The unused, unloved, and unmoving Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena


Thursday night marked my what has become mostly a once a year event for me: a trip to a UCLA basketball game. This year, that became more complicated because Pauley Pavilion is being renovated. Nearly all of the sports that require an indoor arena moved over to the Wooden Center, but the men's basketball team went out on a journey that saw them play home games in Ontario, Anaheim, but mostly, at Southern California's least beloved sporting facility, the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

Despite the banner on the roof shown above and UCLA markings on the court, the Sports Arena has not been a popular destination for UCLA fans. The game against Stanford on Thursday drew just over 5000 fans. (Capacity for basketball is around 16,000, although figures vary from sources I checked.) The Bruins didn't help matters by losing their first two games at the Sports Arena to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State.

Sitting at the southeast corner of Exposition Park, the Sports Arena, with its distinct lack of frills, was a state of the art arena for a little over five years before pro teams in the area started to look at ways to get out of there. The Coliseum Commission, which operates the Sports Arena, has started to look at other uses for the space, but no plans have been set. And the Sports Arena still stands.

I went to the game with my father-in-law, who attended UCLA games back in the days when the Bruins made the Sports Arena its regular home (1959-65). The Sports Arena also hosted the Final Four for the Bruins' 1968 and 1972 championships.

The Sports Arena that was home to the Walt Hazzard-Gail Goodrich Bruins (gratuitous side note: my father-in-law was Gail Goodrich's R.A. at Dykstra Hall) isn't too much different from the Sports Arena of the 2011-12 UCLA squad that is 14-11, 7-6 in Pac-12 play, and will be lucky to get an NIT berth. Since the Sports Arena opened in 1959, the only major addition to the facility was a ticket office on the south side of the arena. The roof has been redone a bit and the floors have been replaced in the concourses.

Today, the Sports Arena is used mostly for concerts and to serve as a filming location. Bruce Springsteen will be playing a pair of concerts there on April 26 and 27.

After World War II, Los Angeles government officials and civic boosters tried looking for various locations to put up a multipurpose arena. The goal, according to the history of the Sports Arena in the linked EIR above, was to create L.A.'s own Madison Square Garden.

The location that was favored was in Downtown between 3rd and 5th west of Flower, home of the Bonaventure Hotel now along with other buildings. But, as things go in Los Angeles, that site was never made available. The southwest corner of Exposition Park ended up as the fallback position.

Plans for the arena had been drawn up by Stiles and Robert Clements in the 1940s and they were the first choice for the Coliseum Commission in 1955. The Clements plan would have created a rectangular arena as seen in this drawing that ran in the Los Angeles Examiner back in 1955.

However, the Clements plan never came to fruition and the job went to Welton Becket, who was the architect for hundreds of buildings in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. Becket came up with the circular design (technically it's an ellipse I have discovered, but it looks circular to me) that the Sports Arena features today.

The Sports Arena opened on July 4, 1959 with Vice President Richard Nixon inaugurating the facility with a rousing speech denouncing Communism. The first NBA game at the Sports Arena was an exhibition between the St. Louis Hawks and the Philadelphia Warriors on September 30, 1959. It was the NBA debut of Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 28 points in a 106-102 win by the Warriors.

USC and UCLA played the first college basketball game at the Sports Arena on December 1, 1959. A disappointing crowd of 6,880 saw UCLA upset USC 47-45. The LA Times referred to it as a crowd from back in the days of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

The Sports Arena received some exposure during the 1960 Democratic Convention. However, John F. Kennedy would make his acceptance speech at the other side of Exposition Park at the Coliseum.

The Lakers moved in to the Sports Arena in 1960; but, they were not a hit at the box office, finishing seventh in attendance out of the eight teams in the NBA at the time. But by 1963, the Lakers topped the NBA in attendance. Nevertheless, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke wanted a fancier arena for both the Lakers and his expansion hockey team, the Kings, and he set up shop in the Forum in Inglewood in 1967.

After UCLA moved into Pauley Pavilion on campus in 1966, USC was the lone college tenant of the Sports Arena. Despite being close to campus, the Trojans never drew well at the Sports Arena. Toward the end of USC's tenure at the Sports Arena, a large black curtain would be draped over part of the arena to hide the empty seats. Now, the Trojans play in a more appropriately sized on campus arena, the Galen Center. (This year, the Trojans, beset by injuries, have had a disastrous 6-20 season.)

In 1984, the Sports Arena underwent a renaissance of sorts when Donald Sterling moved the Clippers north from San Diego. But, Sterling did not add much to the Sports Arena in the way of amenities. It was still a no frills arena with seats that still remained from the days when Fred Schaus coached the Lakers. When Staples Center opened in 1999, the Clippers moved about 25 blocks north on Figueroa to their present home.

As a place to watch a game, the Sports Arena actually isn't a bad place. It has very good sightlines. The seats are fairly comfortable, although a bit aged. Risers are pulled out on the floor for basketball games and concerts. They have folding chairs on them that are marked "Dallas Convention Center."

The concourses seemed spacious, although that may not be the case in April when Springsteen comes to town. (If you're at the April 27 concert, look for me. I'll be the white guy in his 40s at the concert.)

UCLA has three more home games at the Sports Arena this season. They play USC on Wednesday night and then Washington State on March 1 and Pac-12 conference co-leader Washington on March 3. After that, the Sports Arena will go back to its life as a concert venue. Whether anyone will ever dribble a basketball in anger there again is unlikely.

Will the Sports Arena ever be torn down? It is not a facility packed with historical significance. It is not an architectural marvel. Yet it is not an eyesore either. The Sports Arena does not have cachet. It just is. Since no one is throwing money at the Coliseum Commission asking for the property, there is no hurry in tearing it down.

In a city where many historic buildings were torn down with little thought, the Sports Arena is an old building that no one seems to love, but no one can figure out a way to get rid of it. The Sports Arena may just outlive all of us.

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