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20 years of Landover memories


Close to 5,000 events, that's what close to 50 million people have witnessed at the Capital Centre/USAir Arena during the past 20 years. Not bad for a deep, dark hole in the ground in the wilds of outermost Prince George's County, not bad at all.

At this point, a guy who has been on hand for about a thousand of those games, exhibitions, matches, competitions, concerts, shows, tournaments and whatever should be slightly dewy-eyed thinking about Opening Night, Dec. 2, 1973.

Uh-uh. The Washington Bullets' 98-96 victory over the Seattle Supersonics, which will be replayed tomorrow night right down to early 1970s uniforms being worn, somehow passed without a memorable moment. Check that, bad traffic jam afterward.

Since, however, things that occurred years ago seem as clear as if they had happened this morning. Olga Korbut, for instance. The Russian gymnast had been the star of the 1972 Olympics in Munich and, despite the fact it was more than a year later, her appearance at the Cap Centre send chills up your spine.

Picture it: they douse the lights and, suddenly, the well-known ABC Olympic theme blares forth. A single spotlight shoots down to the floor and catches just a little girl's face. It moves back and she launches into her famed uneven bars exercise. Nirvanna.

Then there was the night, at the World Pro Figure Skating Championships, 1980 Olympic gold medalist Robin Cousins of England skated two magnificent routines for a combined score of 99.8 (out of 100). American Scott Hamilton already had a 50, but now the 1984 gold medalist had to be almost perfect again to tie. He came out dressed as Yankee Doodle Dandy. Guess who scored a second 50 and took top prize?

Among the 878 Bullets games that have been conducted on the premises, not one and not one series stands out as much as the team's dramatic run to the NBA championship in 1978. The club had finished just 44-38 during the regular season, which dictated that after the opening round, it didn't have the luxury of homecourt advantage. Regardless, the Bullets beat San Antonio and Philadelphia in six games, then won the title with a victory in Seattle in Game 7.

As much as the play, the noise sticks in the mind. It was scary and a definite threat to one's future ability to hear. Makes one wonder how kids are able to withstand the rigors of concert-going well into adolescence.

Close behind the Bullets in number of appearances are the hockey Capitals with 819 games, one of which went four overtimes and didn't end until 2 o'clock in the morning of Easter Sunday, 1987. The Caps lost that seventh and deciding game of a playoff series with the Islanders, though, so Dale Hunter's overtime goal eliminating the Flyers from the playoffs two years later remains clearer in detail.

Muhammad Ali had heavyweight title fights in the building twice, actually losing one (to Jimmy Young), but you know how specious fight-judging can be. The guy who did even better than the inimitable Ali packing the boxing crowd in was local hero Sugar Ray Leonard. Amazingly, he never had a title fight at Cap Centre.

Almost from Day 1, people were in a quandary as to why the ceiling and walls of the arena were painted black and the near 20,000 seats are upholstered in blue and red. It has been explained that to focus on the show, the arena should be dark to further emphasize the "light" of the stage. After two decades, owner Abe Pollin is threatening to rectify the situation.

Which will be none too soon for Glen Sather, who for years likened the "Big Saddle" on the Washington Beltway to the "Black Hole of Calcutta" when he used to bring Wayne Gretzky and his champion Edmonton Oilers to town.

Actually, NBA teams didn't enjoy their stay in rural Maryland either, not because they couldn't beat the Bullets but because of the style of play they usually ran into. Wes Unseld begat Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland, remember, assuring a rough, physical game was the order of the day for seasons. "Tag team wrestling," former Boston Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn used to call it.

The huge four-way Telscreen over the center of the court or ice was a grand innovation when the building opened. Arena football and box lacrosse were fun for a while. Torvill & Dean skating "Bolero" left your knees weak. Nadia Comaneci, even out of season, whacked out a 10 on floor exercise. Georgetown-Syracuse basketball games used to make Hulk Hogan and the World Wrestling Federation look like a lawn party.

The ACC hoops tourney was memorable in that Maryland beat Duke in overtime in the first round (things were different then) and Virginia won it all from Carolina. As I said, things were different then.

Amid much political controversy, the building went from a hole in the ground to Opening Night in just 15 months. And, as Pollin recalls, "We didn't get the final OK to open until 10:30 that morning."

A lot of P.G. County people were against it, particularly since federal park land was involved, but that was $52 million in tax revenue ago and everyone seems happy with the place now.

Maybe something along the lines of a nice puce for the ceiling and walls, Abe.

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