Today, the end of a college basketball season is marked by confetti raining down from the top of a giant stadium while 20 million viewers watch on TV. A century ago, there was far less fanfare when a few Penn basketball players boarded a Broadway Limited train for Chicago.
Led by captain Raymond “Dutch” Peck W1920, top scorer George Sweeney W1920, and head coach Lon Jourdet C1913, the 1919–20 Quakers had won every game they played to win the Eastern Intercollegiate championship, setting up a showdown with the University of Chicago, the Western Intercollegiate champs, in a best-of-three series to determine the national champion.
The Quakers lost the first game, 28–24, at the old Bartlett Gymnasium in Chicago on March 22, but evened the series with a 29–18 victory at Penn’s Weightman Hall three days later. In a lively recap written in the April 2, 1920 issue of the Gazette, Ralph Morgan C1906—an early American basketball administrator and rules developer—wrote, “The short passes of the Red and Blue players were entirely too intricate for the Chicagoans, who were forced to foul to stop the play.”
The third and deciding game was played on a neutral court, in front of an overflow crowd of 2,000-plus at Princeton, on March 27. Bill Grave C1922, who missed the first two games with a “slight attack of measles,” returned to the lineup at center and helped Penn go ahead 23–13 with what Morgan called a “splendid exhibition of scientific basketball.”
At that point, however, the Quakers began to stall and play a “wholly defensive game,” which caused the Chicago and Princeton fans in the crowd to “let loose a verbal and ‘booing’ attack on Pennsylvania’s players, entirely unprecedented in Eastern basketball.” Perhaps having made a tactical mistake, Penn let Chicago claw its way back into the contest. But the Quakers hung on for a 23–21 victory, when “the game ended in a tumult, after 17 seconds of overtime had been played, due to the inability of the timers to make their whistles heard above the din.”
While booing has remained embedded in sports culture, college basketball has evolved significantly over the past 100 years. The 1919–20 season predated the creation of the NIT (1938) and the NCAA tournament (1939), the latter of which led to the televised spectacle now known as March Madness. (Without an official tournament, Penn was retroactively named the 1919–20 national champion by the old Helms Athletic Foundation.) And judging from the way Morgan gushed about how teams passed the ball around the perimeter (he called Penn’s 26–23 win over Princeton earlier that season “probably the greatest game of basketball ever played”), he and other hoopheads of that era would likely be in awe of the higher scores and high-flying talent on display today.
But there was at least one significant development that carried over due to Penn’s success and popularity 100 years ago. Morgan closed his article with an appeal to alumni for “help to get better and larger playing quarters” than the “totally inadequate” Weightman Hall.
A few years later, the Palestra was built.