LEAVING IT ON EMPTY
USC says goodbye to the Sports Arena tonight, making it the latest -- and quite possibly the last -- sports tenant to leave for a better deal in a better place.
Few if any tears will be shed, it appears.
“I had nostalgia for Boston Garden,” said Pepperdine basketball Coach Paul Westphal, a former USC and Boston Celtic player. “The Sports Arena’s not in that category in my mind. You just had to do what you had to do and get out.”
Part of the reason the venue largely won’t be missed is that no home team has won a title in the 41 years since UCLA left for then-new Pauley Pavilion.
Indeed, even winning teams lost there. Consider the Los Angeles Sharks of the World Hockey Assn., who in 1972-73 earned the distinction of becoming the only pro hockey team to post a winning record while losing more games than it won at home.
That’s no surprise, considering that fans typically failed to fill the vast 16,161-seat arena and generate the kind of rollicking atmosphere that other professional and college teams enjoyed. In 13 USC home games this season, for example, the Trojans have averaged 3,680 fans, or only 22.8% of capacity.
“I think that would be stretching it a little bit to say that there was a major home-court advantage,” said Tim Floyd, the USC coach whose team will play Oregon State tonight in the last scheduled major sporting event in the arena before the Trojans move to the new Galen Center next season.
“It wasn’t that our people weren’t vocal, it’s just that it was a cavernous building where sound could get lost and people were so far removed from the court.”
Critics who would like to see the 46-year-old building and its turquoise-lighted facade razed may get their wish. If an NFL team returns to the Coliseum, the adjacent Sports Arena could be converted into a parking lot, said Pat Lynch, general manager of both facilities.
“I can’t say for certain that it will be leveled,” Lynch said. “We have to look at its significance and its contribution to the community. But the fact is, it’s a very old building not in great shape.”
In the meantime, the arena will continue to be used for Latin concerts, home buyers’ expos, academic decathlons and other events. Next month, the arena will play host to the City Section boys’ basketball championships and a Korean music show. Soon after, filming of the movie “Blades of Glory,” starring Will Ferrell, will commence.
“We’re actually busy all summer,” said Lynch, adding that the arena could continue to operate at a profit because it didn’t carry any debt. “Our event book is quite full.”
The venue was almost packed for its first event, as a crowd of 15,110 gathered on July 8, 1959 to watch Jose Becerra of Mexico score an eighth-round knockout of Alphonse Halimi of France to win the world bantamweight championship.
Former Times sports editor Paul Zimmerman noted in a commentary that the completion of the Sports Arena was “the final step toward making Los Angeles a major league sports community in every way.”
The building was considered revolutionary for its unobstructed views, efficient air conditioning and an icing process featuring refrigeration pipes that brought the arena floor to a freezing temperature for hockey games.
Bill Sharman recalls being impressed by the arena when he played the Lakers there during the 1960-61 NBA season, his last as a guard for the Boston Celtics.
“When we came out and played in the Sports Arena it was, wow, what a beautiful arena,” said Sharman, who would later coach the Stars of the American Basketball Assn. in the building. “It might have been the best one in the country at the time.”
USC’s basketball team, which for years had bounced between home facilities, including the Pan Pacific, Olympic and Shrine auditoriums, was thrilled to find a permanent home.
“When we got the Sports Arena,” former Trojan coach Bob Boyd recalled, “that was a big event.”
The first basketball played there was a nonconference game between USC and UCLA on Dec. 1, 1959. The Bruins secured a 47-45 victory before 6,880 on two late free throws by guard Bob Berry.
Perhaps the most anticipated game in the crosstown rivalry was played on Feb. 6, 1971, when a 16-0 USC team featuring Westphal played host to the four-time defending national champion Bruins, who had moved on to Pauley Pavilion after winning their first two titles as tenants in the Sports Arena, in 1964 and ’65.
“The place was rocking that night,” Westphal said. “For some reason, they sold a lot of tickets to UCLA people so it wasn’t quite as much a home court as it should have been. We had a lead and couldn’t hang on.”
UCLA defeated the Trojans, 64-60, in front of a then-record crowd of 15,307 and went on to its fifth consecutive national crown. USC finished 24-2, with both losses to UCLA.
Even then, Westphal said, the decline of the Sports Arena as a first-rate venue had already begun.
“Pretty much after the time UCLA built Pauley and the Lakers left [for the Forum], people started looking at the Sports Arena kind of silly,” he said. “The place just kind of got worse and worse over the years. Just lack of upkeep and continuing to modernize.”
The facility underwent an $11-million renovation in 2001, but that was mostly to bring it up to current seismic standards. As far as the interior aesthetics go, not much has changed; even the original multicolored theater-style seats remain.
The Sports Arena hosted Final Fours in 1968 and ’72 -- both won by UCLA -- and served as the boxing venue for the 1984 Olympics. But since the Lakers and Bruins departed in the 1960s, no champions have called the building home.
The Stars advanced to the ABA championship series in 1970 before losing to the Indiana Pacers, four games to two. By the following season, the franchise was playing in Salt Lake City.
In 1988, the Arena Football League’s Cobras seemed to build some momentum in their debut season with crowds that eventually topped 10,000.
“Toward the end of the season, the fans weren’t just coming for the novelty of the game. They were actual fans into Arena football and who wanted us to win,” said Matt Stevens, the quarterback of that team. “It was deafening.”
It was also over after one season when the league suspended operations and the franchise folded.
The only regular Sports Arena tenant besides USC in the last decade was the dreadful Clippers, who rarely made the playoffs before moving into Staples Center.
When the final horn sounds tonight and -- barring a USC basketball home game in the National Invitation Tournament -- another chapter in the arena’s history ends, most involved will probably shrug and move on, like so many before them.
“It’s an arena that had its day,” Oregon State Coach Jay John said, “and its day has passed.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A look at the Sports Arena
* Cost: $7,407,644 at time of construction.
* Location: Exposition Park (Figueroa and Martin Luther King).
* Capacity: 16,161 for basketball.
* Dedication: Vice President Richard M. Nixon dedicated the Memorial Sports Arena on July 4, 1959, in “recognition of all who served their country in all wars.”
* First event: Bantamweight title fight on July 8, 1959, between Jose Becerra and Alphonse Halimi in front of 15,110.
* Retrofit: The facility underwent a seismic retrofit in 2001 at a cost of $11 million.
* Films: “Rocky I,” “Rocky II,” “Rocky III,” “Wayne’s World II,” “Mighty Ducks II,” “The Frank Sinatra Story,” “Escape From L.A.,” “Space Jam,” “Great White Hope,” “The Fan,” “Ali,” “Almost Famous,” “Rock Star,” “Forget Paris” and others.
* Television shows: “Full House,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Dragnet,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “The Wonder Years,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Baywatch,” “Arli$$,” others.
* Concerts: The Who, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Billy Joel, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Madonna, Kiss, James Brown, the Temptations, Van Halen, Ted Nugent, the Cars, Yes, the Police, Styx, Ozzy Osbourne, ZZ Top, J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, David Bowie, John Cougar Mellencamp, Scorpions, Prince, Michael Jackson, Neil Young, AC/DC, the Grateful Dead and others.
*--* Team/School (League) Years Reason Departed USC basketball (Pac-10) 1959-2006 Will move into Galen Center later this year. UCLA basketball (Pac-10) 1959-1965 Moved into Pauley Pavilion. Lakers (NBA) 1960-67 Moved into the Forum. Blades (WHL) 1961-67 Franchise folded. Kings (NHL) 1967 Moved into the Forum. Stars (ABA) 1968-70 Moved to Salt Lake City and became the Utah Stars. Sharks (WHA) 1972-1974 Moved to Detroit and became the Michigan Stags. Clippers (NBA) 1984-99 Moved into Staples Center. Cobras (AFL) 1988 Franchise folded. Ice Dogs (IHL) 1995-1996 Moved to the Long Beach Arena.