As is the tradition, the Quakers climbed the ladder and cut off souvenir pieces of the net. Seniors Mikaelyn Austin and Jewel Clark took their turns, tempted fate and sat on the rim in celebration of Penn’s Ivy League title. Waving the net over a sea of friends, families and teammates, Clark and Austin were adding their piece of history to an already storied venue.
It was the spring of 2004 and the Penn women’s basketball team had just claimed the League title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Championship that went with it. For Austin, the home-court victory over Dartmouth was the crowning achievement in a successful four-year career as a Penn shooting guard. But with her career nearing its end, Austin’s relationship with Penn’s famed basketball arena, The Palestra, was just beginning.
Since graduating cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design with a Fine Arts degree, Austin has devoted her time to telling the story of The Palestra’s hallowed history. As the producer of the documentary — “The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball” — Austin has delved into the history, the significance and the stories of the hardwood haven.
Opened in 1927, The Palestra is the oldest college basketball arena still in use. Since opening day, the Quakers — and all the Big 5 teams of Philadelphia — have battled, All-Americans have starred and fans have sweat in every one of the 8,700 seats.
After her own four memorable years, Austin was saddened by the fact that so much of The Palestra’s history was forgotten or unknown. “It really hurt me to hear people talk about Cameron (home of the Duke basketball team) and Madison Square Garden as the places to watch basketball,” Austin said. “I thought if they knew more about it, The Palestra would be a place people would have to go to get a true basketball experience.”
A California native, Austin first visited Philadelphia and The Palestra in February of her senior year of high school and by the end of the recruiting trip had made a verbal commitment to play basketball for the Quakers.
She began her academic career pursuing architecture, even doing an internship with her uncle’s firm in San Diego. But the following semester, after realizing that architecture may not be the path for her, Austin enrolled in a photography course. “Once I took that class it was all over,” Austin said. “Something just kind of clicked and I became a Fine Arts major.”
In her senior year, after immersing herself in photography and graphic design, Austin decided to take a film course. “Five minutes into that class, I thought, ?This is awesome,'” Austin said. “I figured out a way to make my pretty pictures move.”
While excelling and finding her passion for film, Austin also found success on the court and as a three-year member of the Penn track team.
She was voted to the Philadelphia Big 5 All-Academic team her junior and senior season, was an Arthur Ashe Junior Sports Scholar in 2002 and 2003, a tri-captain her senior season for the women’s basketball team and joined the top four performers in school history in the discus throw.
As an undergraduate, Austin found discovered how to manage her academic work and her obligations as a student-athlete, and even found how to combine the two. “A lot of the graphic design stuff I did was sports-related, because that is what I knew best,” Austin said. “I also made a season highlight film that I was able to use for a class project.”
Austin’s affinity for sports and Philadelphia doesn’t end at Penn and The Palestra. Her documentary — “The Curse of William Penn” — examined the “curse” that has had its hold on Philadelphia sports teams since 1985. “It’s kind of like the ?Curse of the Bambino,’ but in Philadelphia,” Austin said.
As a twenty-something with two documentaries in post-production, Austin hesitates to look too far into the future, but says her ultimate goal is to work as a producer on feature films. “Basically working as a writer, director, producer, editor?on two documentaries already, I think I will be prepared for just about anything.”
Whether it was sitting on a rim claiming an Ivy title, telling the tale of an arena legend or pursuing a perceived curse, Mikaelyn Austin is certainly prepared to make some Philadelphia history of her own.
This story was written by Josi Carlson in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.