Remembering the Los Angeles Sports Arena: One Year after a Cultural Icon’s Demolition

By Richard A. Macales

Sitting in the stand of the Sports Arena
Waiting for the show to begin
Red lights, green lights, strawberry wine
A good friend of mine, follow the stars
Venus and Mars
Are alright tonight…

–from the song “Venus and Mars/Rock Show,” by Paul and Linda McCartney, 1975

The vibrant birth and silent death of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena came to a close nearly one year ago, Oct. 10-11, 2016, with only the sounds of bulldozers and jackhammers. Its significance as a trendsetter for American culture cannot be duplicated. The Sports Arena served as a primary venue for some of the most historic events which shaped and transformed American society and pop culture in the late 20th century.

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Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics.

Like opposite bookends, Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon served as keynote speaker at a politely enthusiastic grand opening ceremony, attended by the parents and grandparents of white Baby Boomers, fittingly on the Fourth of July, 1959. Fifty-six years later, then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, was there at its finale for a boisterous multiracial millennial campaign rally on Aug. 8, 2016.

The Sports Arena, the most modern facility of its kind when it first opened in 1959, was designed by L.A.-native architect and Woodbury University Professor Emeritus Louis M. Naidorf. At 89 years old, he is still actively engaged in architecture, working out of his home in Santa Rosa.

Reminiscing about the Sports Arena brings back many wonderful memories to Naidorf.

In looking back on its legacy, he described the Sports Arena as one of the most “impactful” projects in his long distinguished career because it was designed to “welcome everyone,” notwithstanding their ethnicity or economic status. It added significantly to the cultural milieu of Los Angeles.

Located in the University Park neighborhood, on Figueroa Street and MLK Jr. Boulevard., it was adjacent to the 93-year-old Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; walking distance from the lovely campus of the University of Southern California.

“It brought major new sports to L.A., as well as being a venue for so many significant civic functions,” said Naidorf, whose projects include the iconic Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (home of the Academy Awards from 1961-67). These buildings were all designed by Naidorf in the 1950s, not long after he earned his master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Architecture, at age 21.

The Sports Arena, an architectural treasure in its own right, was created on what Naidorf describes as “a shoe-string budget” of only $5 million. (Other sources cite $8.5 million.) Money was raised through a public bond issue. Naidorf proudly noted that the project was built at approximately $200,000 under budget.  According to him, the bond was paid back quickly to the taxpayers thanks to the Sports Arena’s primary tenant, the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, who, he said, generated a lot of revenue for the Arena during their seven year-stint there, from 1960-67. Construction was completed within about a year and a half; yet looking at it, seemingly no corners were cut in its design.

Naidorf was selected by his boss, Welton D. Beckett, to serve as the lead design architect for the project. Working alongside him on the job was the late Kent Attridge, who resolved technical construction issues. Naidorf had one week (yes, you are reading it correctly!) to complete a design. Mission accomplished!

The young wunderkind had experience in designing a multi-purpose facility — the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, which opened in 1958, a year before the Sports Arena.

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In this July 4, 1959 file photo, the crowd watches three different sports activities being staged at once at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. The crowd was there to hear Vice President Richard M. Nixon deliver the dedication address for arena.

Landscaping of the Sports Arena was to be surrounded by palm trees, the city’s trademark of affluence and celebrity.  His architectural philosophy, however, has always been to be inclusive of everyone. One feature of his Sports Arena design for which Naidorf is especially proud to this day, was providing handicap access, at a time when that was not a legal requirement.

The ancient Roman architecture of the neighboring Coliseum, built for the 1932 Olympic Games, made for an interesting contrast to the ultra-modern look of the Sports Arena, venue for the 1984 Olympic boxing matches. It was precisely because of their stark difference in appearance, that they complimented each other, as can only happen in the Los Angeles/Hollywood cultural scene of “anything is possible.”

As attested to by its elliptical shape, the glass entry, the use of pastel tiles, its stucco façade, and its trademark blue-green fascia crowning the roof, it was vintage L.A. — throughout. It gave the building a friendly, inviting look. Imposing, but not intimidating.

Typical of the creativity that comes from California as the national trendsetter, many arenas built in other cities in subsequent years  – even those in cold climates – fashioned themselves along the great sight lines and fan-friendly environment of the Sports Arena.

The Sports Arena, at the time of its design, construction and completion, appeared to America and Americans as the apex of innovation, beauty, glamor, and world power in the immediate post-World War II years.  It was among the venues chiefly responsible for providing a visual symbol of the sense of optimism, hope for the future, and the youthful vitality, not only for Southern California, but for the entire USA of the 1960s.

This was reflected in the multi-faceted events that took place in the Arena over the years — Naidorf’s design goal and his most proud achievement.

Best Remembered as a Sports Venue

Of all of the historic events that took place at the Sports Arena, it may come as a surprise that just four days after its grand opening, the first official event there was a world championship boxing match. It featured the Algerian-French bantamweight champion, Alphonse Halimi, versus Mexico’s Jose Becerra. The sellout crowd was an interesting socio-economic mix: white boxing fans from L.A.’s fashionable Westside and San Fernando Valley seated alongside Latinos from Boyle Heights and City Terrace, as well as Angelenos of all backgrounds who proudly like to say, “I was the first one there!”

Macales5Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, had his first major professional boxing match which took place at the Sports Arena on Nov. 15, 1962. His sponsor, William Reynolds, scion of the aluminum and tobacco family, made the arrangements for the 20-year-old Clay to face off against the 45-year-old (at least) Archie Moore. Clay won on a TKO (technical knockout). Thus began the Clay/Ali cultural phenomenon.

In 1968 and ’75, the Sports Arena hosted one of America’s premier sporting events, the NCAA Final Four, crowning the national champion in collegiate men’s basketball. Both times it was hosted at the Sports Arena, UCLA won with all-time greats on their roster, Lew Alcindor (later changed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. The Sports Arena is the only Los Angeles venue to ever stage the event twice. In 1992, the Sports Arena hosted the NCAA Women’s Basketball Division I Championship. It is a highly prized honor to be selected as the host city and venue to stage the “Final Four.”

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Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Coach John Wooden (the pride of Purdue U) celebrate NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship at first-ever Final Four tournament held in L.A., at the Sports Arena. March 23, 1968. Photo Courtesy of UCLA Athletics.

In addition to serving as home of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers from 1960-67, the Sports Arena hosted the then- woebegone Los Angeles Clippers, from 1984-99 (because of the Arena’s high profile, it was used as the cover photo on the team’s initial L.A. press guide). The rival American Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Stars played there with their red, white and blue basketball from 1968-70.

The Lakers of the Sports Arena years boasted two of the 50 greatest players in NBA history – Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The ghost of the Boston Celtics, however, will always remain part of the lore of the Arena and of L.A.’s formative major league sports years. West, Baylor & Company faced off four times at the Arena in the NBA Finals against Bill Russell and the Celtics, losing each series on fluke baskets and miscues.

The Clippers played at the Sports Arena for 15 seasons, reaching the NBA playoffs only three times. As luck would have it with this most unlucky of teams, in 1992 when they finally made the playoffs, they took place in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. It forced the Clippers to move a rare home playoff appearance to Anaheim. (During the 1965 Watts Riots, the Arena was so respected by residents of South Los Angeles that it was left completely intact because of Elgin Baylor’s strong civil rights stance.)

The Los Angeles Stars of the storied ABA were the unlikeliest contenders for a league championship, in 1970 (which they narrowly lost to the Indiana Pacers). Featuring a roster of mainly rookies and second-year pros, the Stars made the finals while their bank account ran on empty; their veteran players being sold to other teams during season to raise cash, thereby keeping the franchise afloat.

Collegiate basketball provided the only championships for teams – in any major sport — who played their home games at the Sports Arena. The UCLA men’s basketball team (tenants from 1960-65, and in 2011-12, while their home court, Pauley Pavilion, was undergoing major refurbishing) won the 1964 and ’65 national championships. UCLA’s back-to-back championships began a dynasty unparalleled in sports history. USC’s Women of Troy, led by Cheryl Miller, won the national championship in 1983 and 1984 and several conference titles.

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Bill Walton (in background) and Coach John Wooden celebrate the second NCAA Final Four Championship, at L.A. Sports Arena. All five starters on the team (Walton, Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes, Larry Farmer, Greg Lee and Henry Bibby) went on to play in the NBA. Swen Nater is the only reserve to ever be selected as a No. 1 draft choice. For Wooden it was the sixth of seven consecutive championships out of a total of 12 in his coaching career. March 25, 1972. Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics.

USC’s men’s basketball played there from 1959-2006, until they too built an on-campus arena, Galen Center. The Women of Troy also moved to Galen Center from the Sports Arena.

Hockey teams were the other major tenants of the building. Architect Naidorf had the challenge of designing the surface to accommodate an ice hockey rink in a city unfamiliar with the sport. It was also used for ice shows, which evolved into popular events at the Arena over the years.

The success of a minor league hockey team playing at the Sports Arena from 1961-67 proved that L.A. was ready for the National Hockey League and, thus, the Los Angeles Kings were born.

From 1972-74, the Los Angeles Sharks of the World Hockey Association played at the Arena. The Sharks were best known for being, like their name and team colors (black and red), one of the most violent teams in pro hockey history.

Other Events at the Sports Arena…from Camelot, to Civil Rights, to Concerts

In 1960 the Sports Arena ushered in the era of “Camelot.” It hosted the Democratic National Convention from July 11-15 of that year. The Sports Arena was a most fitting venue, designed, in part, with a political convention in mind. It was cleverly designed by Naidorf, combining the versatility of an arena which could be converted into a maximally functional convention hall with outstanding acoustics to accommodate all types of events.

 

At the convention, John F. Kennedy was nominated for president in what he called “The New Frontier.” It was a crowning moment for the Kennedy clan. They were all there, in seemingly great health and without tragedy and scandal. The convention represented, for the first time, all 50 U.S. states (with the recent addition of Alaska and Hawaii, further broadening America’s prestige). And, befitting a Los Angeles gala, celebrities were seen everywhere. It was indeed history-in-the-making in what was the envy of its time among American arenas (and cities).

The Sports Arena, owned by the state, city and county of Los Angeles, was not only about fun and games. It was an instrumental part of the black civil rights movement at a time when good venues across the country (even those publicly owned) banned pro-African-American rallies.

On June 18, 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. gave an impassioned speech to an overflow crowd of 25,000, plus an additional 10,000 outside of the Sports Arena. Joining him on the dais was California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. (father of current Gov. Jerry Brown).

In 2016, the closing “bookend” for the Sports Arena came in relative obscurity this past Oct. 10 and 11. It “fell” just four weeks before America’s most contentious-ever presidential election.

Death had taken its toll on several Sports Arena performers last year; legends of rock ‘n’ roll music and sports — mainstays of the storied arena — that had performed there. The 2016 RIP list included David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali and Bobby Chacon. They were a microcosm of the diverse ethnicity and lifestyles of the fans they attracted to the Sports Arena over the years.

Among the living: Madonna, a performer at the Sports Arena in 1990, was born in 1958 while it was under construction. She is the only woman on the top 10 list of performers with the most appearances at the Sports Arena (four times), tying her for seventh place on the all-time concert list.

Bruce Springsteen, with 34 concerts (always sellouts), far and away ranks No. 1 for most appearances at the Sports Arena. “The Boss” was also the last music performer to appear there, on March 15, 17 and 19, 2016, each date to a sellout crowd. Springsteen has often said that in his long career the Sports Arena ranks as one of his most favorite venues in which to perform.

Pink Floyd placed second, having appeared there 15 times.  The band and its lead singer, Roger Waters, tarnished the Sports Arena’s sterling reputation — for a time — with an extraordinarily rowdy appearance in April 1975. Their five-day gig resulted in the arrest of more than 500 concert-goers (far and away the highest in rock music concert history, according to the website Money Inc). Disruptive mainly white fans, not arrested, vandalized and littered the surrounding predominantly African-American neighborhood.

Third on the list was U2 (13 appearances), best known for its lead singer and high-profile philanthropist, Bono. At their 1987 concert at the Sports Arena, Bob Dylan, current Nobel laureate in literature, joined them for two songs.

Michael Jackson and Billy Joel each appeared at the Sports Arena six times; one appearance less than the Grateful Dead. Rounding out the Sports Arena’s Top 10 appearances were The Who, Luther Vandross and Lone Justice.

It should be noted that other legendary bands and solo artists have played some of their most memorable concerts at the Sports Arena. Most notably were The Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, Ted Nugent, John “Cougar” Mellenkamp, Ray Charles and Jose Feliciano.

Frank Sinatra, when he was part of the so-called “Rat Pack,” a group of showbiz buddies (including  Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop), performed at the Sports Arena in the 1960s to sell himself and his albums to a whole new generation of fans.

At the beginning of the Beach Boys’ rise to popularity, in 1963 the Sports Arena was a favorite venue of the group. It was where they tried out their new material which focused on L.A.’s burgeoning car culture and surfer scene. The Arena, with its quintessential California “look” and ambiance, boosted their career. It enabled the Beach Boys to develop a popular fan base — spreading the “gospel” of the Southern California lifestyle, both nationally and internationally, which remains to this day.

Epilogue

The opening of Staples Center in 1999 and Honda Center in Anaheim in 1993 (along with The Forum, in suburban Inglewood, in 1968) gave Los Angeles-Orange County four major league-caliber sports facilities.

Entering the second decade of the 21st century, critics began wondering whether the aging Sports Arena was past its prime and still relevant. To the contrary; it suffered only from neglect.

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Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics.

The architect, Louis Naidorf, claims the Sports Arena could have been used for many years to come as a premier facility. Necessary repair work on the Arena, according to Naidorf, “ would not have cost any more than what any high-paying athlete earns today.”

Naidorf’s daughter, Victoria Naidorf, a lawyer in Walnut Creek, recently recalled, “I was at Dad’s home in Santa Rosa…and we were reminiscing about his many projects. We both teared up that the Sports Arena is gone.”

Rich Macales’ first event at the Sports Arena was a pro basketball game; a birthday present from his late father, a builder/designer. He is a contributor to the four-volume reference/anthology work, “American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas,” edited by Murry R. Nelson [Greenwood/ABC-Clio]. He was a former longtime public information officer and senior writer at UCLA.

3 thoughts on “Remembering the Los Angeles Sports Arena: One Year after a Cultural Icon’s Demolition

  1. Richard Nixon the opening act, John Kennedy the keynoter, and Bernie Sanders the closing act…That rocks!! Wish I had a chance to experience the building.

    Like

  2. The architect was the same genius behind the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood? The building most identified with L.A. culture? Wow !! Seems the Sports Arena shouldn’t have been torn down…rather, made into an official landmark…just like the Forum and Coliseum. Thanks to Sport in American History for “saving” the KA Sports Arena…in a great piece.

    Like

  3. Great sports (Lakers…didn’t know they played at the Sports Arena)… totally cool bands (Springsteen & Madonna) !! Hadn’t realized the Sports Arena gave such a buzz La La Land !!! gmv ! TFP!

    Like

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