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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the March 16, 2011 Providence Journal.
With “March madness” approaching and my own neuroses about basketball beginning to spike, I fulfilled a childhood dream last month by attending a college game at the Palestra, in Philadelphia.
I’m not sure what took me so long to make the trip to the Jerusalem of collegiate hoops, but it might have something to do with why I’ve never been to the Parthenon in Athens or the Palace of Knossos in Crete — something in my unconscious that prevents me from revisiting certain memories, memories bound up in Greek mythology (first imparted when I was a boy by my mother and Edith Hamilton’s book about gods and heroes) and my playing style (developed, in part, by trying to emulate the supercharged, charismatic Big 5 basketball players I watched on TV).
William Bates, the University of Pennsylvania professor who named the Palestra after an arena in ancient Greece, knew that voyagers to Hades who drank from the River Lethe would experience complete amnesia; I hoped that I’d recover something at the Palestra long forgotten.
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.
Once inside the cavernous arena — like the nave of a cathedral in which the parishioners surround the mass in intimidating proximity to the priests and altar boys — certain people had no difficulty recognizing the present version of Wideman. Stan Pawlak, a Penn basketball standout who was three years behind Wideman, was analyzing that night’s game for the local ESPN radio outlet and greeted John warmly. Then Ed Bergman, also from the class of ’63, embraced his friend, though he had bad news about another classmate, Darryl Dawson, who had died. At half time, Bergman talked to me about the challenges Wideman faced in the fall of 1959: “Imagine what it was like for John to be one of about 10 black male students in the incoming freshman class, and the other nine were mostly from prep schools.”
Wideman brought it into stark perspective: Philadelphia was better than some places, he said, but racism was then so openly toxic in America that Penn “didn’t want to embarrass me, so we didn’t play in the South. The farthest south I played was probably Annapolis.”
In the course of the uninspired, not very noisy game between two middling teams (Penn beat my alma mater, Columbia, 64-54), Wideman recounted other things with the subtle irony that informs his conversation and his best writing: for example, playing what he flattered himself to be tough defense against Columbia’s Fred Portnoy without knowing that Portnoy was involved in a point-shaving scheme and easing up. Whether or not Philip Roth borrowed Portnoy’s name for his famous novel, Wideman enjoyed the notion that he might have, as he riffed about Palestra lore.
What’s different now? “In the day,” he remembered, “the [tobacco] smoke hung so heavy over the court; you didn’t realize that you were having trouble breathing because of it.”
Somehow, “What was your greatest moment in sports?” seemed the wrong question to ask a former Rhodes Scholar and two-time PEN/Faulkner Award winner, so I imagined the answer for myself. In his senior year, when Wideman was captain and all-Ivy League, Penn went 19-6, shared the prestigious Big 5 title with Villanova, but, disappointingly, finished behind co-champions Princeton and Yale in the Ivy League.
On Jan. 5, 1963, however, Penn beat Princeton and its sophomore phenom, Bill Bradley, 65-62, in a game that must have rocked the Palestra to its raucous core. At 6 feet 5 inches, the future NBA star, U.S. senator and presidential candidate scored 26 points with 16 rebounds. A characteristic Bradley performance, but I wish I’d been there to see the future author of “Philadelphia Fire,” at 6 feet 2 inches, playing small forward, score 16 and grab 10 rebounds in a winning effort.
It’s worth knowing that Wideman covered Bradley so well in the second half that Bradley finished only 6 for 19 from the field.
More from John R. MacArthur:
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