The Palestra, University of Pennsylvania’s arena in Philadelphia
For my pilgrimage to West Philly, I needed a spiritual guide, so I turned to John Edgar Wideman, the distinguished novelist and Brown University professor who played brilliant basketball for Penn from 1959 to 1963. But Wideman’s recollections proved so interesting that I wound up asking more questions of him than I answered for myself.
On a brisk and windy Friday night, we took the train from Penn Station in New York, and in little more than an hour I was walking fast to keep up with Wideman’s long strides down 30th Street toward the hallowed gymnasium that lured him away from the black ghetto in Pittsburgh more than 50 years ago. “Growing up,” he wrote in “Hoop Roots” (2001), “I needed basketball because my family was poor and colored, hemmed in by material circumstances none of us knew how to control, and if I wanted more . . . I had to single myself out.”
Fortunately, John’s mother, Betty, worked in a bookstore and had already launched him on a literary arc by giving him a children’s edition of Greek myths. His father, Edgar, a waiter, was a pretty good basketball player, but it was the future pros Ed Fleming and Delton Heard who served as guardian angels and mentors, both at the outdoor court in Homewood’s Westinghouse Park and elsewhere (Heard notably yanked Wideman out of a craps game).
Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh recruited the local star from Peabody High School, but Penn’s assistant coach, Dick Harter, persuaded Wideman to visit the Penn campus in 1958. “Philly had a certain kind of sophistication, an urban glamour,” Wideman told me on the train. “It was a step up in style; guys dressed well, they wore nice hats.”
But Philly-style basketball also had a special allure, and it was seeing the great Oscar Robertson play for the University of Cincinnati at the electrically charged, and terrifically loud, Palestra that decided Wideman on Penn. That, and the excitement surrounding the Penn Relays, “a non-stop party,” he said, “that drew black kids, and good-looking women, from all up and down the East Coast.”
Wideman hadn’t passed through the stately, arched entryway and brick facade of his old home gym since 1979, and he took me on a tour around the rectangular interior of the 1920s building, its walls decorated with photographs of former Penn greats. Eventually, we came across a black-and-white blow-up photograph of a player wearing number 10, shooting a free throw. It was John, so I stepped back and studied the 69-year-old man as he crouched down to contemplate his 21-year-old image. Did he remember the moment or the game? Not at all. “I see him, but it’s like another person altogether,” he said.