There are noteworthy indoor sports venues: Madison Square Garden, Staples Center, United Center, and more. The USAir Arena will not be remembered in the collective of these greats, but for local sports fans, it was our home.
The USAir Arena was first erected as the Capital Centre in 1973 on a stretch of land in Landover, MD. Landover, MD, while currently nurturing the hustle of FedEx Field, was several decades ago a relatively forgotten place of Prince George’s County. The predominately black town had no Metro access and only the hangout magnet, Landover Mall, as a draw.
Beginning in 1973, the Capital Centre was home to several local major sports teams, including the Washington Bullets, Washington Capitals, and Georgetown Hoyas. The venue also hosted other events including minor league sports events, college basketball tournaments, and high school sporting events.
For most people of my generation, the Capital Centre was the place they experienced their first major sporting event. During the early 90s, every major sports team that called the Capital Centre its home was struggling with the exception of the Hoyas. To that end, tickets prices were abysmally low. I recall my family being practically handed tickets to basketball and hockey games nearly everywhere they went – the work place, fast food restaurants, church, the school guidance counselor’s office, and so on.
The layout of the USAir Arena was a strange one. On the exterior, the roof of the arena had a concave shape, sloping sharply in the middle. Inside, there was a large, open concourse. The stairs were covered on their edges with a gummy substance. The ushers, clad in red sports jackets and black pants, patrolled each section, but didn’t seem to care too much about patrons shifting seats throughout the game. Our plan was always the same: buy $10 nosebleed seats, scope out a sparse area each quarter, and move down during timeouts. We’d be practically on the bench by the end of the game.
One oddly outstanding aspect of the Capital Centre was its lighting. Several NBA players complained that it was simply too dark. Not intentionally dark like the Great Western Forum, but rather poor design dark. I recall watching games when I was younger thinking, why doesn’t our floor look like anyone else’s? What’s going on?
My favorite memory of the USAir Arena was the Bullets hosting playoff series games against the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in 1998. I was living less than five miles from the Arena during the series and the entire area was electric. While improbable, Bullets fans hung their hope on the idea that a young, athletic team would topple the Goliath Bulls.
The Bullets would go on to get swept in the series, but the games went a long way in restoring pride in a team that the area had largely ignored for so many years. Acting as perhaps his own harbinger, Michael Jordan expressed his admiration for the Bullets in a post-game interview at the close of the series.
One lowlight would come on December 7, 1996 when my friend and I attended a Bullets home game against the Milwaukee Bucks. As usual, we descended from the cheap seats to courtside over the course of the game.
I remember Glenn Robinson and Vin Baker being unstoppable in that game. Neither Chris Webber nor Juwan Howard could stop them anywhere near the paint. That night, Robinson and Baker combined for 80 points, shooting nearly 70% from the floor. When the game was firmly out of reach, my friend and I looked around at the seats just outside the perimeter of the floor and noticed lots of people jeering – as though we’d been owed something for taking advantage of cheap tickets and lax security. As the clock wound down to less than thirty seconds, Juwan Howard ended up with the ball in his hands. Even though a comeback was improbable, the crowd starting cheering for him to launch what was probably a 40 foot shot. Reasonably, he dribbled out the clock, but the crowd looking for Globetrotter-like theatrics, wasn’t having any of that shit.
They booed him. My friend and I laughed. But then we felt kind of bad. What the hell were we doing?
The Bullets broke down during the 1997-1998 season, departing USAir Arena for the new MCI Center located in Downtown Washington, DC. Having spent so much of my life attending games at the USAir Arena, the MCI seemed lavish when I first attended a game there. My beloved team now called home a place with a modern design, great lighting, and (unfortunately) a security staff that cared enough to check your tickets stubs regularly. There was no more cheating the system. You had to pay for the good views.
I’ll remember the good stuff. The stuff that outsiders wouldn’t understand. I’ll remember Hoyas stuff: Alonzo Mourning effortlessly pulling off reverse slams in traffic; Allen Iverson and Victor Page scoring at will, and Brendan Gaughan (now of race car fame) getting pulled off the bench during a blowout and scoring to the crowd’s delight. And the Georgetown pep band. The Arena made the drums sound so crisp.
I’ll remember Capitals stuff. I’d never thought twice about hockey before going to my first Caps game. I’ll remember Dale Hunter, Adam Oates, and Peter Bondra take the ice, players slamming into the glass, and how fast-paced the game was. I maintain that hockey is the most exciting spectator sport.
And of course I’ll remember Bullets stuff. The innumerable memories. The memories of Jim McIlvaine scoring his career high (capped off by a dunk after which he fell on his knees), the Tastycake Jr. Bullets, Hoops (Hoops!) and his dusty costume, and the wins. We really cherished wins.
I miss home.