A Page from History: Sports arena is San Diego’s hall of memories
From hockey to basketball to music and a lot more, the old Midway District venue was, and remains, a local icon even as redevelopment looms.
Just for the record and right from the face-off here, we will stipulate that “4-B liked O’Ree.”
Everybody knew it. A banner in the rafters above that section in the San Diego Sports Arena said so. It was no secret that we liked Willie O’Ree in 4-A also, as did just about everybody else in the joint.
What was not to like? O’Ree happened to have been the Jackie Robinson of professional ice hockey. I don’t think we knew that at the time. I hadn’t followed hockey before the San Diego Gulls came to town in 1966, so I didn’t know how common Black pros were.
Breaking in with the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League in 1958, O’Ree was the first, and 25 years would pass before there would be another. Talk about a league of his own!
O’Ree scored 153 goals and assisted 161 others, skating across seven sensational seasons for the Gulls.
In truth, we dug his linemates almost as much — smooth center Warren Hynes and high-scoring wing Fred Hilts. Steady Al Nicholson and speedy Len Ronson also were big stars on that team. We had a sturdy young wing by the name of John MacMillan. “Those nets need fillin’ by John MacMillan” — who doesn’t remember that one?
Our big defenseman, our enforcer, Jim Watson, had his own fan club, and even our backup netminder, a kid named Bobby Champoux, was hugely popular.
One of us was improbably a fan of a Gull by the name of Len Haley. “Haley the Comet,” they called him. The implication was that, at least once upon a time, Haley had been a fast skater.
Those better days were clearly behind him in fall 1966, skating on the third line of an expansion club in one of hockey’s minor leagues. You do have to admit that was a boss nickname, though I know he didn’t spell it the same way as the celestial wanderer.
What we are talking about here is a fascinating social phenomenon — how a bunch of kids in Ocean Beach who spent more than half our lives in bathing suits became rabid ice hockey fans overnight. Adults caught the bug as well.
The brand-new San Diego International Sports Arena in the Midway District was close and the tickets were cheap — 50 cents for general admission (I am not making that up). The ticket was a little paper square with a picture of Sandy the Gull on it.
Somebody’s mom would leave us a block over, by the Frontier Drive-In, and somebody’s dad would pick us up there later.
Did we have any spare loot for popcorn? Rarely, if ever. Were the Gulls insanely popular almost immediately? Absolutely. Did they set a Western Hockey League attendance record with a last-place team in their inaugural season? Of course they did.
I want to mention that I did get a puck one time. You may have read that I never, ever got a foul ball at a baseball game — that is sadly true.
But I did get a puck, and not in the shoulder at 85 mph. The one and only time I had a good seat to a Gulls game, I went with a guy and his parents and we sat in the third row in the southeast corner.
Three players collided along the boards right in front of us and the puck squirted up over the glass and literally landed in my lap. The puck read “San Diego Gulls Hockey Club” in orange type with a likeness of Sandy the Gull. I kept that puck in our freezer as long as I lived at home. I think I might still have that puck. I’ll look for it later.
The Sports Arena had been the accomplishment of San Diego impresario and sportsman Bob Breitbard. Breitbard was a kid out of Hoover High, where he had famously been a pal and teammate of Ted Williams. Before he became the patron saint and little red hen of San Diego indoor sports, Breitbard had played and coached football at San Diego State. He hadn’t dreamed up the idea for the arena, it had been suggested to him. At least that’s the story that San Diego baseball writer Phil Collier related to San Diego Union Sports Editor Jack Murphy.
Collier said he and Breitbard happened to be sitting in a Rochester, N.Y., saloon one evening in 1962 at what would now be called the winter baseball meetings. A couple of happy hockey players stopped in and struck up a conversation with Messrs. B. and C.
Player A told Breitbard that he should buy a hockey team and build an ice arena out in San Diego, saying he’d “love to play hockey out there.” His companion concurred. Collier piled on, saying, “Yeah Bob, why don’t you do that?”
To which Breitbard reportedly replied, “OK, maybe I will.”
The four laughed and went their separate ways, but when Breitbard returned home, he began negotiating with the Western Hockey League for a franchise. The franchise was granted in 1963 under the proviso that Breitbard be required to build an appropriate arena to house the team. And so he did. This sort of thing seems to be slightly more complicated these days.
The proposed site for the new arena was along the north side of Frontier Street, which had been the former right of way for the San Diego Electric Railway Beach Line. The 48-acre parcel had recently been home to a portion of the Frontier Federal Housing project, a 20-year-old temporary neighborhood dismantled, dispersed and destroyed as its days elapsed.
The Gulls were the Sports Arena’s first tenant. A professional basketball team became its second. The Minneapolis Lakers had moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and the Philadelphia Warriors had relocated to San Francisco in 1962. The 1967 season saw the National Basketball Association expand from 10 teams to 12, bringing two new clubs to the Left Coast — the Seattle SuperSonics and Breitbard’s San Diego Rockets. The pair of new teams had similar uniforms and the same green and gold color scheme.
So did the Rockets “blast off”? Not exactly. That first Rockets team was fun to watch but was able to deliver only 15 wins. That modest mark did reward the Rockets with the first pick in the 1968 college draft, which they would use to bring Elvin Hayes to San Diego. The “Big E” led the NBA in scoring as a rookie and the team made the playoffs!
“There was plenty of talent on that club,” former Rockets standout John Block told me. “If you look at it, we had quite a few future Hall of Famers, but we never really jelled as a team or played together the way we might have.”
Block, a big, active forward out of USC, was taken by the Rockets in the ’67 expansion draft off the roster of the L.A. Lakers. Block led the Rockets that first season, averaging more than 20 points and 11 rebounds a game. He became tight with veteran forwards Don Kojis and Toby Kimball and guards Stu Lantz and Jim Barnett. Lantz and Barnett have been NBA analysts for decades for the Lakers and Warriors, respectively, and Rockets reserve guards Pat Riley and Rick Adelman went on to HOF coaching careers.
As newlyweds, Block and his wife, Margie, lived in an apartment on the bluff above the Midway District. He enjoyed playing at the Sports Arena, but “we had a crazy game one time,” he told me. During a home game, “we were noticing that the floor seemed to be getting damp, and then really slippery! They tried to mop it up repeatedly, but it just got worse and several guys went down before they finally had to postpone the game.”
The ice from the hockey rink was slowly melting. The arena was still working out the kinks in the multipurpose hockey-rink-to-basketball-floor switcheroo.
The future looked to be on the side of the Rockets in 1970 as they drafted two future Hall of Famers — Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich. Instead, their fourth year was the team’s last in San Diego. In 1971, Breitbard sold the team to a Texas consortium that moved the Rockets to Houston.
The Buffalo Braves moved west in 1978 to become the San Diego Clippers and the Sports Arena was resurrected as an NBA venue. The Clippers played a freewheeling, exciting brand of basketball and were one of the first NBA teams to embrace the three-point shot when it came into the league in 1979.
Smooth and deadly Randy Smith and the “Brownsville Bomber,” Lloyd (soon-to-be World B.) Free, launched from long range with alacrity. In their first season, the Clippers posted a winning record, something the Rockets had been unable to achieve. But that season proved to be the high-water mark for the perennially cellar-dwelling Clips.
Though the Clippers were well-served by the steady play of center Swen Nater and the emergence of young forwards Tom Chambers and Terry Cummings, wins were hard to come by.
The return to San Diego of hometown hero Bill Walton, a former NBA champ and league MVP, did not go well for “Big Bill” or the Clips. Throughout their six years in San Diego, the team was handicapped by poor management and the disastrous ownership of Donald Sterling. Amid a veritable hailstorm of lawsuits, Sterling moved the team to L.A. without league approval in 1984. It was the last roundup for pro basketball in San Diego.
On a decidedly lighter note, did you know the Clippers used their final pick in the 1981 draft to choose San Diego State point guard Tony Gwynn? Now you do.
Raise your hand if you saw James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Sports Arena in May 1967. You were a lucky witness to the first of nearly 1,500 concerts that have packed the big barn over the past 56 years. I thought it would be fun to list all of those shows, but I see we have only a few minutes left here.
Acoustically sublime it was not, but the arena was the venue for big shows in San Diego, and so it remains.
Elvis played the Sports Arena, as did Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry. The Stones, the Dead, the Who, the Kinks and the Beach Boys all packed the place. This is just scratching the surface, but the quantity, variety and weight of the musical acts that have performed on the San Diego Sports Arena stage are staggering. Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, U2, Robin Trower, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Madonna, Steve Miller, Alice Cooper, Alice in Chains. You could have seen Korn and Metallica on the same bill at the Sports Arena in 1997. Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter and the Climax Blues Band were there on the same bill in 1975. I saw Springsteen down there, Santana more than once, the Doobie Brothers, It’s a Beautiful Day, Neil Young, you get the drift. Was I at that Allman Brothers/Boz Scaggs show in ’73? Hell yeah!
San Diego Union-Tribune music writer George Varga says Garth Brooks holds the Sports Arena record for performances on consecutive nights with five and that the record for most Sports Arena performances all time is held by Neil Diamond with 17. I don’t know how I missed him.
While 17 sounds quite impressive, consider that the Harlem Globetrotters have appeared at the Sports Arena 40-something times, and counting. These may not be your father’s ‘Trotters, but they will return once again to Pechanga Arena, as it is currently known, on Saturday, Feb. 25. The Eagles will fly in as part of their “Hotel California Tour” on Friday, March 3.
No homage to the concrete cavern would be complete without a tip of the cap to the San Diego Sockers of professional indoor soccer. Hybridized sport or no, the Sockers have been the powerhouse that San Diego sports fans had been daydreaming about for decades — 16 championships in just over 40 seasons in various leagues. The Sockers of the 1980s and early ‘90s won 10 championships in 11 years, in San Diego, at the Sports Arena. It was indoor magic.
Great players such as Kevin Crow, Brian Quinn, Zoltan Toth, Cha Cha Namdar, Waad Hirmez, Jean Willrich and Branko Segota were recognizable stars in this town. Sockers superstar Steve Zungul was not known as “The Lord of All Indoors” for no reason.
We do love a good nickname down at the old Sports Arena, do we not? How about “The Chairman of the Boards”? Ireland’s Eamonn Coughlan torched the track of the Sports Arena’s banked oval in a world-record indoor mile time of 3:52.6 in 1979. The Chairman returned to San Diego to lower that mark by two seconds two years later.
And then there was “The Mummy.” San Diego’s heavyweight contender Ken Norton certainly didn’t refer to himself as The Mummy — that was a little derision pushed his way by Muhammad Ali.
Ali could be quite a card, but in this case, his clowning might have backfired on him. Norton not only beat Ali but famously broke the champ’s jaw in winning one of the most famous prize fights in history on March 31, 1973, at the San Diego Sports Arena.
The Gulls and Sockers still play at Pechanga Arena, but these are not the same Gulls or Sockers.
These Sockers are off to a great start this season in the Western Division of the Major Arena Soccer League and return to Pechanga Arena on Saturday, March 4.
These Gulls, currently holding down the bottom position in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division, next play at home on Saturday, Feb. 18.
We have neglected to mention the Seals of the National Lacrosse League and the Strike Force of the Indoor Football League, the arena’s two other current tenants. And we have yet to discuss the future of roller derby at the arena, Kobey’s 42-year run of weekend swap meets in the parking lot and/or the one-time drive-in pandemic performance of “La Bohème.” That will be your homework this weekend.
Is the old arena on thin ice? Affirmative. The city of San Diego is working with development team Midway Rising on a lease and redevelopment of the city’s 48-acre sports arena site. The plan includes a new 16,000-seat arena, plus housing, a hotel, and plaza and park space.
The development team fields questions about traffic, parking and other project logistics.
The preceding saga is intended for your entertainment and edification. But our intention also is to illustrate the profound
significance and value that such a venue provides to a community such as ours.
Bob Breitbard passed away in 2010 at age 91. His Breitbard Athletic Foundation begat the Breitbard Hall of Fame, which has become the San Diego Hall of Champions. World B. Free is a director of player development for the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he moonlights as a community goodwill ambassador. He often greets fans entering the Wells Fargo Center in Philly.
John Block concluded a 23-year college coaching career with a stint coaching the Sea Lions of Point Loma Nazarene University in the same gym where he first worked out for the San Diego Rockets. His autobiography, “Building Block,” was published in December. Block resides in Point Loma and continues to coach and mentor young players internationally.
In offseasons while with the San Diego Gulls, Willie O’Ree sold catcher’s mitts and rubber footballs at Stanley Andrews downtown. He played 20 professional seasons with one good eye. In retirement, O’Ree has finally been recognized as the trailblazer he is. Among his many awards, O’Ree received the Order of Canada in 2008, was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, and in 2022 received the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to hockey, inclusion and recreational opportunity. O’Ree’s number has been retired by the Bruins and the Gulls. There currently are two dozen Black players in the NHL.
If a bodacious new arena comes to fruition on the Sports Arena’s site, we’ll all have a fish fry. Having lost two NBA teams in the dim decades of the previous century, the Association’s return to America’s Finest would seem to be a long shot that even Steph Curry would pass up.
But think about this — the National Hockey League currently plays in towns such as Columbus, Newark, Raleigh and San Jose. You don’t think it would love to bring a team to San Diego? This is a great hockey town.
Hey, I did find that puck, by the way. I put it back in the freezer.
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society. Membership in OBHS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $25 annually. Visit obhistory.org.