After 20-year hiatus, Philly’s basketball championships return to ‘the cathedral’

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Imhotep Charter (white) and MLK High School (black) playing the city public league title game at the Palestra, February 25, 2018. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Imhotep Charter (white) and MLK High School (black) playing the city public league title game at the Palestra, February 25, 2018. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

On Sunday afternoon, a couple of cops idled under the bleachers at the University of Pennsylvania’s famous Palestra arena as they swapped stories about the good old days of Philadelphia high school basketball.

Like a game of verbal pingpong, they traded schools and names and nicknames.

Gene Banks …

Bartram High …

Black magic …

It was a conversation spoken in the Philadelphia dialectic of basketball-ese, a tongue with many native speakers in this blacktop-rich city.

What made this particular chat notable was that it happened right before the officers were due to work the boys Public League championship game between Imhotep Institute Charter High School and Martin Luther King High School.

The public league’s title game has leapfrogged venues for decades. Before Sunday, it had been exactly 20 years since the game was last played at the Palestra. Public league officials want to establish the venerable venue as the permanent home of the city league’s biggest game and, perhaps in the process, recapture some of its past glory.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase some basketball talent and come back to where the birthplace of basketball was in this city,” said Jimmy Lynch, the Public League’s executive director of athletics.

Known as the cathedral of college basketball, the Palestra opened in 1927 and has hosted scores of memorable games over the years.

“You have old heads who understand the history of the city and [can] tell the kids this is a great place to play,” said Samuel Allen, a fan who has been attending city title games since the 1980s.

Back then, the public league still regularly produced NBA players including Doug Overton (Dobbins Tech), Aaron McKie (Simon Gratz), and Bo Kimble (Dobbins Tech). In decades prior, the league’s output included Hall of Famers Earl “the Pearl” Monroe (Bartram) and Wilt Chamberlain (Overbrook).

These days, said Allen, the area’s top players tend to choose Catholic or private schools. He hopes the new venue can help re-establish the public league, which includes traditional public and charter schools.

School district officials also shook up the playoff format this year to try and improve the competition. In the past, schools in the same classification played each other early in the tournament. The winners of each size classification then faced off in the final rounds. But if the top teams were in the same classification, they would knock each other off early in the playoff tournament.

This year, the league used a “true seeding” format that made it so the best teams could meet in the finals.

In the girls bracket, Imhotep defeated Mastery North 69-59 for its fourth title in five years. Hours later, Imhotep’s boys completed the sweep with a 66-37 thrashing of King, securing the program’s seventh championship in the last decade.

Both teams will advance to play the winners of the city’s Catholic league, which will be decided Monday evening, also at the Palestra.

Dave Hargrove, head coach of Imhotep’s girls team, said it was thrill getting to coach in an arena he’s often visited as a fan. He hopes with time and consistency people will begin to recognize the Palestra as the place to go for the best high school basketball in Philadelphia.

“I think it will have a bigger draw as the years go forward if they’re able to establish it here,” Hargrove said.

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