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MCI Center Section

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  Who Could Ask for Anything More?

Thomas Boswell By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 3, 1997; Page D1

Last evening, seven planets were aligned, five of them visible to the naked eye, strung like beads from the cusp of a crescent moon. The solar system lines up this way for a few days once every 100 years.

As MCI Center was dedicated yesterday — with a red ribbon on F Street cut at 5:45 p.m. — those planets blinked in the darkening sky. Maybe that's what it takes for Washington to get a world-class arena in downtown: the planets aligned and a wait that feels a century long.

"The city deserved this ... a clean, safe, wonderful environment," said Abe Pollin, standing under a single spotlight at center court of the arena he built for $200 million. "All the people who made this possible, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. ...I thank the good Lord for letting me see this day."

Sometimes, everything works. A night that should be perfect actually fulfills its promise. Last night at MCI Center filled the bill. The president of the United States sat with Pollin in his suite. The sellout crowd watched the erratic hometown Wizards beat the excellent Seattle SuperSonics, 95-78. Pollin's 74th birthday wasn't until today, but he got his present a couple of hours early.

Perhaps more important, however, MCI Center and its environs functioned exactly as they were supposed to. You never know about that until opening night. It wasn't just the beautiful crisp night or the brass band music on G Street or the light shows playing on the walls of downtown buildings that made the evening so special.

All the central elements of MCI Center worked — better, if anything, than might have been expected. The subway was smooth as silk. Less than an hour before the game, the throngs moved through the Gallery Place Metro stop — just 30 yards from the ticket windows — at a brisk, uncrowded clip.

Inside the arena, the flow around the concourses on both the first and second levels was intimate, yet uncongested. That's a difficult mix to get just right. But it's important to the feeling of a building. MCI Center may have nailed it. You're not being elbowed or rushed, but the place is energized, colorful and grabs your attention. You even feel like, if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll meet an old friend.

As predicted, the crowd had a downtown dressed-for-success flavor. Plenty of sensible fans dressed as though they were just going to a basketball game. But lots were clearly out on the town. And at top dollar, too. Everybody seemed to get a kick out of this mix of classes. The folks in the cheapest seats, however, may have gotten the last laugh of the night.

In the second quarter, a chant began in the very top rows of MCI Center behind the baskets — the worst seats in the house: "$19 ... $19 ... $19." Presumably, the nose-bleed-seat fans were bragging that they'd gotten a decent seat at the pricey opening without taking out a second mortgage. Of course, maybe they were mocking themselves for paying so much for the most remote seat at a regular season game.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of MCI Center is its openness to the city that surrounds it. The joint has so many huge exterior windows that every person on the streets looks right in at the shops and restaurants. You can't have better advertising. How can you avoid thinking, "Maybe I ought to check that out"?

In fact, you can actually stand on 7th Street, across from the National Portrait Gallery, and watch the game for free. Sort of. The portal between Sections 117 and 118 offers a perfect view of the entire scoreboard that hangs over mid-court. Standing in the street, you not only see the score, the quarter and the time, you know who's in the game and how many points and fouls they've got. It's the kind of inviting touch you might expect at Wrigley Field or Camden Yards. How can a gym invite you inside while you're outside? MCI Center's done it.

The Wizards, and, on Friday, the Capitals, will be enormously proud of the interior of their new home. What would you expect? "It's the jewel [of the NBA]," said Coach Bernie Bickerstaff last night. "I love the intimacy. It's like everybody's right there on top of you."

Still, a new gym is a new gym. If you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all. What gives MCI Center distinction is its extra amenities, such as the MCI National Sports Gallery, the Velocity Grill and its every-day 10 a.m.-to-9 p.m. policy of being open to the public for shopping, eating and gawking. To an even greater degree, MCI Center may be an easy sell because of its invigorating neighborhood.

"This is going to bring people back downtown," said reserve D.C. police officer Ronald Culmer, facing MCI Center while standing only a few yards from the Temple of Cun Yum and the Golden Palace. "My aunt didn't even know this was here. They've got it so tucked between other buildings, you hardly notice it. I had to tell her, 'It's near where the old Hecht Company used to be.' "

No indoor arena will ever compete equally with the best majestic outdoor venues. MCI Center isn't the Rose Bowl or Camden Yards. You can't entirely hide the basic nature of an indoor basketball court or hockey rink. There's no panoramic view of downtown or a mountain range as a backdrop to the game. There's no idiosyncratic right field corner. But, given it's inherent limits, MCI Center is superb.

Perhaps its only downside is that it reminds you of those 24 years that the arena was outside of town.

"The building got what it deserved. The opening got what it deserved," said Bickerstaff. More important, Washington area fans finally got what they deserved.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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