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Hatbox in the Marshlands

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It’s got no pricey corporate name tag, no elegant skyboxes or private suites. And until recently, the dressing room used by a cavalcade of stars—from Frank Sinatra to Britney Spears—was a sweaty locker room drenched in fluorescent lights.

But for two generations of San Diegans, the San Diego Sports Arena is like a comfortable old shoe. It’s worn, a little scuffed, but a better fit than any of the shiny new arenas with names like Cox and Staples. The Sports Arena is a hallowed hall of cherished sporting and musical memories—home to a parade of long-departed teams like the Clippers, the original Gulls and the Rockets, who in 1968 landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest losing streak of any professional sports team.

The arena also has been host to a who’s who of pop superstars, from an aging Elvis Presley to the ageless Rolling Stones, from the Doors and the Airplane to the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync—at least a dozen of whom recorded live albums there, despite the arena’s well-publicized reputation for poor acoustics. And then there were the

special events remembered by many with startling clarity, like the Ali-Norton fight in which hometown hero Ken Norton broke the chatty champ’s jaw; the NCAA track meets of the late 1960s and early 1970s that attracted the likes of the late Steve Prefontaine, America’s greatest running legend; and the innumerable ice shows with Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.

Built in 1966, the Sports Arena looks, particularly at night, more like something from the vintage sci-fi TV series The Outer Limits than a modern indoor sports/entertainment complex. It rises like a hatbox from the marshlands—just south and east of where the San Diego River flows into the ocean at Dog Beach—a familiar oval monolith surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lot. It’s a sight rarely seen anymore, in this era of handsomely coiffed, compact edifices with towering parking structures as appendages.

But then again, the San Diego Sports Arena was built 35 years ago for the paltry sum of $5.2 million, when land was cheap and plentiful and the civic mentality, wide-eyed and innocent, was truly one of “If you build it, they will come.”

And come they did. The arena brought professional indoor sports to San Diego, in the form of the Gulls, the Rockets, the Clippers and myriad others. But perhaps more significantly, the arena legitimized San Diego in the eyes of the music industry. Touring superstars no longer had an easy excuse to bypass San Diego in favor of playing another night in Los Angeles.

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