Driven to distraction at new MCI Center

March 25, 1998|By John D. Meyers

IN 1995, I warned anyone who would listen that the soon-to-be-built MCI Center in Washington would forever change the way local fans related to professional basketball games. On my first visit there last month, I realize my prophecy is depressingly true.

Upon arriving at the center, my wife and I are unsure of what to expect, yet we hope for a positive experience. After all, we are seasoned sports fans; we've made the transition from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards for Orioles games, and in doing so learned that tradition need not be sacrificed at the altar of entertainment. We paid $48 each for this visit to Abe Pollin's sports palace.

Once inside the MCI Center, we are struck immediately by what appears to be an overabundance of blue-blazered sentries: They're standing guard at suite doors, restaurants, under television monitors. All of them seem to eye us suspiciously, and one even insists on punching our tickets before he'll let us wander around inside the gloriously tacky Velocity Grill.

As we near the tunnel leading to our seats, my wife and I agree that walking the corridors reminds us of strolling in an antiseptic hotel lobby. There is no physical sense that a basketball court exists anywhere in the building.

After parting with $15 at the designer hot-dog palace, we head for our seats. Finally, a view of the court. So new. So clean. No vibes.

Missing fans

A bit after 7 p.m., the game begins. It seems that most of the MCI Center's 20,000 seats are empty. The Golden State Warriors are in town, without Latrell Sprewell (he choked his coach), without former Terp Joe Smith (he was traded). Unofficially, they've become the worst team in the National Basketball Association, not much of a draw. The game progresses and more people arrive, though rows of club seats remain empty for the duration. Something is wrong. The crowd makes little or no noise.

It occurs to me that my worst fears have been realized. So many distractions are in and around the new arena that the action on the floor has become an afterthought.

The four-star restaurant overlooking the court is packed with businessmen entertaining clients; the luxury suites are loaded with drunken yuppies who might as well be holding court at the corner watering hole; and the big-screen behemoth hovering over the court -- what can be said about this alien spacecraft, this high-tech marvel that broadcasts the same game we're watching live on the floor? The picture is bright. I can't concentrate -- I feel as if I'm being watched.

Digital photos

The public address announcer speaks. It's true! We are being watched! Whiz-bang radio-controlled cameras affixed to the underside of the four-sided monster monitor will work diligently during the game to snap digital photos of every fan. We can purchase those photos on our way out, put them in our scrapbooks and remember when.

The Wizards handle the hapless Warriors with relative ease. Midway through the fourth quarter, I get antsy. I realize that I won't be able to sit in my seat for another minute. Too much is going on around me.

On our way down the escalator, I mention to my wife that during most of the game, I could hear the coaches yelling at the players, and the referees making the calls. It was that quiet.

We reach the exit and peek once more inside Velocity Grill. This is where the action is. Very noisy. I walk up to the door and get the sentry's attention. "Does anyone in there care," I ask him, "that there's a game going on inside?" He smiles and jerks his meaty noggin back toward the throng, "Hey buddy, this is entertainment."

He's right. This is entertainment -- and the end of professional basketball as we know it.

John D. Meyers, a free-lance writer, lives in Kensington.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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