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The Party Starts at the New Arena

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 03, 1997; Page D01

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  • Last night's parties inaugurating MCI Center were all about showing off: showing devotion to the Wizards, showing off a million-dollar suite, or showing off a fine, lean body at Washington's newest venue for styling and profiling.

    There are different ways to strut your stuff, and all were on display. For star power, Abe Pollin's suite -- where President Clinton watched the first game played here -- won hands down. The winner for best view went to the Capital Club, where season-ticket holders could see and be seen at the restaurant overlooking the court. But for sheer drama, you couldn't beat the glass staircase and glass floor of the Velocity Grill, where a sweet young thing in a miniskirt could dazzle cigar-smoking patrons.

    "It rocks!" said Lilo Abinajm, who was puffing on a thick stogie at Velocity. Abinajm, a twenty-something from Falls Church, had a ticket for the game, but he's not really a basketball fan. "I'm a party fan."

    Well, he came to the right place: MCI Center was one big party last night. Wizards owner Pollin threw pre- and post-game celebrations at which guests cheered his 74th birthday, the arena and what they hope will be the rebirth of downtown Washington.

    "Abe Pollin is Washington's hero," said Bob Barnett, a lawyer at Williams & Connolly. "The MCI Center makes Cooke Stadium pale by comparison."

    "I'm ecstatic," said Mayor Marion Barry. "All these D.C. residents working here, all this tax money coming in. I`m jumping for joy."

    Suite holders held intimate soirees for a dozen of their closest buddies (or best customers), and regular fans cruised the center's bright new halls. The three-story Velocity Grill -- complete with 88 television screens -- was open to anyone (even without a ticket to the game) who wanted to be part of the scene.

    Last night, everything in the grill was on the house -- free beer, free food and free cigars. The restaurant is "going to be a big draw," said Raul Fernandez, president of Proxicom, an Internet services company in Reston. "We'll use it to entertain guests and business clients. Capital Centre was tough to get to and from. This is a breeze."

    "This is going to be the place to meet before the game," said John McDonnell, vice president of Transaction Network Services, an investor in the grill, who was having a drink while waiting to meet his brother.

    The highest rollers were found in the suites, 110 cozy rooms with seats for 12. The suites start at $100,000 a year (20 "founders" paid $1 million for a 10-year lease), and were filled with corporate bigwigs from the worlds of banking, communications and high technology. Each suite had a guard to prevent crashers and other riffraff from invading the suite life, which includes full bars, color TVs and plush padded seats. "I like my suite very well," said one lucky patron, who declined to give his name because "I'm a shy guy."

    Pollin's suite is actually two suites, with a private reception room below and his very own elevator. Why not? He owns the joint.

    Club-level seat holders -- season tickets selling for $7,500 -- had the option of staying in their purple seats or cramming into the members-only Capital Club. The bar and dinner tables curve around one end of the arena, which allowed these fans to watch the game while everyone else watched them.

    "This is the coolest spot in the place," said Terry Eakin. "Clearly." Eakin, a residential real-estate developer, and three buddies were at the rail for the first seating. The club was full of men in suits and women in minks -- not your typical sports apparel. "Fine dining, white tablecloths, good view, good company," said Eakin. There's just one problem: "Our wives may want to come when they see how elegant it is," he said.

    "It's spectacular," said Fred Kerlin, the produce distributor better known around Washington as "the Mushroom Man." Kerlin and his wife, Annette, celebrated in high style. "We've got a bottle of Dom Perignon and we'll have a very nice dinner," he said.

    This is all a big change from USAirways Arena, the former home of the Capitals and Wizards. Opened in 1973 as Capital Centre, it was an arena from another generation, when the sole function of sports venues was putting on sporting events and the occasional concert.

    Showing off was not the primary reason people drove to Landover. There were only two places for fans to strut their stuff at the old arena: the Flight Deck Lounge and the Captain's Club. The more exclusive was the Flight Deck, which served drinks and hot hors d'oeuvres to people with the most expensive season tickets. Any hungry season ticket holder could buy a buffet-style dinner at the Captain's Club.

    The only place the average Joe could hang out was the concourse, which was typically choked with fans standing in food lines or pushing past one another to get to their seats. Styling and profiling opportunities were limited: When not in their seats, most people stood "in the lines waiting to get into the bathrooms or to use the money machine," says Marc Goldman, public relations manager for Centre Management, which operates USAirways Arena and MCI Center.

    Glamorous? Hardly.

    But new sports arenas are designed to be gathering places -- like old town squares or suburban malls. The owners of Velocity Grill are hoping the restaurant will be the one spot where every fan will go to mix before, during and after the games. "People want to mingle at these kinds of events," says owner Brian Cohn.

    "It's a party place," said Pollin of MCI Center. "Have you seen Velocity? You know that's a party place."

    Party animal George Will was wandering confusedly through Velocity Grill wearing his trademark bow tie and horn-rims. "I'm sure this labyrinth will make sense eventually," he said. Will, known more as a baseball fan than a basketball fan, brings his son to the Wizards games. Asked the main difference between the two sports, he said, "In baseball, when you get to the field you find baseball being played."

    But basketball is more than just a game: it's sports, theater and entertainment. Neal Taylor, an electrician who worked on the lighting for the restaurant, decided to come last night, even though he didn't have a game ticket. "It's an ideal spot to hang out," he said, sitting in a Velocity booth with its own TV screen.

    The 20,000-square-foot restaurant is the only place in MCI Center where those without tickets can drink, eat and smoke during games. There's a cigar lounge, a microbrew bar and a glass wall overlooking the Wizards' practice court. Fans from the stands are expected to drift in during the last part of every game when beer sales are cut off in the arena.

    Cohn is counting on three bars -- not to mention the glass ceiling and staircase -- to keep things exciting.

    "All the extra frills -- it's fantastic," said Denny Ryder of Fairfax. "If tonight is any indication, it's going to be a big success. Now all we need is a Wizards victory."

    Ryder got his wish. The Wizards finally won a home game, and everyone at the post-game party (for "a small group of 800 of our closest friends," said Pollin) gave the new arena high marks.

    "This is the urban substitute for the golf course," said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis. "It's every bit as exciting as I thought -- even though the game wasn't the most exciting I've ever seen."

    No matter. "What a beautiful day in this neighborhood," said a relieved Wizards President Susan O'Malley. "It was an excellent day."

    Staff writer Frank Ahrens contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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