by Chris Foss
In June 2016, the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center broke ground; it will open for the 2018-19 NBA season for the Milwaukee Bucks. In January, the Golden State Warriors broke ground on the Chase Center, a new arena to open for the 2019-20 season; it will replace the Oracle Arena, which opened in 1966. The Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, home of the Red Wings and one-time home of the Pistons, recently hosted its last hockey game, a victim of the city’s ongoing bankruptcy litigation.
Across the NBA, it is the continuation of a big-money era which has seen the transformation of the physical landscape on which the games are played. Once the Warriors move on from Oracle, only the New York Knicks will play in an arena which predates the late 1980s, when the NBA first hit the jackpot in the wake of the Magic/Bird/Jordan era, and a new wave of ownership began building new arenas (or pushing taxpayers to provide the funds to do so).
This seems, then, to be a good time to examine the place of stadiums in fans’ collective memories of the NBA. This article does not question how stadiums or arenas are built and financed, and it does not take a side on the relative merits of replacing aging arenas. Instead, I look back at the historical high and low points of some of the great—and bygone—arenas of the NBA’s past, showing what has been gained and lost as a wake of the league’s sonic boom in popularity over the last quarter-century.
When the league’s building boom began in the late 1980s, no city seemed to need a new arena more than Boston. The Boston Garden opened in 1927, and hosted many important political conventions, boxing matches, and concerts; and saw more combined basketball and hockey banners hoisted into the rafters than any other city. In what was a somewhat typical style of the day—shared by palatial movie theaters, as well as the Bulls’ Chicago Stadium—the upper tier of seats hung slightly over the lower tier, packing more fans in and creating an intimate atmosphere that favored the home team. NBA highlight videos are full of Celtics fans storming the Garden court after the team’s improbable and innumerable victories from the 1960s through the 1980s. The building probably still reeked of the combined smoke of broadcaster Johnny Most and coach Red Auerbach lighting up after yet another triumph by the men in green.
Today the TD Bankhouse Garden sits across the street from the old Garden, bulldozed in 1998. The new Garden seems cushy enough, but also almost antiseptic. Unsurprisingly, it looks like almost any other modern arena both from the outside and the inside. On the other hand, didn’t the old Garden have to go? For years, the building was plagued by electrical problems that shut down shot clocks, scoreboards, and even the power to the entire building itself once during a Bruins playoff game in 1988. The visitors’ dressing room was allegedly tampered with by building management (perhaps by Auerbach himself) to run cold showers and have minimal facilities. The building’s air conditioning famously failed during the 1984 NBA Finals, giving the struggling Celtics the boost they needed to overtake the Lakers and win another title. For better or worse, all of that’s gone and done with now.
Even a place with less tradition like Phoenix had a notable relationship with its oldest NBA arena. In 1992 it was one of the first cities to get a state-of-the-art upgrade, to a building now known as Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns played their first quarter-century, however, in a building nicknamed by locals as the “Madhouse on McDowell,” the Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum. The mid-century generation of arenas were built both for form and function. Inside, the building somewhat resembled a motocross barn, and—as its nickname indicates—had a reputation for loud crowds. The outside was composed of a tension-cable roof and concrete panels that still gives the building a distinctive look. Portland’s Coliseum is known as the “Glass Palace” for the massive glass enclosure around the bowl of the arena, a feature which probably earned the building its spot on the National Historic Registry. The Phoenix “Madhouse” didn’t see too many historic games, although it went out with a bang—a 153-151 Suns loss to the Trail Blazers that still (until the Warriors have something to say about it) stands as the highest-scoring playoff game in NBA history.
By contrast, Golden State and Milwaukee fans—despite the divergent on-court histories within their own buildings—could probably agree that they won’t miss either of their outgoing arenas too much. The Warriors settled into Oracle Arena for good in 1971 after spending years going back and forth between the Oakland building and the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The building was extensively renovated and closed during the 1996-97 season to have a look and feel much like the NBA’s newest generation of arenas. Whether in its older or newer incarnation, the fanbase there seems to have had more attachment to the team than to the building. During the Warriors’ extended run of losing from the mid-1990s until the Steph Curry years, the Oracle was often packed and noisy—no fair-weather fans there. And, of course, Oracle hoisted championship banners in 1975 and 2015, and may yet raise one or two more before all is said and done.
In Milwaukee, the Bucks’ new arena will replace the Bradley Center, which itself was one of the first arenas of the NBA’s boom years when it debuted in 1988. The Bradley Center replaced the MECCA (now known as the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and home to that school’s sports teams), another drafty facility which looked like a barn on the inside while hosting the Milwaukee—later Atlanta—Hawks, then the Bucks during their best years, when they won an NBA title and went to another Finals and several conference finals in the 1970s and 1980s. The Bradley Center, by contrast, will likely end its 30-year run as the Bucks’ home having seen no glory, no memorable games at all. The Bucks got within a whisker of the Finals in 2001, losing to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers, but that’s as big as the stakes have gotten at the Bradley, with the Bucks wilting near the bottom of their division most years. The Bradley is comfortable, but sterile and indistinct on the inside; there’s little to lead one to believe its replacement will be any different.
For different reasons, fans might not care one way or the other about the memories being left behind for good when the Warriors and the Bucks change arenas in a couple of years. As discussed earlier, the Bucks never won anything of consequence at the Bradley Center, so it might not be missed at all. Even with the big renovation to Oracle, Warriors fans could still hold onto the memories of the Rick Barry years and the 1975 championship having taken place on the same physical site to tide them over until the era of the Splash Brothers began. This would seem to suggest that on-court performance strongly lends itself to nostalgia about the arena in most cases, though patient Phoenix Suns fans might disagree (the team only made one Finals, in 1976, while at the “Madhouse”).
In short, it is always interesting to consider the history of a building and a team when an old arena closes. It’s like a crossroads in the history of a franchise. The Trail Blazers had just celebrated their 25th anniversary when they moved to the Rose Garden—now Moda Center—in 1995. The change of building inaugurated a period of self-reflection among the fanbase, and a sense that an old era had passed. Fans across the NBA—from Houston to Miami, from Dallas to Denver—have had similar feelings of change and reflection as their teams have decamped from older digs to newer ones. For better or worse, to paraphrase the words of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, the landscape is like a blackboard that keeps getting drawn, erased, redrawn, and erased again. Only the memories remain, with some help from YouTube, to remind us of what was once—and perhaps, what could be again when the current generation of arenas becomes worn out.
 The Bradley Center (Bucks) and Palace at Auburn Hills (Detroit Pistons) opened in 1988. Madison Square Garden opened in 1967, itself replacing a city landmark in New York—Penn Station. The building is virtually unrecognizable now from its old self, however, after a recent $1 billion renovation.
 Besides having the best name of any NBA arena ever, the otherwise non-noteworthy Cow Palace was the site of the ascension of the conservative wing of the Republican Party when it nominated Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate there in 1964.
 I particularly like the videos online of Boston Garden’s demise in progress: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnb6-knVkuc