Scott Bittner will walk into The Palestra in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon.
He will think about the history of college basketball.
He will think about his dad, Jack.
Bittner, the head coach of the Stockton University men’s basketball team, will lead the Ospreys against the University of Pennsylvania in an exhibition at 2 p.m.
Penn is an NCAA Division I program and the defending Ivy League champion. But that’s only part of what makes Saturday special for Bittner and the Division III Ospreys.
It’s a chance to play and coach in a building dubbed the “Cathedral of Basketball.” The Palestra has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other arena in the country. It was the site of countless Big Five doubleheaders.
For Bittner, it’s also a chance to relive memories of he and his dad. Jack died in 2004 of a brain hemorrhage after beating cancer.
“For me, it’s a special place,” Bittner said. “It will bring back a lot of great memories, and to a point it will be sad that he’s not there to witness it.”
The Palestra opened Jan. 1, 1927. It’s not much to look at from the outside, and is easy to overlook as it’s dwarfed by neighboring Franklin Field, the current home of Penn’s football team.
Bittner practically grew up at The Palestra. He and his dad would attend Big Five doubleheaders every winter Saturday. Jack played at Temple for famed coach Harry Litwack. The Bittners lived in Ocean City, but Jack knew his way around Philadelphia. He had to access a parking lot behind The Palestra that few fans knew about.
“Nobody knew it existed except for my father,” Scott said. “We would just sneak into this parking lot, and everybody else was struggling for parking. I was 11 years old, and I thought it was pretty cool how familiar my father was with the back roads of Philadelphia.”
Scott marveled as a boy at how Palestra fans would throw streamers onto the court after each team’s first made basket.
“If it was St. Joe and La Salle,” Bittner said, “it would take 15 minutes to clean the court.”
Exhibits on The Palestra concourse tell history of Philadelphia college basketball.
“You walk around, and you can almost feel the history,” Bittner said. “You can feel Wilt Chamberlain in there. You can feel Kobe Bryant in high school. You only have three things — history, present and the future. Too many people live in the future, and they don’t remember the history. To me, college basketball was at its finest in those Big Five games.”
As for Saturday’s game, the Ospreys are young. Meanwhile, Penn is again predicted to be one of the Ivy League’s best. The contest came about because Bittner and Penn coach Steve Donohue are friends.
“Penn is not just a Division I team,” Bittner said. “They’re an NCAA Tournament Division I team.”
Since he joined Stockton’s coaching staff 13 years ago as an assistant, Bittner has tried to give his players life lessons in addition to making better basketball players.
Saturday’s trip to The Palestra does both.
“I think when our kids walk in, they’ll get it,” Bittner said. “We’re just going up there looking to play in a big venue, and our kids can tell their kids some day they played in the most historic arena in the country.”
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column normally appears Fridays in The Press.