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An Opener to Behold at MCI Center
By David Montgomery and Thomas Heath
Last night, downtown Washington was a place to be, not to flee.
Amid pomp, prayers and a presidential visit, the MCI Center officially opened its doors. Thousands of people made their way to F Street NW to watch the National Basketball Association Washington Wizards defeat the Seattle SuperSonics, 95-78, in the arena's maiden contest.
But, in so many words, the people said they also came to celebrate the return of night life and daytime recreation on a large scale to a neighborhood that for decades has been virtually empty but for a few restaurants.
"Coming downtown is as much excitement as the game itself," said John T. Stewart, of Alexandria, who brought a business client to the game.
"I've been very excited about this for a week," said lawyer Rick Fischer, 54, of Northwest Washington, who said he arrived two hours before game time just so he could walk around the area. "This event is at least as important as opening the Kennedy Center in reversing the decay of the city."
A sellout crowd of 20,674 had few problems reaching the downtown venue. Heeding traffic planners' advice to ride Metro, about 10,000 people went through the turnstiles at the Seventh and F streets exit of the Gallery Place-Chinatown station between 5:30 and 8 p.m -- about five times the usual number for a weeknight, according to Metro officials. Many more used nearby stations. On the trip home, crowded station platforms cleared within a half-hour.
Other people drove and filled parking lots immediately around the arena, though space was still available at lots and garages within a relatively short walk.
The fact that the game started at 8:15 p.m. because of it was nationally broadcast -- most games will begin at 7 p.m. -- may have eased the traffic crunch before the contest since commuters already were out of the area, police said.
Once inside, most fans seemed satisfied with their seats and the arena's amenities. However, some people in the upper decks started chanting, "Nineteen dollars! Nineteen dollars!" -- an apparent reference to the price of the least-expensive seats. In the new arena, Wizards ticket prices rose to a range of $19 to $75, from $12 to $50 last season in US Airways Arena. Capitals tickets rose to a range of $19 to $60, from $12 to $45.
Team owner Abe Pollin financed construction of the $200 million arena, while the District and Metro spent about $79 million acquiring the site and expanding the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station.
Some fans were disappointed they couldn't sample all that the arena had to offer. They couldn't enter the interactive National Sports Gallery, though it is scheduled to be open today. The Velocity Grill sports restaurant was not ready to serve meals, though chips and salsa and beverages were available. Some concession stands had long lines.
Outside is where the neighborhood seemed to undergo its greatest transformation.
Throngs in business suits and overcoats or jeans and windbreakers swarmed over the sidewalks and streets that for years have been mostly empty after dark. Many were from the suburbs, experimenting with new routes to reach an unfamiliar destination. Others were downtown office workers unused to staying in town on most nights.
"I've been waiting and waiting for this; I can't stand the excitement," said Joseph James, 42, a consultant at Howard University who said his family didn't come downtown for recreation from their home near Woodbridge. "I know we're going to be coming downtown a lot more."
The glass-and-steel arena with big windows glowed like a giant lantern in the neighborhood. The steps of the National Portrait Gallery, once a shadowy place in the evenings, became a rendezvous spot for game-goers.
"This is gonna bring morale back to the city, and bring money back to the city," said Darlene Drummond, 33, an employee of Bell Atlantic who lives in Southeast Washington. "This was a moment in history, and I wanted to be a part of it."
The hopes riding on the arena's debut seemed to crystalize at one point in particular before the game, outside the arena.
F Street NW in front of MCI Center was blocked off, and it filled up with thousands of people. A rock band performed on one side of the block, while on the other, dignitaries prepared to cut a huge red ribbon. A spray of lights cast large moving images of stylized hockey and basketball players on the blank face of a nearby building, Times Square-style.
And Irene Pollin, the team owner's wife, stepped to a microphone and recalled downtown Washington in the glory days, when she was a teenager, and a pleasant day could be spent starting at the old Hecht's at F and Seventh and window-shopping down to the old Garfinkel's at F and 14th streets.
"Maybe some day soon, we'll all be strolling up F Street again," she said. "Beautiful F Street," and the thousands cheered.
President Clinton, a guest in Abe Pollin's luxury suite, arrived more than an hour before game time and toured the sports gallery, a section of the arena that, along with restaurants and theme stores, will be open 365 days a year.
The president pitched a baseball at an interactive image of a big league batter but lost the basketball-shooting contest with a video-generated virtual Chris Webber, of the Wizards, despite first sinking two shots, according to Barry Silberman, an executive of the Pollin organization who escorted Clinton.
Branford Marsalis performed a poignant instrumental version of the national anthem. A few minutes before, an emotional Abe Pollin, who turns 74 today, said to the crowd: "This is a night I will never forget. This building exceeds my dreams."
Many dazzled by the new monument downtown seemed to agree.
Stewart and his client, Robert R. Pipkin Jr., a public relations executive, strolled down Sixth Street before the game, considering which restaurant to visit. From a business perspective, Stewart said MCI Center was a big improvement over US Airways Arena in Landover, where the then-Bullets played the first game in 1973, also against the SuperSonics.
"Frankly, I've had tickets to give out to Landover games," Stewart said. "They just didn't have the pizazz. It was just going to a basketball game. Here you can go out, go to a restaurant, do something else." He added, though, that he wished there were more restaurants to choose from.
At least last night, several of the restaurants around the arena were packed.
"This is our first night serving dinner," said Nina Spicer, co-owner of the Arena Cafe, which formerly served just lunch because the neighborhood shut down after dark. There were two dozen diners and more flowing through the door. "It feels great," Spicer said.
But one of the diners, Christine Levonian, 24, of Silver Spring, had grown fond of US Airways. "I wonder if it will be as warm a place as Landover," she said. "We knew the ushers. Will the same be true here? I'm sure it will be over time."
The day started early and ended late.
Festivities celebrating the arena began in the morning, including dedication of the sports gallery and a parade on a blustery afternoon. Washingtonians from various walks of life took the opportunity to take a look.
"So many people have stayed away from here for so long that anything that brings people downtown is a good thing," said engineer Walter Birch, 49, who works downtown and who was one of many drawn by curiosity to check out the arena.
John Schroeder, 50, pressed his face close to the arena's glass doors to see inside as the Secret Service checked the building for Clinton's visit. "This is a great addition to downtown," said Schroeder, who works for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and lives in Alexandria. "I'm looking forward to staying downtown after work for a game."
Schroeder's colleague, native New Englander Mike Sheehan, said MCI Center reminds him of Boston Garden. "It's easy to get to; it's downtown; it's in the middle of everything," Sheehan said.
Federal workers strolled to MCI Center on their lunch hour for their first close-up view of the building.
Across F Street from the arena's main entrance, Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press" and a big Wizards fan, emceed a stage celebration, where he said Pollin's decision to bring his teams downtown "is the most important affirmation this city has had in decades."
"I have traveled the country, and I can assure you what this will mean to this city," Russert said. "At the turn of the century, people will look at the MCI Center and refer to it as America's Arena."
Pollin spent part of the morning playing with boyish glee on some of the interactive exhibits at the sports gallery in the arena. "I got a couple goals in soccer. I got a single in the batting cage!" he said. But he failed to score a goal in the hockey slap-shot game, and the goalie on a movie screen sneered, "C'mon rookie!"
Secret Service agents slammed the doors shut at 11:30 a.m. sharp so they could sweep the building and seal it for Clinton's arrival. Metal detectors similar to the ones used at airports were lined up at the building's two big entrances, and explosives-sniffing dogs patrolled the arena. Elevators, the lower parking garage and Pollin's double suite were sealed off earlier in the day. Pollin's security people were familiar with the drill because Clinton and Vice President Gore have both visited US Airways Arena for games.
Already in the neighborhood of the arena, new restaurants are opening and some nearby buildings are being renovated, their owners eager to feed off the arena's economic energy. The arena created more than 900 full- and part-time positions running operations inside. But some surrounding blocks also contain rows of blighted structures, silently raising the question: Can one building do so much?
"I hope this makes it safer in this area," said Cynthia Taylor, a Government Accounting Office employee who strolled over during lunch hour.
Religious leaders had more immediate results in mind, however.
The Rev. H. Lionel Edmonds, of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in the District, asked the Lord to "Bless [Washington Wizard guard] Rod Strickland and help him find new ways to penetrate" to the basket. "Bless Calbert Cheaney's marksmanship. And bless Chris Webber and Juwan Howard so they get more triple-doubles," which is basketball slang for more than 10 steals, rebounds and points in one game.
After the Wizards victory, the fans and Clinton gave a standing ovation.
Staff writers Peter Baker, Hamil R. Harris, Althelia Knight, Allan Lengel, Linda Wheeler and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company