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McCaffery brings his Hawkeyes to Philadelphia arena where he fell in love with basketball

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

PHILADELPHIA — Fran McCaffery was trying to play it cool this week, speaking of his Iowa basketball team’s game in his hometown as a “business trip.”

There is no time for sentimentality when a top-25 matchup looms against a Big Ten Conference foe.

But there was no mistaking the reverence in McCaffery’s voice when he spoke about the magic of the Palestra, the 93-year-old “cathedral of college basketball.” It’s where the No. 25 Hawkeyes (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten) will face 21st-ranked Penn State (11-2, 1-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday (BTN).

It’s also where McCaffery spent practically every winter Saturday of his childhood, accompanied by his parents, Jack and Shirley, and younger brother, also named Jack. They would join the throng in watching Philadelphia’s five Division I schools take on each other, and anyone else from the eastern seaboard to the Deep South, in doubleheaders that lasted until nearly midnight.

McCaffery’s father later worked at the Palestra as a ticket-taker and a security guard. His brother has covered countless games there as a local sportswriter.

Fran McCaffery brought his LaSalle high school team to two state tournaments at the Palestra before practicing and playing there as a guard at the University of Pennsylvania.

The building carries so much meaning to McCaffery that he keeps a piece of artwork on the wall of his office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It is a drawing of the Palestra that contains the score of every game played there.

“You would go to the Palestra on a Saturday night and basically see all your friends,” McCaffery told the Register on Thursday. “The basketball community was that close.”

Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery has brought teams to the Palestra in Philadelphia before. But never ones that had his sons on the roster. That will make Saturday's homecoming trip even more special to McCaffery.

As a child in the 1960s, McCaffery was thrilled to see the best basketball players of that era, guys such as Niagara all-American Calvin Murphy. He studied legendary coaches such as Chuck Daly at Penn, Rollie Massimino at Villanova, Jack McKinney at St. Joseph’s and Paul Westhead at LaSalle.

Just as important to a hoops-loving youngster, McCaffery got to participate in the city’s basketball traditions.

When a local team made its first basket, its section of the crowd would flood the court with streamers in the school colors. Fans took shots at each other through carefully orchestrated “rollouts,” in which insults would be put to paper and passed down from the seats atop the arena to the floor area, where they could be read. They were clever and ribald, and always sure to get a response.

It was the place to be for any Philadelphia basketball fan, and McCaffery was certainly one.

He grew up in the West Oak Lane neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, in an era when everywhere you needed to go was within walking distance, from the butcher to the banker to the dry cleaner.

This artwork of Philadelphia's famed Palestra basketball arena hangs in Iowa coach Fran McCaffery's office. It contains the score of every game played at the Palestra.

But you had to earn your way to the Palestra. McCaffery said it was the dream of every high school basketball player with any talent to get to the state tournament there and to play for one of the Big 5 schools (LaSalle, Penn, St. Joe’s, Temple and Villanova).

He did both.

And now, the 60-year-old McCaffery is bringing the Hawkeyes into the Palestra for their first appearance here since 1961. It is a Penn State home game, but Nittany Lions coach Pat Chambers asked McCaffery if he would be agreeable to moving it three hours southeast. McCaffery was.

Chambers, also a Philadelphia native, saw his Penn State team beat Michigan State there in a 2017 “home” game. There are six natives of the city on his current squad.

McCaffery brought his Siena team to the Palestra twice and Lehigh once. On the last trip, his sons Connor and Patrick rode on the team bus and saw their father walk out with a 75-74 win over St. Joseph’s.

Connor is a sophomore starting guard for the Hawkeyes. Patrick is a freshman forward who is sitting out while dealing with a medical issue. But they’ll both be on hand again.

“I’ve heard stories about pretty much everything, how they used to sneak into games, where the secret doors are. I’ve heard it all,” Connor McCaffery said.

“I know that it means a lot to (Fran), especially because he’ll be coaching me, I think, in this arena.”

Fran McCaffery said his former coach at Penn, Bob Weinhauer, will be on hand Saturday. So will dozens of family members, 20 high school buddies and even former players he’s coached.

McCaffery hasn’t made a big issue out of all this to his players. But they’ve sensed the significance of this trip, senior center Ryan Kriener said.

“He gave us our little history lesson about the building (Thursday),” Kriener said. “He was a little more excited. … As a team, we’ll be able to respond to that.”

They don’t play Saturday doubleheaders at the Palestra, or anywhere else, anymore. That phenomenon is of an era trapped in a certain time and place.

But there is a second game on this Saturday evening. Penn will play Princeton at 7 p.m., although with an entirely new set of 8,725 fans.

This has to be a road trip heavy on nostalgia for McCaffery. His parents are no longer living. Brother Jack will be on hand, though. It’ll become a meaningful piece of family history, win or lose.

The Palestra has hosted so many of the greats over the years — Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson all played there as members of visiting teams in the same year. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James played there as high schoolers.

“I think it’s great that my sons will get to play where I played. Where my brother and I used to go with my parents to watch games back to the ‘60s,” McCaffery said. “I think the key for us, in particular for Connor right now, is to remain focused on the task at hand. Yeah, there’ll be a lot of family there, a lot of history.

“To him, it’s just kind of got to be the next game on the schedule.”

Sounds like a good plan. But a game at the Palestra has never just been the next one on the schedule.

And Fran McCaffery knows that better than anyone.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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