Wes Unseld took a last meditative drive recently to the temple of his youth, the place where his Washington Bullets found glory all those years ago. All that remained untouched was that signature sloping roof, still lying there like an oversized potato chip. And even that will vanish tomorrow morning, when a demolition crew will blow up the remains to clear the way for a shopping mall.
"What a waste," said Unseld, 56, now the general manager of the Washington Wizards, recalling his thoughts as he walked alone along the edge of the ruins. "I understand that we have to make way for the new and the different, but something has to be said for the memories and the good times."
Over the 25 years of basketball and hockey and the countless rock concerts embedded in the memories of Washington boomers, Capital Centre -- renamed US Airways Arena in 1993 -- never inspired great affection. The lighting always seemed a tad dim. The traffic jams were a pain. And the location -- a sprawling concrete slab in the middle of suburbia -- wasn't exactly prime.
Yet the arena was the site of moments powerful enough to transcend its otherwise bland surroundings. There was that Bullets championship team of 1978 and the Washington Capitals emerging from mediocrity to push playoff opponents to the brink. And if you wanted to study the American teenager circa 1975, there was no better laboratory than Capital Centre's parking lot, where a generation of ragged rockers congregated (often in a haze of marijuana smoke) before concerts by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to the Grateful Dead.
"It was a clunky old building, but it was our clunky old building, and it was the place where we came of age," said Jeff Krulik, 41, a filmmaker who grew up in Bowie. "The first concert you went to, you went to the Cap Centre. It was a rite of passage."
Krulik and John Heyn immortalized the scene outside the arena with the 1987 documentary "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," in which Judas Priest fans shout less-than-poetic testimonials to the band. The filmmakers plan to record US Airway's destruction to give their documentary a fresh, apocalyptic touch.
"It's the end of an era, and a part of our lives is coming down with it," Heyn said.
A flock of VIPs plans to attend the 8 a.m. demolition, including Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his predecessor Wayne K. Curry (D), who are to preside over the igniting of a ceremonial fuse.
When the arena opened, Prince George's leaders viewed it as their ticket to respectability, an attraction that would put the county on the regional map. Now they crow about what's coming: a Main Street-style mall with the kind of quality retail and restaurants that the county sorely lacks.
Abe Pollin, owner of the Wizards (the Bullets were renamed in 1997) and Caps, who built Capital Centre with his own money and is a partner in the mall project, touts it as progress. But he won't be among those watching his arena crumble. "I put my guts and my heart and soul into that building," he said. "I spent 25 years there. To see it come down, I couldn't handle it emotionally."
Pollin's original home for the Bullets was Baltimore's Civic Center, where the team played for a decade beginning in 1963. By the early 1970s, he wanted an address that would lure more fans. Prince George's wasn't what he had in mind. He favored the District, but then-Mayor Walter Washington couldn't find the right spot.
So Pollin ventured east to Landover, and, despite vigorous opposition from environmentalists, settled on 75 acres of Prince George's parkland just outside the Capital Beltway.
For 15 months, construction crews worked feverishly to erect the arena, which got its name when Pollin's wife, Irene, flying with her husband somewhere between Los Angeles and Dallas, blurted out, "How 'bout the Capital Centre?"
"You just named it, honey," the owner replied.
Capital Centre opened Dec. 2, 1973, with the Bullets beating the Seattle SuperSonics, 98-96 (Elvin Hayes blocked two shots in the last seconds to preserve the victory).
Almost immediately, the sports world took notice. The new arena boasted state-of-the-art features, including computerized ticketing, skyboxes and a four-sided Telscreen that flashed replays and video segments.
"Part of the fun of beating teams was sitting and watching yourself on the replays -- and, of course, the cheerleaders," Unseld said. "We had the best arena in the world, and it meant that we had to have the best team in the world."
Capital Centre was not only a boost for the Bullets but for Prince George's, which was then a predominantly white farming community at the beginning of its historic demographic shift. At the time, the county was perhaps best known nationally as the place where Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot.
"It was the first thing that said we were no longer redneckville," said John Lally, a lawyer who grew up in Prince George's. "Finally, we had something that other people wanted."
Michael Arrington, a lobbyist who also grew up in the county, said that before the arena's opening, the most scintillating place to take a date on a Friday night was a Roy Rogers.
Now there were rodeos and ice skating shows, circus elephants, presidential inaugural galas and lots and lots of truck and tractor pulls. Frank Sinatra performed at Capital Centre, along with Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley, who lumbered around the stage in his famous white jumpsuit.
While a student at the University of Maryland, Arrington got a job as a security guard at the arena, where he sometimes found himself backstage protecting the likes of Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire and the Jackson 5.
"To think this was all going on six miles from where I grew up, it was incredible," Arrington said.
If the entertainers brought the glitz, basketball and hockey were the arena's bread and butter. The courtside crowd at Bullets games was Washington's version of L.A. Lakers-style glamour. Instead of Jack Nicholson, it was senators and congressmen, and maybe a president now and then (Jimmy Carter popped in for a Bullets-Atlanta Hawks game when he was president; Pollin declined to give him his aisle seat).
The arena's most infamous regular during those years may also have been its most irritating: Robin Ficker, a local gadfly lawyer who from his seat behind the visiting team's bench made it his purpose to taunt the opposing players from the game's first moment to its last.
Ficker read aloud, for example, from an unflattering biography of Michael Jordan while the Chicago Bulls star shot free throws. Charles Barkley, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, showed his appreciation for Ficker's antics by dousing him with Gatorade.
"I was always right there in the middle of the action," said Ficker, a season ticket holder who stopped attending games when the team assigned him a seat far from the court at the new MCI Center. "There was a lot of history there, and I was part of a good bit of it."
The hockey team also supplied a parade of memorable -- and forgettable -- moments, and Ray Krasnick, 73, a season ticket holder for 13 years, saw them all. He was there during the early years when the Capitals were so bad, he said, "we'd cheer when they completed a pass."
Krasnick was also there when the team grew strong enough to force the New York Islanders to four overtimes in a 1987 playoff game. And he was there nine years after that, when the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in another spellbinding four-overtime game.
"They ran out of beer, there was nothing left to eat, and we didn't get home until 2 or 3 in the morning," Krasnick said. "What a night."
Pollin cites those games as among the arena's most memorable moments, as well as the year that the Bullets captured the NBA crown. But he said the most important night was in 1983 when it hosted a gathering of 20,000 Holocaust survivors, and President Ronald Reagan gave the keynote address.
"There were people walking around with their name tags, and someone would say, 'I think you're a cousin of mine,' and they would hug -- it was incredible," Pollin said.
Although the arena drew large crowds throughout its existence, Pollin was known to complain that it wasn't earning enough money. In 1993, he changed the name to US Airways to generate an extra $1 million in annual revenue. Then came the opportunity to move his teams to the District -- the place he had wanted to be at the beginning -- and he took it.
Pollin said he's pleased that he's not leaving Prince George's "a white elephant." Where the arena once stood, there will be a 460,000-square-foot mall, with a Borders bookstore, clothing shops and perhaps a movie theater.
"I've kept my word," Pollin said. "I always keep my word."
Arrington, too, welcomes the changes. But he'll miss seeing that potato chip of a roof appearing out of nowhere as he drives along the Beltway, triggering a flood of memories.
"It's one of those things that gives you a sense of place," he said. "It's always sad when one of those things are gone."