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  The Lights Go Up — and Down, and Up — On the Wizards' Palace

MCI Center By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 1997; Page D1

The steps were occasionally halting, but last night at MCI Center Washington boogied into the get-geeked, amp-it-up freak show that is the NBA.

Professional sports' newest, shiniest, gee-whizziest venue slams together elements of a theater, a nightclub and a rock concert. Designed to cultivate fist-pumping excitement, MCI Center by and large succeeds.

The show started nearly an hour before the game between the Wizards and the Seattle SuperSonics, as turquoise laser beams shot up from two corners of the floor and danced around the rafters. Other beams drew designs on the darkened floor, even spelling out the names and uniform numbers of Wizards players. Drum-and-synthesizer dance music thumped through the ceiling-mounted speakers, loud and deep enough, it seemed, to alter heartbeats. The Wizards' newly written rap theme — "You the man/ You the man/ You the man/ That's the reason I'm a Wizards fan" — got some fans on their feet. Others applauded politely afterward, as though at a Kennedy Center symphony.

MCI Center officials sound proudest of the fact that they can flip the arena's lights on and off like those in a living room. This creates the capacity for drama, like darkening a theater. Last night, they flipped away. After the laser show, the lights came up, breaking the mood. The players came out for the shootaround and pregame stretching. Then the lights went back down for the national anthem, plaintively played on soprano saxophone by Branford Marsalis. Then the lights came back on for more shooting. Finally, the lights went back off for the introduction of the Wizards. For the highest drama, the lights should stay off through the player introductions. The industry standard for pregame melodrama has been set by the Chicago Bulls; presumably, the Wizards would like to follow their lead.

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with Washington's other new sports venue, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. As at Cooke, once you get to your seat at MCI Center, the view is clear and close. The seats are comfortable and large enough for beefy six-footers and most have a cupholder. The seats are raked steeper than at US Airways and thus are closer to the action. Up near the ceiling, though, it's easier to watch the game on the four-sided TV screen that hangs over the court. (About the scoreboard: Thumbs up on the running point totals of each player; thumbs down on the game score, which is nearly hidden among all the other numbers. It should be an instant read.)

Courtside seats, even those behind the basket, got fans close enough to see the disgust on guard Rod Strickland's face when he was hacked while driving to the basket. Spectators remarked that their seats — even if they were in the same approximate location as those at US Airways — felt closer to the action at MCI Center.

The close-up seating is where any similarity with Cooke Stadium begins and ends. It is unlikely that Cooke, which holds 80,000 spectators, could replicate the indoor intimacy and culinary variety at MCI Center (capacity: 20,000 for basketball). MCI feels like a food court in an upscale mall — with liquor. Moreover, it feels like a well-run food court. Two hours before last night's game, concession managers were drilling their charges, not only on efficient handling of money and proper physiognomy ("Remember to smile!"), but also on display of their wares. The manager at the buffalo wings concession stand was directing his employees to turn the display basket to be more visible. The manager of the pastry cart (cheesecake: $5.25) good-naturedly chided his staff: "My display looks good. Y'alls' looks sorry." Nearby, the Modell's sporting goods employees were pumping each other up for opening night with a rousing cheer. It seemed important that things were done right, unlike the Larry, Curly and Moe show at Cooke Stadium's opener.

Like every major sports arena, MCI Center has an alternative economy. It's a bizarre place of Brazilian-style inflation, where a 69-cent bag of potato chips costs $2.25, a dozen buffalo wings $9. One cup of cold, dry french fries was $3.25 and edible only under a slather of ketchup. A used Honda Civic here would probably run $80,000. But a lunch-size portion of sweet-and-sour chicken from Hunan Chinatown (the actual restaurant is just around the corner on H Street) is a modest $8.50. The fried chunks of chicken were crispy and tender and the carrots and broccoli fresh and snappy. A tasty 10-inch pepperoni pizza from Papa John's was $8.50.

Last night, MCI Center's sports memorabilia and game arcade was closed because of its location near owner Abe Pollin's suite, where President Clinton watched the game and noshed. The president, however, invoked executive privilege and played a pre-game round of miniature golf.

In the much-ballyhooed Velocity Grill, the tri-level restaurant and bar, beer flowed freely and free on opening night. The prices for draft beer there will be more in line with those of a bar on U Street or in Alexandria: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Steam, in 16-ounce cups, is $4.75. The restaurant's design is clean and sleek, managing to incorporate cracked glass panels and steel mesh while avoiding the dreaded "Miami Vice" look. Small details are handled nicely: Blond wood panels are held up by bolts drilled through hockey pucks acting as washers. Passersby instinctively reached out to touch them: "Hey, hockey pucks."

Which takes us to the final point: In sleekness and volume, MCI Center feels like the upscale, in-your-face NBA, perhaps because the Wizards opened it. How will hockey fans, used to driving from one suburb to another to watch the Capitals, adapt to the bright-lights, big-city arena?

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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