For the last 90 years, an endless number of great coaches have passed through the hallowed hallways of the Palestra and stepped foot on the famous gym floor.
But few likely ever did what legendary Michigan State coach Tom Izzo did Saturday — apologize to the building itself.
“My apologies to this magnificent facility,” Izzo said after the Spartans were knocked off by Penn State, 72-63, in the first Big Ten regular-season game ever played at the Palestra. “I loved the experience. I appreciated the hall. I appreciated everything about it — except I feel like we cheated those of you who have seen great teams and great coaches and great players play here. You got robbed today by the team in green.”
The unique game, played in front of a sold-out crowd and shown on ESPN, was set up because Penn State coach Patrick Chambers wanted a home game in Philly since six of his players hail from the area. And Izzo wanted the chance to coach in the historic gym for the first time in his legendary career.
Both got their wish but only Chambers walked away with the win as the Nittany Lions (10-7, 2-2) snapped Michigan State’s four-game winning streak and beat the Spartans (11-6, 3-1) for the first time since 2011.
“A magical experience for sure,” Chambers said. “Not just for me and our team but for all Penn Staters. Man, was that fun to have a packed house like that. The home-court advantage was amazing, and to have it here at the Palestra, these guys will never forget this experience as long as they live.”
To help them prepare for the game, Chambers said he took his players on a tour of the Palestra on Friday, pointing out the plaques and photos of past teams and players that decorate the walls. He even had them run the Rocky steps earlier on Saturday.
But many of his players didn’t need to be reminded about Philadelphia and what playing basketball in the city means. Three of them — Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick — captured the Philly Catholic League Title last year at the Palestra with Roman Catholic. Another player, Shep Garner, also played his high school ball at Roman, and two others — Mike Watkins and Julian Moore — are from the area.
And not surprisingly, it was the Philly kids who led the way in the potentially program-altering win. Stevens scored a game-high 18 points, Carr had 14, Watkins added 11 off the bench and Garner scored eight to surpass the 1,000-point milestone for his career.
Payton Banks, whose sister played her home games at the Palestra for Penn, also had 11 after scoring 20 in the Nittany Lions’ last game at the Palestra — a 63-57 win over Drexel a little over a year ago.
“I felt at home,” Stevens said. “It felt like a home locker room.”
Stevens had a good laugh about the locker room when he heard Izzo comment about the Palestra’s old-school lack of luxuries.
But Izzo, who’s famous for his dislike of social media, absolutely loved it. In fact, that was one of the reasons he wanted to coach his first game at the Palestra, saying earlier that it was something he wanted to cross off his bucket list.
“To walk in the locker room and not see any jacks for Wi-Fi and phones and Twitter, God it was great, you know?” the Michigan State coach said. “I told our guys we’d probably have to hang our coats on hooks. We didn’t even have hooks in there! It was awesome. It was just awesome. I threw my damn coat on the floor and said, ‘This is where it belongs. This is some humility.’ And we need some humility right now on our team.’”
Penn state coach Patrick Chambers — who grew up going to games at the Palestra and whose brothers, Tim and Paul, played football and basketball at Penn, respectively — had another great reaction to coaching inside the 90-year-old gym, which tends to get as hot as it does loud.
“The lighting. The smell. It’s a gym. It’s a gym,” Chambers said. “I was drenched. I had to get changed. I was drenched underneath my coat. And you just love it. You love every second, every sweat, every drop.”
More than anything, Chambers loved getting the win, saying a victory over a perennial powerhouse like Michigan State in a place like the Palestra could be the kind of signature result to help elevate a program that’s only made two NCAA Tournaments in the last 20 years.
And Izzo, in the end, turned his apology into a thank you, even if he admitted to being “stupid” for taking his team into a “hornet’s nest” so he could “get my brains beaten in.”
“Thanks for giving me the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “I truly mean this.”
Chambers also had a lot of reasons to be thankful after watching his team shoot 60 percent in the first half, paced by a couple of big threes from Banks, and come through with a few clutch steals down the stretch to fend off the Spartans in front of a packed crowd filled with fans who braved the snow to be there.
“There’s something really magical about this place,” the Penn State coach said. “It’s very near and dear to my heart. I will never forget this day for a long time.”