Patton were products of Philadelphia public schools. So was their coach, the already legendary Harry Litwak, inventor of the box-and-one, master of the switching man-to-man zone, a wizard at transforming the unrecruited into the formidable. (Rodgers, who scouts had deemed “too short,” had an inch on Kennedy. Norman had come out of the service to play football and had bum knees. Brodsky was a walk-on, and Van Patton had busted a leg as a high school senior.) With another Philadelphian, Hal “King” Lear, instead of Kennedy in the backcourt, Temple had reached the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament two years earlier. This team looked better.
There are two types of sports fans. The more highly evolved savor the beauty of the movements, appreciate the finely honed bodies, derive joy from the physical excellence on display. They regard games as afficionados do ballet. I was of the lower kind. A fan who rooted out of his own discomforts and hurts and shortcomings. Who identified with a team or individual who appeared more talented, more powerful, more capable of vanquishing foes. Who won if they did. Whose value rested on these surrogates. “They keep score, don’t they?” is how I defended my position. “You don’t pay money for scrimmages, do you?”
Temple became my team of choice. Penn was Ivy League and, hence, effete. LaSalle, St. Joe’s and Villanova were too full of the older brothers of kids who’d hassled me and my friends as they’d passed through our neighborhood on their way home from St. Francis de Sales or Transfiguration (“Transy”) Elementary. But to a son of parents who had met at a fund-raiser for Spanish Loyalists, who had been raised on Paul Robeson’s Songs of Free Men, the scrappy, gritty Owls, from their cruddy, ghetto-bordering Broad Street campus, were the Brotherhood of Man personified. With Lear, Rodgers, Norman, and current sixth man Ophie Franklin, Temple had fielded more blacks than the other city schools combined. And with Brodsky stepping into the yarmulka of Fred Cohen and Hal “Hotsy” Reinfeld (and Joey Goldenberg and Stanley’s and my camp counselor, Gerry Lipson, on the bench), it also had the Jews. When Gerry introduced me to Jay Norman, on their arrival one evening at my section, and he had shook my hand, my 15-year-old allegiance was cemented.
After losing two of their first three games – in triple overtime, 85-83, at Kentucky, and two days later, at Cincinnati, when still physically and emotionally depleted – Temple had won 27 in a row, to again make the NCAA semi-finals and a rematch with Kentucky in Lexington. The game had aspects of the mythic. The ragamuffin Owls against the aristocratic Colonels. Kentucky had won three national championships (and one NIT) in the last decade; Temple had won none. Kentucky had Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, and Lou Tsioropoulos (practically 4% of the entire league) in the NBA – and would have had twice that, but for the point-shaving scandal of 1952; Temple had no one. And in this time of Montgomery busses and Little Rock schools, Kentucky remained an all-white team, in an all-white conference, in a segregated state. (Unlike some SEC schools, Kentucky played teams with black athletes – but made little effort to control the insults and threats hurled from the stands upon them.) It seemed God had scripted the game to make a point.
Television had no interest in the NCAAs in 1958. I listened on a radio in the kitchen of a
girl named – no kidding – Hope. She dated the president of a high school fraternity to which I tenuously belonged. She’d invited Eric to a party, and he’d invited even his geekiest “brothers.” Gangly, gawky and eye-glassed, I felt about as desirable at parties as a banana slug on a pastry cart. The radio, with its game, was a place where I could withdraw and, through my devotions, feel myself a person of consequence, as I could not dancing to “Silhouettes,” while my partner’s eyes, I knew, sought Steven Silberfisch on Ben Borinsky.
On the hostile and malignant floor, even with Rodgers hampered by a bad back, Temple led by six with two minutes to go. Then Kennedy was called for a charge whose veridiculity, for 50 years, has been doubted by Philadelphians more fervently than Piltdown Man’s. A pass from Brodsky slipped through the rattled sophomore’s fingers. Kentucky 61-60. A knife in the throat. A scream in the night. An anguish oiled by Goya. The winners shellacked Elgin Baylor and Seattle for the title, and Temple waxed Kansas State, with Jack Parr and Bob Boozer, for third.
Sports, they say, prepares you for the world. Being a Philadelphia sports fan prepared you more than most. Jimmy Soo. Lenny Mathews. Charlie Scott. In future sessions, we’ll discuss Wilt’s annual dismemberment by the Celtics, the Phillies crash-and-burn in ‘64.