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Wednesday, December 11, 2002
Saying goodbye to a childhood friend

By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

Sunday, they blow up some of my childhood.

Elvin Hayes
Elvin Hayes's '78 champion Bullets are part of the Capital Centre's storied past.
There will be little lamentation.

The Capital Centre is doomed to the imploder's button, and few will take notice. Magic Johnson is developing another set of his Theatres as part of a new mall, right where so many of my memories lay.

There used to be a ballpark, right here ...

I don't expect many folks outside of the District to understand. The Bullets/Wizards and Caps have been colossal disappointments for a generation; I doubt that any other city has had more winter nights when the local sportscast led with both the NBA team and the NHL team losing. The Capital Centre didn't have the living history of the Gardens, Madison Square and Boston, or the old Chicago Stadium, or the Fabulous Forum, or the kitsch factor of places like the L.A. Sports Arena or HemisFair in San Antonio.

But it was home to many of the moments that showed me how beautiful sports could be, and how important it was to so many people. How important it was to me.

Understand, D.C. was just falling in love with the Redskins when I was a kid. And Skins tickets were gold. But the first time my dad took me to Landover (or Largo; both cities claimed the Centre), I walked in ... and I fell in love. In love with the building, which was shaped like a horse's saddle, and in love with basketball. I'd never seen blues as blue as the Knicks' road unis, and the white of the Bullets' home jerseys seemed blinding. The TelScreen, one of the first in-house replay screens, was enormous. Even the scoreboard seemed dynamic and fresh and exciting. Back then, believe it or not, the Bullets were contenders, and games meant something.

It was loud in the Cap Centre (no one with any dignity calls it USAir Arena, its last moniker) when Elvin Hayes hit a turnaround, or Nick Weatherspoon dropped in a baseliner, or Kevin Porter high-stepped his way down the floor. The PA guy was named Marv Brooks, and he was terrific; nothing beat his "Spoooooooon" call. The crowds were raucous and knowledgeable. One of the greatest sustained roars I ever heard came in 1978 during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals when the Bullets went on an 18-0 run to end the first half against the Sixers, and I began to truly believe Washington could win the whole thing. It was after that game that Dick Motta said," The opera ain't over 'til the Fat Lady sings," and then you started seeing fat guys in muumuus walking all over the place.

ALDRIDGE'S RANKINGS
THE TOP 10
1. Dallas
2. Sacramento
3. Philadelphia
4. Indiana
5. New Jersey
6. Detroit
7. San Antonio
8. Boston
9. New Orleans
10. Houston

THE BOTTOM FIVE
25. Denver
26. Golden State
27. Miami
28. Memphis
29. Cleveland

THE MIDDLE FOURTEEN
11. Seattle
12. Phoenix
13. Minnesota
14. Orlando
15. Portland
16. L.A. Lakers
17. Atlanta
18. Washington
19. Utah
20. Milwaukee
21. Toronto
22. L.A. Clippers
23. New York
24. Chicago

The Bullets won the '78 title in Seattle, but they defended it at the Centre. It was quite a time.

Sometimes, you could see things like the circus in other venues like the D.C. Armory, but for the most part in the '70s and '80s, anybody who came through town came through Abe Pollin's place. I saw Stevie Wonder and Barbra Streisand sing there, and saw the Ice Capades there, and watched one of the Capitals' eight victories in 1974 there, and saw a few graduations there, and took in Bill Clinton's Inaugural Party there, and just about every time, it seemed like a magical place.

But when I started covering the Bullets, I spent 41 nights a year there. And I realized that the old place was ... cold. And damp. And dark. And had rats running around the size of a hoagie. And that maybe it was a nice place to visit, but who would want to work there? Larry Bird and Chris Mullin hated shooting there because it was so dark, and they wouldn't put better lights in because they wanted a "theater feel" as they put it, but people began to suspect that they were just being cheap. And then Abe starting saying that maybe it was time for a new place, with luxury boxes. And to his credit, he didn't hold the city hostage and threaten to move if he didn't get what he wanted. He got some tax relief, sure, but he spent a lot of his own coin to build MCI Center. And he didn't build it in the suburbs -- he built it downtown, where it's been a lynchpin in the revitalization of the central city.

And soon, you could see things like the circus in other venues like the Cap Centre, but for the most part, anybody who came through town came through MCI Center.

So now, it's the Cap Centre's time. Buildings rise and they fall; no sense getting sentimental about concrete and glass. I will miss the old boy, though. It was a good ship.

Two-horse expansion race tightens
Robert Johnson's group has dramatically closed the gap with the Boston-based group led by businessman Steve Belkin in its bid to win NBA approval for the expansion franchise in Charlotte, with Monday's meeting of the expansion committee in New York looming. The five-man committee (Toronto's Roger Tanenbaum, Phoenix's Jerry Colangelo, Sacramento's Joe Maloof, New Jersey's Lewis Katz -- and, ironically, New Orleans' George Shinn), with some input from the Commish and Big Russ, will make a recommendation to the Board of Governors within 10 days or so of the presentations from the Johnson and Belkin groups.

Larry Bird
Larry Bird, right, will call Charlotte home if Steve Belkin's group wins the expansion bid.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, Belkin was the clear front-runner. But Johnson, the creator of Black Entertainment Television, won points with locals in Charlotte with a pledge to sell up to 40 percent of the team to local investors, and he's impressed NBA types with his deep, deep pockets, made deeper with his sale of BET to Viacom a couple of years ago for a couple billion. He cuts a very impressive figure, and make no mistake; the Commish would like it very much if the NBA continued to be a trailblazer among the pro sports leagues by breaking the glass ceiling of ownership with an African-American face. But some in Charlotte still have Larry Bird stars in their eyes; Bird, who would run the team as part of the Belkin group, has pledged to move to Charlotte if Belkin gets the bid.

Whoever gets the bid will have an additional financial burden to the $300-plus million sales price, at first. I'm told that the Commish will insist that the new owners also operate the WNBA's Sting, left without an owner when the Hornets left town. And the new NBA team will have to play in the Charlotte Coliseum for at least a year, starting in 2004-05, without suites and boxes, until the new building downtown is built.

Both groups, though, have impressed many around the league, and whichever one loses the Charlotte bid may be first in line for the next team that goes up for sale. Rumors continue to swirl that Chris Cohan may be entertaining bids for the Warriors, but nothing is concrete.

Around the League
Spurs are down on Tony Parker, who's struggling in his sophomore campaign. Too many 3-point shots and not enough defense. Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Stephon Marbury have taken turns roasting Parker this season. Marbury was 11-of-15 from the floor in the fourth quarter of Phoenix's come-from-behind victory over San Antonio two weeks ago. Even though the Spurs lead the league in field goal percentage allowed (.406 entering play Wednesday), their fourth-quarter numbers aren't nearly as foreboding as usual. At the other end, Parker is pulling the trigger way too much for a guy only shooting 41 percent from the floor. The Spurs really miss Speedy Claxton. .... Bucks want more out of Tim Thomas, who's been OK but not as consistent as they'd hoped. "Tim has to understand that we need him," Sam Cassell says. "He's talented enough that we don't have to spoon feed him. You've got to go get it, and I think he realizes that. Tim has to pick his times when he has to go. He has to get himself involved. That's what good players do. Only centers let the guards get them involved. You're a big guy, but you ain't a center. Chase the ball." ... Orlando's recent stumbles aren't about Tracy McGrady's defense, but the team's continued lack of interior presence, and the Magic know it. That's why talks with Memphis about Stromile Swift have started again, and Orlando wouldn't be loath to move Mike Miller now that Grant Hill is playing most nights, if not every night. One intriguing name: Portland's Zach Randolph.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.