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Downtown Washington Unveils Its Newest Monument

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 1997; Page B4

Five hours before the first game at MCI Center, workers scurried to prepare the arena for its first patrons. On a massive scale, the scene yesterday inside the center was like a new homeowner straightening and dusting the furniture before guests arrived. Men riding forklifts moved huge crates while others drilled, mopped, scrubbed and vacuumed to get the giant facility fit for a president.

President Clinton was due to arrive before the festivities to inaugurate the center with a basketball game between the Washington Wizards and Seattle SuperSonics. Everyone bent to the task of preparing and, despite necessary haste, virtually everyone appeared upbeat. "I don't see anybody with a grimace on his face," said John Stranix, who as president of the D.C. Arena Limited Partnership has been under the arena's roof most of the time since there's been a roof. "Everybody seems enamored of the building."

But for most, there was no time to sit and admire the modern splendor. The indoor seating bowl was like a big blue beehive of activity, with workers doing a final cleanup around the edges of the hardwood basketball floor, already glistening. Out on the concourses, various shops and stands were coming to life for the first time. White "Inaugural Game" shirts, being put on display carefully with all sorts of other apparel at one of the venues called "The Home Stand," would sell for $20.

Amid the workers with hammers and drills, extension cords and cleaning utensils came others bearing enough food for a Roman feast. Two wheeled in tubs of lettuce so high they barely cleared a ceiling exit sign, while a man practically filled a freight elevator with a mammoth bag of popcorn. Another worker squeezed in next to him with a tray of tools.

All the TVs worked inside the plush suites, scores of them around the arena giving off an electronic glow. The scoreboard flashed on, suggesting that the home team would be granted a fresh start after a shaky beginning to its season: Wizards 0, Sonics 0. The fire alarm sounded; it went off by mistake, reportedly activated by cooking in the Velocity Grill. But the malfunction served as reassurance because, looking for the nearest way out, one realized that even with a full house, exits were close and accessible.

The multifloored Velocity Grill was done up in basketball and hockey decor, but subtly. Blond wall panels, for instance, were the exact size of basketball backboards, and they were bolted into place on their four corners with what looked to be black hockey pucks. Much of the seating, the chairs and bar stools, felt like the covering on a basketball. You could look through the glass floor and see the Wizards' practice court except on this night it was filled with tables for an opening-night party.

A woman, one of the workers on the second level, broke the quiet hum of activity by singing the national anthem. Now she can say she sang the anthem at MCI Center, even if it was only about 4:30 p.m., which she needn't mention. She finished up with good high notes and arms outstretched, and drew a smattering of applause from TV crews setting up their cameras at courtside.

At 5 p.m., Abe Pollin walked proudly through the almost-ready MCI Center. The owner of the building, as well as of the Wizards and the Washington Capitals, looked around and liked what he saw. He seemed as emotional as he's ever been, and he admitted to it.

"I feel terrific, absolutely terrific," he said. "After planning this for five years, and helping design it, and helping to keep it going, and getting all the permissions, from the federal government and the local government, then for it to come out like this it's more beautiful than I ever imagined it would be.

"I'm thankful to the Lord. I'm thankful to the architects, the designers, the builders. It's unbelievable. It's spectacular."

Waiters in black tie stood ready in the Capital Club, a restaurant overlooking the court, while many police officers toured the building to get acquainted with all its crannies. The Secret Service already was in place in great numbers, awaiting the president. "I think everything has gone extremely well considering the pressures of opening night and the president's visit," said Stranix. "All we need now is people."

At 5:45, there would be people. Pollin and his wife, Irene, greeted a large crowd on F Street and then cut a huge red ribbon that was draped across the front of the building, signaling a new beginning.

The only thing that prevented a wholesale crush at the entrances was the need for spectators to pass through metal detectors because of the president's impending arrival.

People streamed into the lobby, scanning the gleaming area with approval. This conversation took place between two men in the vicinity of a fabulously stocked bar called "The Thirst Amendment":

"Are you drinking tonight?"

"No drinking tonight," came the jocular reply. "I gotta drive the Metro home."

Metro was the best way to come and go, said any number emerging from the new entrance at Seventh and F streets, with its multicolored balloons to mark the occasion. A band played on F Street across from the entrance, which had a red carpet rolled to the curb. Pollin thanked the crowd inside as he had outside, reiterating how fortunate he felt to see the arena completed.

The president, in the minutes before the 8:10 p.m. tip-off, took up residence in Pollin's suite. There, he waved to the crowd and signed an autograph. Pollin, from mid-court, thanked the president for coming, and Clinton was welcomed with a standing ovation and only a smattering of boos.

NBA Commissioner David Stern then was credited with an assist for handing a basketball to Pollin, who took it to mid-court, where he was joined by Terry Davis of the Wizards and Vin Baker of the Sonics. Pollin made the honorary first toss into the air, and moments later the owner's dream came true: His team was playing ball in downtown Washington.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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