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 Read more articles by Tony Kornheiser and other Post sports columnists in Columnists' Corner.

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  It Was Too Dark Inside, but Plenty of Stars Lit It Up

TK By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, November 29, 1997; Page D1

As everyone rushes to celebrate the opening of the new MCI Center, there is a disquieting lack of nostalgia for a building that was once the newest of the new itself—the building originally christened Capital Centre when it opened in 1973. Even Abe Pollin, who must have thought Capital Centre would be his grand accomplishment, prefers to look forward to the technological and architectural splendor of his new, downtown arena.

The truth is that even before Cap Centre morphed into USAir Arena (it's now US Airways Arena), the building had fallen into disrepute. Players complained it was too dark. Spectators said it was cold and distant. When you went inside it felt like you were walking down into a dungeon. It never felt cozy like RFK. It never developed a personality like Cole Field House. It isn't even gone and it's already forgotten.

The arena sat out there uncomfortably on a bed of asphalt in a wind tunnel, a totem to a misguided notion about hitching the culture to the inevitability of suburban dominance. Even the building's graceful saddleback roof couldn't persuade people that it had any charm at all.

I have made much fun of the building in my time, particularly about the escalating parking rates, which seemed to serve as a metaphor for what was wrong with the place: There was no way to get there but to drive, there was nothing to do when you got there—no neighborhood restaurants, no shops, no sign of life—and then they overcharged you to park there. Madison Square Garden, it wasn't.

But for 24 years that building made this area Big League. Great performances were given there. Great moments transpired. Not just sports moments, but concerts and presidential inaugural galas. That telescreen, which seems so obsolete now, was the first of its kind. In its day that now shopworn building was on the cutting edge. Granted, its day has passed. But as Willy Loman's wife says in "Death Of A Salesman," attention must be paid.

We all think of the building as home to the Bullets and Capitals. But the three greatest singers of the 20th century—Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand—all sang there. MCI Center's opening concert is, ahem, Barry Manilow.

We're all familiar with the TV shots of Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon sitting courtside at the Fabulous Forum in L.A., and Woody Allen and Spike Lee sitting courtside at the Garden in New York. No gym has glitter like that. But Capital Centre had its own kind of celebrity: the politician. I will never forget my first trip to the building—I was working in New York, and I was sent to cover the NBA Finals between the Bullets and Seattle in 1978. During one game I found myself at the next urinal from George McGovern, whom I'd voted for a few years earlier when he ran for president against Richard Nixon. It's not the kind of setting where you reach over and shake hands, but it seemed to me standing next to George McGovern in that circumstance was democracy in action.

The Bullets won just one NBA title in the life of the building. That's sad, and we've all suffered through too many futile seasons. But that one championship is one more than the people in Atlanta, Phoenix, Milwaukee, San Antonio, New Jersey, Denver and Indiana have.

Over the years Bullets fans have gotten to see three of the NBA's greatest 50 players wear the home white—Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone. One more, Earl Monroe, was gone from the Bullets by the time the building opened, but he came back to play as a Knick.

The Caps, regrettably, have been disappointing, especially in the playoffs. But two of the greatest moments in the building were those quadruple-overtime games, the first against the Islanders, the second against the Penguins. We all know the Capitals lost. That's been their curse, to choke in the playoffs. But no one who saw those games will ever forget them.

Muhammad Ali defended his title in the building, against Jimmy Young. Ray Leonard fought there, too. Martina Navratilova played Chris Evert there. John McEnroe played Andre Agassi. All the great figure skaters performed there. I first saw Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Shawn Bradley play there as high school seniors in the Capital Classic. Others can say the same about Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

Although the building wasn't known for college basketball, for years it has been home to Georgetown, whose program John Thompson built into one of the most feared, most respected and most identifiable in the country. Year after year in the '80s the place was sold out for Georgetown-Syracuse and Georgetown-St. John's; it always seemed both teams were 18-1 or 19-2. Three times the ACC championship was played there. Once a sixth-seeded Virginia team shocked a North Carolina team with four Olympians—Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak, Tommy LaGarde and Walter Davis. A few years ago the NCAA held a sub-regional in the building, and the two best college basketball coaches of our time, Dean Smith and Bobby Knight, were there.

I'm sitting at home writing this, so I don't have dates or scores available to me. But I can remember watching classic games out there on the Beltway: The two heartbreaking hockey playoff games I mentioned earlier; the Patrick Ewing-Chris Mullin game that St. John's won the year both teams went to the Final Four; the ballyhooed Ralph Sampson-Patrick Ewing game in 1982; the Maryland-Georgetown game in 1993 that Duane Simpkins won in overtime with a last-second scoop shot—it was Joe Smith's first college game, and he got 26 points, and it was the first time Maryland and Georgetown had played since 1980; a Bullets season opener against Orlando that The Incandescent Rex Chapman won with a last-second jump shot; the Bulls game where Michael Jordan was mad at LaBradford Smith, and torched him for 36 in the first half!

Some pretty good stuff. Maybe even worth the parking.

The Bulls are closing it out tonight. From every comment I read by Capitals and Bullets players, they can't wait to get downtown. And neither can the fans.

We live in a disposable culture. Capital Centre served its purpose, and now we move on, and it stays behind. Before they turn out the lights I thought someone ought to say something nice about the old place. So I did.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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