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  MCI Center Opens Its Doors For Inaugural Game

By Thomas Heath and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 2, 1997; Page A01

After years of watching businesses and residents abandon the city and government revitalization efforts stall, Washington opens the doors today on a $200 million world-class sports arena that represents perhaps the biggest bet yet on downtown that any private individual has made on downtown in decades.

President Clinton and 20,000 fans will fill MCI Center to watch the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association take on the Seattle SuperSonics at 8:10 tonight. But from its birth four years ago as a discussion among businessmen over a conference table, the arena has been envisioned as more than a place to watch games.

It is designed to be a magnet for the suburbanites and tourists who have lost most other reasons to venture into this neighborhood after working hours just nine blocks east of the White House that was once the heart of Washington's commercial life. The city failed to land a sports venue the last time MCI Center and Wizards and Capitals owner Abe Pollin was shopping for sites in 1972, and let the Washington Redskins move to Prince George's County this year. Plans of such institutions as the Kennedy Center and the University of the District of Columbia to locate downtown never materialized.

MCI Center is the big one that didn't get away.

"It's one of the greatest accomplishments the District has ever had," said Ken Sparks, executive vice president of the Federal City Council and a key player in bringing the arena to fruition. "Both in attracting the teams to the town and showing we can do such a huge project in such a short time, I'm not sure any city has ever pulled something like this off in four years."

Construction crews were working late into the night to finish the task, which is the first major sports facility to be built in the city since Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium opened in 1961. Windows were washed so spectators could get a view of the National Portrait Gallery across Seventh and F streets, Northwest. Folding chairs from Tupelo, Miss., were unloaded and set up next to where the basketball court will be laid during the night. Boxes of nuts and bolts cluttered the aisle. Seats needed dusting. The giant scoreboard was polished.

The game was sold out late yesterday, but it will be televised on WUSA-TV-9 and TNT cable.

The game will cap off a full day of festivities, starting with free refreshments to Metro commuters at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station at 7:30 a.m. There will be ceremonies honoring everything from taxi cabs to the arena's National Sports Gallery, which is one of its high-profile attractions and includes a baseball bat used by baseball Hall of Famer Babe Ruth. All of today's events are open to the public, as might befit an edifice designed to be much more than a sports palace for season-ticket holders.

The arena will be open 365 days a year, with restaurants, shops and interactive exhibits. More than 200 days a year, it will present basketball, hockey, concerts, the circus and ice skating pageants.

The state-of-the-art public building also marks the realization of a private dream for Pollin, who spent more than $200 million on construction. The city put up nearly another $60 million preparing the site.

While the inside of the arena pulsed yesterday with the sounds of hammers and drills and fire alarms getting one last test, outside the neighborhood hummed in exciting anticipation for what merchants predicted will be an economic renaissance of the east end of downtown.

"It's going to be the difference between night and day," said Danny Callahan, co-owners of the Rock sports bar across Sixth Street from the arena. "The area's buzzing. People are changing their signage."

Callahan has more than doubled his staff and put in extra food-handling equipment in anticipation of arena crowds stopping in for a beer and a bite to eat. Other restaurateurs in the neighborhood had similarly high hopes.

Doors will open at 5:45 p.m. for the basketball game, which will begin five minutes later than previously scheduled to accommodate the evening's festivities. After tonight's inaugural, most games at the arena will start at 7 p.m.

"We're encouraging people to get there early," said Matt Williams, spokesman for the MCI Center. "There's so much stuff going on. They don't want to miss such a historic time."

The later starting time is a break for traffic planners, who are counting on half the fans to take Metro and the rest to be able to find parking within a 10-minute walk. Most commuters will be out of the area by game time — though President Clinton's scheduled attendance at the debut game could cause some delays.

Not everything was ready.

Some escalators were stopped for final checks. And some seats lacked their little metal number plates, and instead were marked with handwritten numbers on masking tape.

In the Velocity Grill sports restaurant, co-owner Geoffrey Dawson was on his hands and knees bolting in a sculpted brushed aluminum video stand for one of the dinner booths, while architect Kathleen Craig held the stand in place.

Craig helped devise the restaurant's elaborate encoded allusions to the sports world-the curve of the bar is the same as the turning radius of a Zamboni ice grooming machine; the seats are upholstered with Spaulding basketball skin; the shattered glass staircase is reminiscent of a shattered basketball backboard.

Even though work crews were completing tasks down to the wire, the MCI Center is opening with much less last-minute tension than the former Capital Centre, where the seats were still being bolted down until hours before game time on Dec. 2, 1973 (also against the SuperSonics).

Building inspectors issued permits for the MCI Center before the preview opening last month for thousands of season-ticket holders and VIP's, said Barry Silberman, president of Centre Management, Pollin's company.

"We are so confident about our readiness we could have played [last] Saturday night's game [against the Chicago Bulls] here," Silberman said. endcol

Staff Writer Beth Berselli contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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