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UCLA basketball to make Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena its temporary home

It is where John F. Kennedy won the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination and where basketball once ruled — the Lakers, Clippers, Bruins and Trojans all called it home for a time. The NHL’s Kings did too. And it once was a rock cathedral Bruce Springsteen hailed as “the joint that don’t disappoint.”

Yet even as the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena moves inexorably toward demolition, its oblong roofline still framed by that blazing candy-green ribbon of light, UCLA basketball will soon be back inside its doors.

School officials are expected to announce as early as Friday that the Bruins will play a majority of their home games at the Sports Arena next season while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated. In addition, a sprinkling of games is expected to be played at Honda Center with one exhibition game at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

Steve Kundar, a UCLA basketball season ticket-holder for more than 20 years who also once had partial season tickets for the Clippers, said he isn’t looking forward to returning to the Sports Arena.

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“Being a Bruin and a lifelong Angeleno, it’s not the best area,” Kundar said. “I have a son and it’s not the best place for kids at night. It’s just not as welcoming.”

Nevertheless, Kundar said he planned to attend a “fair amount of games.” He just hopes UCLA provides transportation for students to help the Bruins maintain a home-court advantage.

Although getting the Bruins would temporarily revive the Sports Arena, it could also be the building’s last hurrah.

Built in 1959 at a cost of $8.3 million, the Sports Arena and the 15 acres of Exposition Park around it have been the focus of an environmental impact report that greenlights alternative uses that would reduce the building to rubble.

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A 22,000-seat soccer stadium, a relocated NFL team’s practice facility and an outdoor concert/festival venue are among the possibilities for the corner of Figueroa Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just south of the Coliseum.

“The EIR doesn’t mean a wrecking ball is coming to the place tomorrow,” Jon Lee, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission spokesman, said. “But it articulates options. The commission wanted to be forward-thinking on this. It’s a license to act, a nice thing to have on the shelf.”

Among those paying attention are Chivas USA, the MLS franchise seeking to escape its kid-brother status to the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

“It’s something we’re aware of,” Chivas USA spokesman David Lindholm said. “We know it’s important for our organization to have our own home and own stadium, for our own identity.”

Coliseum commissioner Barry Sanders has pushed for a multiple-use space to replace the arena, capable of staging outdoor concerts, parades or rallies.

David Israel, another coliseum commissioner, opposes both ideas, chiding that a large soccer stadium or concert venue in a spot not too far removed from L.A. Live, the Hollywood Bowl and Greek Theatre wouldn’t be as wise as constructing an NFL practice facility with public amenities for a team should one relocate to the proposed downtown stadium.

A spokesman for stadium developer AEG said an NFL practice venue has “yet to be discussed” and will “be the team’s choice.”

The 16,000-seat Sports Arena, which opened with a boxing match, has “become increasingly underutilized,” according to a report by the commission.

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Indeed, a blackboard hanging inside the arena’s drafty, popcorn-ceilinged hallways reveal how desperate for attractions the building has become.

One March event was the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s academic decathlon, while May boasts a second-tier mixed martial arts fight card pitting law enforcement officers vs. ex-criminals, “Cage vs. Cons.” And former “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell was here last month to stage nationwide auditions for his upcoming show, “The X Factor.”

“It’s sad,” said Margaret Farnum, Coliseum historian and former assistant general manager, standing outside the arena’s faded-gray side panels and blue block walls. “The original arena was a modern-day work of art, one of the most versatile ever made. There’s hardly anything that goes into an arena that hasn’t been here.

“And it kind of gives you goose bumps when you realize who was in here.”

When Councilman Kenneth Hahn in 1954 made a motion to build the Sports Arena with $4 million in bonds to be repaid over 20 years, he made civic pride a cornerstone of the pitch.

“The auditorium can be used not only for sports ... [but] every conceivable large gathering,” Hahn said at the time.

“Dad was very proud of it,” City Councilwoman Janice Hahn said. “And I can remember going to the Sports Arena to see the Lakers, the Harlem Globetrotters, in a Pepperdine camp — it was widely used by the community.”

Closed up more often than not these days, the dark, empty aisles produce an eerie chill even on a warm day. The air is stale, much like a summer resort that has been closed up tight for the winter, while the absolute silence in a place where crowds 16,000-strong once were routine is a bit like visiting a dying aunt in a nursing home.

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That is a far cry from its opening night, when Richard M. Nixon — the current vice president and former California senator — was the guest of honor.

Lakers great Elgin Baylor said the Sports Arena was a dramatic upgrade for the team.

“It was a Mecca, and everywhere else we played in the league were dumps by comparison,” Baylor said. “Philly, Madison Square Garden, Chicago Stadium, the Boston Garden — the lighting was poor at all those places, there were dead spots on the floor. There was no place like the Sports Arena.”

In 1962, the peak of its heyday, 2 million people came through the turnstiles. Now, with the lights off and no sports floor following USC’s departure to the Galen Center in 2006, the arena is reduced mostly to memories, though getting the Bruins back will revive the building to some extent.

According to the EIR, a total of 107,366 attended 28 events there in 2009. The arena has suffered annual losses between $750,000 and $900,000 in each of the last five fiscal years. Additionally, $8.2 million is needed to replace or remodel the seating, the heating/air conditioning system, restrooms, plumbing and concessions.

“Go ahead, take a seat,” Farnum directs a visitor. “Feel the leather? Aren’t they comfortable? They’re more comfortable than the seats in Staples.”

That’s the charm of the Sports Arena, that city leaders more than 50 years ago wanted so passionately to build a signature venue that would match the ambitious metropolis that Los Angeles was becoming.

Unobstructed sight lines, technology to convert a court to ice, event managers who entertained the masses with circuses, ice shows, roller derby and concerts featuring the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Pink Floyd, The Who, Van Halen, The Police, David Bowie, U2, Michael Jackson and Madonna — it was all there.

And there were sports victories. UCLA claimed a couple of national titles during its 1959-65 stay at the arena, then returned to win the 1968 and 1972 Final Fours staged there. The 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team won nine gold medals there.

But the Clippers, who called it home from Nov. 1, 1984, until they moved to Staples Center in 1999, were dreadful. And Farnum recalled being told after a near-USC conference title in the early 1960s, “Just wait till next year,” with the elusive championship never coming at the time of the Trojans’ exit.

Even the architect found his aim a bit off, designating the “main entrance” as the glass doors facing Figueroa and the 110 Freeway to be accessed by pedestrians over a foot bridge above a nice garden. This being L.A., however, everyone drove in, leaving the dominant crowd flow to enter from the back doors where the parking was.

“It’s a lovely entrance, though, isn’t it?” Farnum asked, continuing her tour under water-stained ceilings, old-school white marble drinking fountains and advertising signs for Lite Beer and Starbucks showing bottles and coffee cups in decade-old packaging.

Yet, Muhammad Ali fought here. John Wooden coached here. And Martin Luther King Jr. spoke here.

How long the Sports Arena will remain standing after the Bruins return to Pauley is unclear. Coliseum commission representatives privately say they’re only an investor’s phone call away from moving toward something new now that traffic, noise, construction activity and other public concerns have been addressed in the EIR.

Sentimental feelings may help the arena go out with a few more big events.

Perhaps it’ll be another championship season for the Bruins.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

On the bottom of a bronze frame from the arena’s dedication is this line from writer Grantland Rice: “When the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimespugmire

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this report.


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