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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review of Documentary: "Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball"

A former Penn women's hoops player made this documentary, which came out over a year ago. The title is self-explanatory, and the documentary film, an elegy to one of the greatest venues in the history of college basketball, features interviews with the likes of Jack Ramsay, Sonny Hill, John Feinstein, Bill Bradley, Doug Overton and many others who played their games there.

It's a good documentary, one worth purchasing, as the documentary chronicles the building and what made it so special. What the documentary does not do -- and the filmmaker has a great opportunity for an encore, where she can improve her craft and create an even more marketable DVD -- is cover in sufficient depth the great players who played there and the great games that took place there. The viewer is almost charged with knowing that the Palestra is a landmark, and you know that if you grew up in the Philadelphia area, are of a certain age, and watched games on UHF TV or went to a packed Palestra to watch St. Joe's take on Villanova or Penn host Princeton. But if you're not from the area and don't know what makes these and other rivalries so special, you might be left wondering a bit as to why the Palestra is such a hoops mecca.

As a result, the opportunity is ripe for a DVD called "The Big Five: When All Was Perfect with College Basketball." Why? Because Big Five teams played their games in the Palestra from the mid-1950's to the mid-1980's (before Villanova and Temple decided to build their own, big on-campus arenas). For the uninitiated, the Big Five consists of Penn, Villanova, Temple, LaSalle and St. Joe's. To make the DVD even better, this documentary could focus on games from the mid-1950's through the early 1970's, when each school had a team that was ranked in the Top 10, sometimes multiple times. And it could focus on some of the all-time greats -- guys with the names of Rogers, Lear, Kennedy, Baum, White, Durrett, Cannon, Guokas, Inglesby, Ford, Smith, Porter, Siemientowski, Littlepage, Hankinson, Bilksy, Wohl and Calhoun, among many others. It could talk of the rivalries, of kids renewing rivalries from Philadelphia's Catholic League at Villanova, St. Joe's and LaSalle, of how riveting the drama was, even watching packed houses for Big 5 doubleheaders on TV, with either Les Keiter or Al Meltzer calling the games (remember, there was no internet and no cable TV back then, so you had 3 major networks, public television, and 3 UHF channels, which came in fuzzy, and you had to adjust the aerial attached to your TV or bang on the UHF dial to get the picture to hold). It was the best reality show going -- while it lasted.

So watch buy "Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball" and then hope for (and encourage) the "Big Five" encore. I'm not sure that it's in the works, but I hope that it is.


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