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  A Center That Deserves Attention

Michael Wilbon By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, November 14, 1997; Page C1

We haven't come up with a word yet that adequately describes the building between 6th and 7th streets, and F and G streets NW. God knows it's not a gym. The word "arena" doesn't begin to cover what's inside MCI Center or what can be done there. You'll be tempted to call it a mall because of the restaurants and retail space, but how many malls have an interactive museum and a Hall of Fame?

Wes Unseld, the Wizards' GM and a man intimately involved with the planning and building of MCI Center, said yesterday, "When I was trying to describe this place to people, all I could tell them was that it's an unbelievable building with a world-class gym inside."

Any man personally responsible for the financing of a $200 million building has a right to be proud, to pat himself on the back and crow about how wonderful his project is. When Wizards and Capitals owner Abe Pollin first began saying, "We're building the best arena in professional sports," my first response was to say, "Okay, Abe, it'll be a great arena but let's not get carried away."

After yesterday afternoon's guided tour, I'm done with the cynicism. Abe Pollin isn't overstating the matter one bit. MCI Center is the coolest, hippest, smartest, most creative, most interactive, customer-friendly, sports/entertainment facility in all of professional sports. It's taken the best elements of United Center in Chicago, Gund Arena in Cleveland and America West Arena in Phoenix, then added its own twists and shouts. There won't be a better place to be — or, for you true Washingtonians, be seen — in the metropolitan area.

As somebody who cares first and foremost about sports (just barely ahead of food), I am most impressed with how intimate the gymnasium itself is. MCI looks as if it seats about 16,000, but holds 20,000. Where US Airways Arena's stands were shallow and went back and back and back into total darkness, you can probably see the expression on the faces of the people in the first few rows of the third level here.

If you're one of the people who thinks the Jack Kent Cooke Stadium upper deck is too steep, you won't like MCI either. If you want intimacy, it has to be steep. MCI isn't nose-bleed steep like Delta Center in Utah, which, not coincidentally, is the loudest arena in the NBA. But from the highest seats in MCI, you're looking straight down at the action. Not out, out, out and down like US Airways Arena. The aisles are pretty tight, unlike United Center in Chicago where a 6-foot-2 fan can slouch in his chair and cross his legs.

It's got all the bells and whistles you'd expect in a state-of-the-art facility and even more. It's a generation removed from places that are five years old and merely wonderful.

America West, which has been my favorite since the 1993 NBA Finals, has an eatery. Fast food. MCI has the Capital Club, an incredibly tony open-to-the-court restaurant/bar on the club level for the high rollers. More important, MCI has the Velocity Grill, a three-level, 1,800-seat "sports restaurant" with stuff you just don't find every day, if ever.

A glass floor on the second level allows you to look down on the Wizards' practice court. Flat screens at each booth let you watch the home teams during their games, or the Lakers-Sonics on DirecTV if you're still eating and drinking at 1 a.m. The restaurant will have about 85 screens, all of which can be tuned to different channels.

Even if you don't give a hoot about hockey or basketball, you could come and have dinner and the National Sports Gallery, which is like heaven for sports geeks. For $9.50 (or $7.50 for kids) a person can not only see Negro League exhibits and other memorabilia, but play H-O-R-S-E against a 10-foot Chris Webber, with the floor lighting up to show you the path to your next shot.

The real Chris Webber, his teammates and coaches will be several levels down having access to stuff that Wes Unseld never dreamed of in 1968 when he was a Bullets rookie. (Abe Pollin, from his owner's suite, has a private elevator that takes him first to his "receiving area," where he can entertain guests near the locker rooms, and later down another floor to his car!)

The Capitals have a locker room and a "change room," which is apparently the wave of the future in hockey comfort. Does "immersible hot and cold tubs" mean anything to you? I thought not. How about an aromatic steam room? Oh, and there's a special room for the hockey massage therapist. The weight room is 11,000 square feet with weights especially designed for tall folks. Wizards trainer Kevin Johnson has an office larger than the Oval Office. The Georgetown Hoyas have their own locker room. Standing in the middle of the Wizards' new 7,500-square foot locker room yesterday (the one at US Airways Arena is 2,500 square feet), Unseld thought back to the nail-in-the-wall facility he called home once-upon-a-time. "Honest to goodness, our whole locker room [at Baltimore Civic Arena] could fit in there," he said, pointing to the "training room" area where the players will be taped and treated before and after battle. "I played five years there and I thought it was great. Then we moved to Capital Centre and I thought, 'It can't get any better than this.' But it could."

Unseld opened the door to a room that houses something called the Avid Scouting System. About 1,300 NBA games and between 4,000 and 5,000 college games will be digitally recorded (off four satellite dishes) and broken down by, among other things, position. Bernie Bickerstaff could ask for one play out of all the plays in the first half of a game and have it instantly at halftime. Rod Strickland could request only the guard play from each of those 1,300 NBA games and have it in minutes.

All of this is housed inside a building with a facade that not only fits in with federal Washington, but lets you see it through windows all around the building. The architectural assessment should be left to someone who knows about such, but those of us who admit to being sports/entertainment junkies would be hard-pressed to be this fulfilled anywhere else.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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