Any story on Capital One Arena — home of the Washington Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, Valor, and Georgetown Hoyas, celebrating its 20th birthday on December 2 — must begin with Abe Pollin.
In a Washington Post article from December 2, 1997, reporters Thomas Heath and David Montgomery wrote, “After years of watching businesses and residents abandon the city and government revitalization efforts stall, Washington opens the doors today on a $200 million world-class sports arena that represents perhaps the biggest bet yet on downtown that any private individual has made on downtown in decades.”
The individual was Abe Pollin, owner of the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals, and the arena was the MCI Center, featuring a capacity of 20,500. Renamed the Verizon Center in 2006, it is now, as of October 5, Capital One Arena.
Pollin’s bet, which cost him over $200 million of his own money to privately build a public facility, paid off in spades. “It revitalized the city,” former Wizards coach and D.C. native Eddie Jordan told Michael Wilbon following Pollin’s death in 2009. “It raised the quality of life for Washingtonians.”
“Abe Pollin almost single-handedly revitalized the Gallery Place/Chinatown neighborhood,” said Mayor Adrian Fenty in a statement on Pollin’s passing, “by turning down offers from suburban jurisdictions to finance and build the Verizon Center on 7th Street NW.”
And President Barack Obama released his own statement, saying, in part, “Abe was a man who knew that being an owner wasn’t just about winning championships, although his teams had plenty of success. It was about being part of a community. Abe believed in Washington, D.C. when many others didn’t — putting his own fortune on the line to help revitalize the city he loved.”
Pollin, a D.C. resident since the age of eight, had purchased the then-Baltimore Bullets in 1964, relocating them in 1973 to the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. He changed their name, too, to the Capital Bullets for that debut season in their new facility, and then to the Washington Bullets beginning in 1974. That same year was also the first in the existence of the expansion Washington Capitals, whom Pollin was awarded for $6 million and who shared Capital Centre with the Bullets.
But it was not until 1997 and the opening of the MCI Center that the two Washington teams began playing their home games in the District of Columbia proper, in the House That Abe Built. “About 50 years from now,” predicted Pollin in 2001, “when they ride by here, people will ask, ‘Who built that building?’ ‘Some guy named Smith,’ they’ll say. Because no one remembers.”
In 1997, the Wizards — renamed and rebranded in the offseason, accompanying their move to their new home digs (For an examination of the reasons for the renaming, read Dan Steinberg’s detective work) — were middling. After eight consecutive years missing the playoffs, they had finally clinched a postseason berth in 1996-1997, their last year at the Capital Centre, now named US Airways Arena. Could the team, entering MCI Center with a roster featuring Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan and rookie Ben Wallace, be on the verge of taking the leap? No. Washington’s 42-40 record in 1997-1998 came up one game short, and the franchise lurched toward another playoff hiatus.
The turn of the century brought unexpected excitement. In 1999, Ted Leonsis purchased the Capitals and a minority interest in the Wizards from Pollin, and then sold a percentage of that minority interest in January 2000 to Michael Jordan, whom Pollin installed as the team’s president of basketball operations. “He will not accept losing,” said Pollin. “He’s going to get the best out of everybody.” When the Wizards played the Mavericks that day, Jordan watched with Pollin in the owner’s box. President Bill Clinton was with them.
In Jordan’s first full year as team president, the 2000-2001 season, MCI Center hosted its first NBA All-Star Game — and it proved unforgettable. Down 95-74 with nine minutes remaining in the game, the Eastern Conference outscored the West 41-21 in the fourth quarter and rallied for a 111-110 win in front of a crowd of 20,374. The season was not as positive: the Wizards finished 19-63 and drew a season attendance of 638,653 (18th in the 29-team league). Jordan responded to the team’s struggles by coming out of retirement to play for the Wizards himself in 2001-2002, taking part in 60 of the team’s 82 games, starting 53 of them, and leading the squad with 22.9 points per game. The home attendance jumped up to 847,634, rating second in the entire NBA and outdrawing their inaugural season (801,240). The Wizards also ranked second in the league in attendance in 2002-2003, bringing in 827,093, as Jordan played in all 82 games. But they finished with back-to-back 37-45 records, out of the playoffs, and Pollin relieved Jordan of his duties.
The Wizards did rebound, vindicating Pollin’s move. The coming of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison helped buoy the franchise back over .500 beginning in 2004-2005, leading to four straight playoff seasons. The first-round selections of John Wall in 2010 and Bradley Beal in 2012 would eventually build the nucleus for the current Wiz, who have reached the Eastern Conference semi-finals in three of the last four seasons.
The MCI Center’s other team in that first season of 1997-1998, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, featured a little less drama and a lot more winning. The Caps opened MCI Center with a perfectly fine 40-30-12 regular season, good for third in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Then they bested the Boston Bruins in six games, knocked out the Ottawa Senators in five, and eliminated Dominik Hašek and the Buffalo Sabres in six games to advance to the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Final, opposing the powerful Detroit Red Wings. Quite the difference for a team that had opened up its last building, the Capital Centre, with a remarkably woeful 8-67-5 season. “The atmosphere is great,” said Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman about playing at MCI Center. “The fans are close to the ice, it’s a beautiful building and it was loud.”
The gracious Red Wings swept the Capitals in four games, capturing their ninth Stanley Cup. Though Washington has enjoyed far better regular seasons since, attaining the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-2010, 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 thanks to leading the NHL in total points, that first season in Abe Pollin’s new arena remains the Capitals’ only trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
In December 1997, 26 days after the Wizards christened the building and 23 days after the Capitals first took to the MCI Center ice, World Championship Wrestling held its biggest show of the year, Starrcade, in the nation’s capital. It became the start of a short-lived annual tradition, with the arena hosting two of the most pivotal moments in WCW’s history, from the return of Sting to the ring against Hollywood Hulk Hogan at Starrcade ’97, the largest grossing pay-per-view in WCW history, to Starrcade ’98, the end of Goldberg’s 173-match undefeated streak. Starrcade ’99 and Starrcade 2000 followed, less successfully. The company — once the top wrestling promotion in the country — was in its descent, and there was no Starrcade 2001. WCW programming was canceled by TBS and TNT and the company was purchased by the WWF (now World Wrestling Entertainment).
In 1998, a third professional franchise joined the Wizards and Capitals in calling the MCI Center home. The WNBA began operations in 1997 with eight teams, located in Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City. The Washington Mystics came aboard for the WNBA’s second season, joining Detroit as expansion franchises in the fledgling league. The Mystics distinguished themselves by leading the WNBA in attendance in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2009, ranking second in 2001 and 2005, and topping at least 190,000 in each year. The achievement was celebrated with six vertical banners hung in the rafters at the arena, featuring the team logo, the year, and WNBA ATTENDANCE CHAMPIONS. On May 8, 2010, owner Leonsis had the banners taken down, reasoning on his team blog, “The only banners we should display revolve around winning a division or conference or league championship.” These banners continue to elude the Mystics, the last franchise in the league to not yet reach the WNBA Finals. The 2017 season, in which the Mystics bowed out in the league semi-finals, was the last season that they will play at Capital One Arena. In 2018, they will move into a new arena in Southeast.
Capital One Arena has seen its share of college hardwood highlights, serving as the home for Georgetown Hoyas hoops since 1997; hosting the 2005 and 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Tournaments (won by Duke and North Carolina, respectively), 2017 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament (won by Michigan), and the upcoming 2018 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Tournament; and hosting 2006, 2011 and 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games, with the East Regionals returning to Washington, D.C. in 2019.
Beyond pro and college basketball, beyond pro hockey and college hockey (the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four), and beyond the Washington International Horse Show (celebrating its 60th Anniversary next year), the facility on 7th Street NW has hosted lacrosse (the National Lacrosse League’s Washington Power in 2001), figure skating (the 2003 World Championship), and, kicking off this year, indoor football, with the Arena Football League’s Washington Valor opening play in 2017 under the umbrella of Ted Leonsis’s Monument Sports and Entertainment.
Multiple sports, both amateur and professional. Concerts. Events. A thriving facility, energizing its Chinatown neighborhood. This was Abe Pollin’s personally financed dream, and living up to its promise as it enters its 21st year.
Image courtesy Capital One Arena.
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