History & Tradition: Capital Centre

The legend in Landover.

 To today's Georgetown fan, Verizon Center is a perfect fit.

At the confluence of three Metro lines, bounded by restaurants, hotels, and the night life of a growing urban residential neighborhood. Verizon Center is a state of the art arena. But a generation ago, Georgetown played in a facility the mirror opposite of Verizon Center--inaccessible by Metro, not a restaurant or hotel in sight, and surrounded by farmland adjacent to the Capital Beltway. And yes, for its time it really was state of the art.

For a generation of fans, Capital Centre is a name but little else in the annals of Georgetown basketball. For those that were there, or for those students who endured the one hour bus trips (each way) to see the Hoyas, the role of Capital Centre in the development of Georgetown basketball cannot be understated.

Despite its reputation as a basketball town, Washington's last NBA team, the Capitols, folded in 1951. "White flight", the 1968 riots, the departure of the Washington Senators, and a decaying downtown were toxic to any efforts to bring new pro sports to Washington. But Abe Pollin never forgot DC, and despite having been owner of the Baltimore Bullets since 1964, he sought a way to reconnect the region with pro sports.

In 1972, after eight years in the aging Baltimore Civic Center, Pollin announced plans for an $18 million multi-purpose sports arena to be built on the Maryland side of the Beltway, thus giving Washington and Baltimore fans a chance to see the team. Opening in 1973, the 19,000 seat Capital Centre, was everything that the Civic Arena was not, and fans flocked to the Prince Georges County suburb of Landover as the Bullets were a team on the rise.

The days of downtown arenas were passe, and Capital Centre offered the amenities of the era: the first luxury boxes in a pro arena and the first video screen of its kind anywhere, known as "Telscreen". With a architectural flair known as a reverse hyperbolic paraboloid, the tilting roof (in later years, the arena was derided as being the shape of a potato chip) allowed for unobstructed seating without pillars and that most seats were placed at courtside and not in the corners. The arena featured plenty of concessions, and a private bar for well-heeled patrons. The entertainers of the era all played there--Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen. Presidential inaugural events were a regular occurrence. From truck pulls to WWF wrestling, Landover was a year round destination. With its red white and blue trim throughout the building and patriotically named parking lots (Liberty Bell, Stars & Stripes, etc.), the arena was built for the suburban audience--there was no need for things around the place because people just drove home anyway.

Pollin, ever the businessman, knew that the new arena could hold hockey, and he added the Washington Capitals to the arena in 1975. Six years later, as Georgetown had outgrown 4,200 McDonough Gymnasium (holding nearly twice the capacity it does today) and expected big things in the Patrick Ewing era, the University moved home games to the suburban arena. The Hoyas had played there sparingly over the years, including an annual game with Maryland from 1974-78, but the move was a major one.

On Dec. 5, 1981, what announcer Rev. William McFadden, S.J. called "the home away from home for Georgetown basketball" debuted with the Hoyas hosting San Diego State. The Hoyas won all 14 home games that season en route to the 1982 Final Four, and by the following season would host almost all its home games there. From Ewing to Mourning, Mutombo to Iverson, Georgetown won 202 of 235 games held in the building and a remarkable 92-5 out of conference, including 50 consecutive wins outside the Big East games December 1982 through December 1990.

The Hoyas were the winningest program at the Capital Centre in an era where the Bullets' fortunes declined after the 1978 NBA title and the Capitals struggled in their first two decades in the building. But despite the good times, attendance was not always a given. The Hoyas sold out just 17 games in 16 years, for other than the annual Syracuse and St. John's games, tickets were almost always available.

What was au courant in the 1970's was anything but by the 1990's. The theater-like atmosphere at Capital Centre (with lighting that made fans almost unrecognizable on TV) and the perceived diminished amenities when compared to newer arenas took its toll. By the early 1990's, Pollin announced plans for a replacement, and he received offers from suburban Maryland, northern Virginia, and even Baltimore to host the teams. The most logical entrant, Washington, was mired in the political maladies of the first Marion Barry term and the succeeding term of Sharon Pratt Kelly offered little if any public support for Pollin's intent to bring the teams to downtown Washington. It was at this same era that the city refused efforts from the Washington Redskins for a new stadium, leading the Redskins, in a bizarre parallel to Pollin's first move, to move the team from D.C. to Landover in 1997, a site two miles west of the arena that was equally inaccessible to public transit and bereft of any nearby development.

Abe Pollin would not repeat that move. He persevered at considerable personal risk, leveraging his entire fortune to do what the local politicians could not--secure a site adjacent to the city's run-down Chinatown district to build the $260 million arena. The fans followed. Soon too would follow the business and entertainment destinations. At his death in 2009, the foresight of Pollin's decision was hailed as a turning point in the revitalization of urban Washington.

On Nov. 25, 1997, the Georgetown Hoyas defeated Cleveland State 78-56 before 6,483 in Landover at what was then titled US Airways Arena. A week later, Georgetown began the Verizon (nee MCI) Center era, a 73-69 loss to Villanova before 13,181 in attendance, twice that of its finale in Landover.

After 29 years of service, Capital Centre was demolished in 2002. A shopping center stands at the site today.