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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Philadelphia's Spectrum: They Can Tear Down a Building, But Not My Memories

I note with some measure of sadness that an increasing number of facilities where I spent my childhood in Philadelphia watching sports are gone -- Convention Hall, Connie Mack Stadium, Veterans Stadium and Temple Stadium. Pretty soon, the Spectrum will be gone. I never made it to JFK for an Army-Navy game, although that's long gone. I did make it to Franklin Field, Penn's home, for Eagles', Penn and Temple games. The wrecking ball started its work on the Spectrum today.

The Spectrum was the stage for many of my sports memories, a place where I went many times with my father, who has been dead for 25 years. We had tickets for a basketball doubleheader (yes, the NBA hosted those back in the day) at the Spectrum for the night the roof blew off it in the late 1960's. Two basketball games for the price of one. And the price of one was probably under $10. Sure, you had to deal with the smoke in the arena that would create a fog near the ceiling, but who cared? You were going to see Wilt, Luke Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer and Wali Jones. What could be so bad? And then perhaps Cincinnati was in with Oscar Robertson, the Lakers with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor (pre-Wilt), at a time when the league didn't have too many teams, the players weren't major celebrities and the post-season money mattered.

I saw Wilt Chamberlain play in that arena, went into the locker room after a game (most of us love our dads, and my father had some connections that made him seem like Santa Claus), met him. I attended NBA playoff games there, at a time when the All-Star game, while a big deal, didn't draw NBA players to that game the way it did to other teams' playoff games. Name an NBA great from that vintage, and I saw him -- Clyde, Earl the Pearl, Baylor, West, the Big O (okay, so all of the names that Kurtis Blow raps about in his wonderful rap, "Basketball"). Great players, great basketball. I sat in front of one-time Warriors owner and Negro Leagues promoter Eddie Gottlieb, who was usually there with his good friend Jules Trumper, who had played for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (the SPHAs of whom people my father's generation spoke of with great reference). Even as a septuagenarian, Trumper boasted about his foul-shooting ability. It was a great time for the NBA, with big names, few teams, and repeat performances. And, the thing of it was, those rivalries were intense. The players defined themselves much more by wins, losses and championships than salary and endorsements. It's not that those things don't matter today. It's just that, looking back, they seemed to matter more then.

We also endured the horrid 1972-1973 season, when the 76ers ownership found a little-known coach named Roy Rubin and had players who were mostly suited for reserve roles for other teams (save guard Fred "Mad Dog" Carter, who came to Philadelphia in a trade with Baltimore for the headband-wearing Archie Clark). Rubin soon went back to obscurity, and the curse of Wilt, minor in proportion to the Curse of the Bambino, lingered. It was hard to watch. I could only imagine what it must have been like to have been a player.

Then the 76ers' acquired George McGinnis as a free agent from the ABA, and while Bill Simmons is wont to point out McGinnis's flaws, he was a big name, and he began a turnaround in Philadelphia around 1975 or so, a year before the 76ers acquired a forward from the Nets named Irving. McGinnis was traded to Denver for a well-skilled big forward named Bobby Jones, and the 76ers were onto something. They had their trials in the late 1970's and early 1980's, but the 1982-1983 team had all the right pieces -- a dominant, willful center in Moses Malone, a star in small forward Dr. J, a lethal shooter in two guard Andrew "The Boston Strangler" Toney, a cool-as-a-cucumber point guard in Maurice Cheeks, and a do-it-all sixth man in Jones. They took on the era's dominant teams, the Celtics and Lakers -- and had one of the best seasons ever.

The times were different, then. You ran into people you knew, the world was smaller, and the refs more engaging. I recall one time I sat on the aisle in the second row behind the basket in friends' seats. The 76ers were playing the Celtics, whose center, Dave Cowens, was a fiery redhead who had a tendency to back in and throw an elbow or two. Earl Strom, a top referee, had a fun personality, and he was one of the two refs officiating the game. I kept shouting that Cowens was committing an offensive foul every time he backed in and turned his shoulder into an outmatched 76er. "C'mon Earl," I pleaded in my teenaged voice, "that's on offensive foul." (You see, some of us Philadelphia area natives are raised on basketball the way the English are raised on soccer). I shouted this several times in a row, as Cowens was having his way with my beloved team. Then, on the next play down, Cowens was whistled for a timeout on the floor. I'm talking with a friend when I hear, "Hey. Hey! What did you think of that?" I turned around, and saw Strom looking in my direction, standing near the baseline, probably not more than 15 feet from me. I pointed to myself, with a questioning look on my face, as if to say, "Me?" He nodded. "Yeah, you. What did you think of that call?" He asked with a smile. I smiled back, gave him the "thumbs up" sign, and said, "That's great. Thanks. Keep it up." He smiled back, bounced the ball a few times, and went back to the game.

Another time the 76ers were playing the Celtics in a playoff game, and the Celtics, true to their form, were pounding the 76ers. Tommy Heinsohn was coaching the Celtics, and the 76ers then rallied furiously to take the lead. A miffed Heinsohn called a timeout, and a weary Celtics' team walked back to its bench. The roar of the crowd was defeaning; it was hard to hear my father, who was standing next to me. Dave Zinkoff was the public address announcer, a legend, famous for his wit and his staccato voice. It was so loud that you couldn't hear him over the public address system, and Zinkoff had a sense of mischief to him. When it was time for the players to return to the floor, the crowd became quieter. Zinkoff then seized the moment, and said: "As I was tryiiiiiiiiiing to saaaaaaaaaaay, the Celtics call tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime." The second roar was even louder than the first, and it was as if the Zink was saying to Red Auerbach, Heinsohn and all the ghosts of Celtics past and present, "if I can help my (usually outmatched team, if not always by that much) help stick a dagger in you, I will." It was one of those "you had to be there" moments, but, if you were there, you couldn't help but feel your spine tingle. The Zink had great timing, and that was one of his best moments.

My Flyers' experience culminated in one big game, but if there was a big game for the Flyers' at the Spectrum, I was there, in the fifth row behind the home team's bench. We didn't go to the Flyers games much, if at all, and perhaps once or twice a friend took me with his parents' seats. Hockey wasn't big in my house, but for one day, it was.

The Flyers' franchise began in the 1966-1967 season, and 7 years later, the Broad Street Bullies (whose tactics today would cause half the team to get major suspensions) were in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman, Ken Hodge and Gerry Cheever. A friend of my father's couldn't go to Game 6, and he sold his two tickets to my dad for face value -- $24 total. That's right -- $24 (okay, so Peter Minuet bought Manhattan for that amount way back when, but for a 13 year-old boy, going to a final game was, at least in Philadelphia parlance, like purchasing Manhattan).

The Spectrum was electric. Here were the upstart Flyers playing against one of the original six teams -- Bobby Orr's and Phil Esposito's team, of all teams. And here they were, up 3 games to 2, with a chance to win the most beautiful trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup. The Flyers had Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent, their marquis names at center and goalie, and they also had stars in Rick MacLeish, Bill Barber, Barry Ashbee, among others. They had their bullies, too, whose skills with their fists got more attention than their teammates' hockey skills. The Flyers had a Fearsome Foursome of their own -- Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, Bob "The Hound" Kelly, Don "Big Bird" Saleski and Andre "Moose" DuPont. They hit hard, and they weren't to be trifled with (at least until the Canadiens solved their riddle for good two seasons later).

Several minutes before game time, the Spectrum went dark. Could it be? Would it be? Yes, Kate Smith was coming out on a red carpet to sing "God Bless America." Years earlier, one of the P.R. guys had played a recording of Smith before a game, and the Flyers won. They kept on playing it, and the team won 90% of its games when they played the song. So here was Smith, and the place went nuts. She sang the song with great vigor, and, in a touch of class, Orr went up to her afterwards to greet her, and Esposito, ever the showman, kissed her hand.

The game turned out not to be slugfest, but a closely played chess match. The Flyers won, 1-0, and as the clock ticked down, the Spectrum roared. The Flyers -- the team that feared no one -- did it! I haven't been in many arenas when my team has won the title, but it's a special feeling. The place gets electric, and no Philadelphia venue has been more electric since than the Spectrum on that special day. (As a footnote, I grabbed a water bottle sitting on the bench near Saleski as the players headed for the ice).

I pulled out my collection of ticket stubs the other day to share with my ten year-old son. He thought it was cool that I had been at that game, and thought it equally amazing as to how inexpensive the tickets were. $12 for a seat that close? Cool. At that point, I could only think of my father, how excited he was to get those tickets, and, while he wasn't a hockey fan, he was happy to have done something nice for me, happy to see my excitement, excited to see the game through my eyes. He was great at getting good seats -- to that game, to the two Final Fours held in Philadelphia -- and a fun guy to go to a game with. I've tried to emulate that with my son, trying to get him good seats, loving his joy, all the while trying not to spoil him. By the age of 10, he's been to a lot of good stuff.

It's not without some emotion that I write this particular entry, because of all of the heart and soul we poured out for 76ers' teams that sometimes turned into Charlie Brown to the Celtics' Lucy Van Pelt, that just couldn't get up that final hill. I take some solace that their failure was not as much because of their shortcomings, but because they were running into one of the all-time dynasties in the Russell-, then Cowens-, then Bird-led Celtics. It's easy to get a complex as a disappointment when your competition is perhaps the best ever. More importantly, I had many great moments with my father, including at the two Final Fours I mentioned, both won by Bob Knight's Indiana teams.

The first Final Four -- in 1976 -- was memorable because it was John Wooden's final season at UCLA (his 28th, I believe), Rutgers, led by Phil Sellers, Eddie Jordan and James Bailey -- was undefeated, as was Indiana, led by Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner. Michigan, led by Phil Hubbard and Ricky Green, was the "other" team in the tournament. In the semis, Indiana took care of UCLA (who had Richard Washington and Marques Johnson, and Philadelphia native Andre McCarter), while Michigan pasted Rutgers. In the final, Michigan led at the half, and then Indiana put on the afterburners. Bob Knight won his first national title. Five years later, Indiana beat North Carolina on the day that John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, and a point guard from Chicago led the way. His name? Isiah Thomas. Final Fours are now played in cavernous indoor arenas more constructed for football than anything else, and in places that aren't basketball hotbeds. The tournament belongs in Philadelphia, which has six D-I college hoops teams, the Big Five, and a rich tradition. It also belongs in an intimate arena, where the tension remains and doesn't rise up to someone in a seat hundreds of feet away. That was the Spectrum -- a great venue for a Final Four.

And, so, it's time to say goodbye. I probably said goodbye years ago, and perhaps my last event there was a "Barney Live" concert over a decade ago as a reward to my then 2+ year-old daughter for being good right after my son was born. I don't think I've been back there since. The Wells Fargo Center, nee the CoreStates Center, later the First Union Center, then the Wachovia Center, has been home to more recent memories (and I'm grateful, as is many a 76er fan, that the Bank of Boston didn't take over CoreStates in the 90's, causing the place to be called -- horror of horrors in Philadelphia -- the Bank of Boston Center). But still, if there's finality to be had, nothing is more blunt than a wrecking ball to cause it. The wrecking ball reminds us that progress is inevitable, that these structures have useful lives, that the underlying real estate is worth more than preserving an out-of-date arena for the benefit of the memories of a shrinking group of people, and that, well, the structures don't matter all that much when compared to the people who played there and those who went there to watch.

But the beauty of the wrecking ball is what lies in what it does not, cannot, and must not represent. While the wrecking ball can be the gateway to progress, innovation and evolution, it's also a reminder that if we do it right -- as a society and group of fans -- it will not destroy the rich tapestry woven over the years of Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Finals, Final Fours, concerts and all of the other wonderful things that took place inside. The value of that tapestry, and the wealth that it creates, resides not in a museum or Hall of Fame, but inside the strongest vaults known to man, the best theaters ever constructed -- our hearts and our minds. Our minds can forever replay the shared experiences that we had in those places, and our hearts remind us constantly of all sorts of emotions, wonderful, rich, complex emotions, of eras gone by, cherished competitors of yesterday, and of loved ones missed.

I will recall with great fondness the Spectrum and everything that it represented to a passionate city and to a little boy and young man for whom it displayed commitment, passion, excellence and wonder. Those are great things for a young man to witness, and warm items that help comprise the foundation of a middle-aged man with much to be thankful for, and much to look forward to.

The building may be going.

The memories will never die.


Blogger Roy said...

I wish I could have been at the Stanley Cup final, or any of the sixers games you saw. Still, I was at the 76 Final Four semis and I remembered (confirmed by wikipedia) that Gene Bartow was already the UCLA coach. I was a big Rutgers fan that year and they did indeed get pasted.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

WOW what a GREAT article, CHILLS are literally running thru my body. The Spectrum is and always will be the only stadium that was worth keeping

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Dot said...

You captured it all. An absolutely beautiful, heartfelt reminiscence that tugs at the heart strings of us all! We will never forget the great times we all had at the Spectrum.

9:56 PM  

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