By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
It was first the Brendan Byrne Arena, then the Continental Airlines Arena and finally the Izod Center, but from the minute the doors opened in the summer of 1981, it was more universally known, unofficially, as the Meadowlands Arena.
And it was a building that helped to put New Jersey on the national sports map.
Sure, we already had Giants Stadium for five years by the time the Meadowlands Arena opened to a string of Bruce Springsteen concerts. While Giants Stadium was definitely constructed in the New Jersey Meadowlands, making East Rutherford a household word in 1976, the Meadowlands Arena gave New Jersey its own sports identity.
It’s because the New Jersey Nets played there from the first year of the building’s existence. A year later, the Colorado Rockies of the NHL moved east to become the New Jersey Devils. These were New Jersey’s teams with a New Jersey name. The Giants, albeit housed in New Jersey, have still kept New York as their first name.
The Meadowlands Arena provided New Jersey with its own teams. Even if the Nets and Devils weren’t great teams back then, they were still New Jersey’s teams in name and spirit.
The Nets did become pretty good in 1983 and 1984, with Micheal Ray Richardson running the point and Darryl Dawkins giving us his Chocolate Thunder and Buck Williams becoming the franchise’s first NBA All-Star. The Nets knocked the defending NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers out of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 1984, sending shockwaves through the league.
Then, in 2002 and 2003, the Nets, led by all-time All-Star Jason Kidd, won consecutive Eastern Conference championships and went to the NBA Finals.
The Devils, the laughingstock of the NHL in their infant stages, a team that the immortal Wayne Gretzky once dubbed as a “Mickey Mouse operation,” ended up winning the Stanley Cup championship a total of three times during their days in the Meadowlands Arena.
The NCAA totally adored the Meadowlands Arena for its college basketball tournament. For a grand total of 11 times, the NCAA held either East Regional first round action or the East Regional finals at the Meadowlands. It became a regular jaunt.
There were some memorable East Regional moments, like 1990, when Christian Laettner hit a jump shot at the buzzer that lifted Duke past UConn, two days after Tate George’s miraculous’ catch-and- shoot enabled the Huskies to get past Clemson at the buzzer and advance to face Duke, a school that treated the Meadowlands like its home away from home.
In 1996, the NCAA Final Four was held there, with Kentucky winning the national title in coach Tubby Smith’s first year with the Wildcats.
There were also countless independent college basketball contests, mostly involving Duke, but there was a classic showdown between North Carolina and Kentucky when the arena first opened in 1981, a battle between No. 1 and No. 2 in the country, featuring North Carolina’s sophomore sensation Michael Jordan, a game won by the top-ranked Tar Heels, 82-69.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference held its season-ending tournament there for several years. The Atlantic 10 tourney was also once held there. So the arena was a hotbed for college basketball events for decades.
From the high school basketball standpoint, the NJSIAA held the annual Tournament of Champions finale, both for the boys and girls, there for many years. It was also the home of the NJSIAA wrestling tournament for two years while Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City was under reconstruction.
It was also the home of the NCAA wrestling championships one year. The Maccabiah Games, the Olympic Games for those of the Jewish faith, were held there. Major track and field meets, like the Vitalis Meadowlands meet, were held there.
The arena was always a place of local prominence, not just for sporting events. Many local colleges held their commencement exercises there every year. There were countless concerts, kids’ events, circuses. The list can go on and on.
Needless to say, the Meadowlands Arena by that unofficial name or any of its other official given names was a major part of the local dichotomy for more than 30 years.
That was, at least, before last Monday, when the once-magnificent and once-majestic white edifice located in the swamps of the Meadowlands, making the Meadowlands an internationally renowned site, was closed by the state for at least the next two years, quite possibly forever.
It’s sad to think that the Meadowlands Arena could become so obsolete in such a period of time. One would figure that it would be there forever, serving the public and bolstering New Jersey’s image.
But the Prudential Center was constructed in nearby Newark and the Barclays Center followed in Brooklyn, turning the Meadowlands Arena into an ugly stepsister.
The Devils moved to Newark and the Nets to Brooklyn. Duke played UConn one last time at the Meadowlands last December, almost like a fitting swan song. The place was packed once again with rabid college basketball fans. It was like old times.
From my standpoint, it’s the location where I did the most amount of work in my adult life.
Before I became a sportswriter, I was a security officer/bodyguard for several of the performing acts who graced the Meadowlands Arena stages. I helped to protect performers like Styx, Kenny Rogers, Journey, Aerosmith.
On one memorable August afternoon in 1982, I had the great fortune to work with the late John Denver, who I played ping pong with, drove across Route 120 to the Meadowlands Racetrack to see the Hambletonian race (in complete anonymity) and watched as he gave daisies to my mother after a concert.
Those daisies were placed in a glassed frame and although they became a bit weathered after a while, they hung on the wall in our Jersey City home for years and years, right next to my mother’s shrine to the Kennedy brothers.
When I became a sportswriter in 1983, the Meadowlands Arena was where I got my first professional byline – yes, covering figure skating of all sports.
I was sent to the Meadowlands to do a story about former Olympic gold medal winner Scott Hamilton and interviewed him in the bowels of the arena. How would I have known that it would be the beginning of 30 years of covering events there?
I spent thousands of hours and hundreds of days covering the sporting events there, especially the Nets, who I’ve covered more than any other team in my career.
I was there when Shaquille O’Neill brought down the entire basket – frame, backboard and all – when he was just a puppy playing for the Orlando Magic in 1993. I was there for those great playoff runs in 2002 and 2003. I sat center court and watched Reggie Miller throw in a shot from right near where I sat and sent the Nets-Pacers playoff game into triple overtime in 2009.
I was there for countless Devils games, sitting both in the hockey press box at center ice, then getting shifted to the roof where the skaters looked like miniature figures. I was there when they won the Cup in 1995 and 2003, much to the delight of local fans.
Sure, I was there for a lot of those college games as well, the NCAA Tournament classics.
I was there to watch St. Anthony win its share of Tournament of Champions titles, especially the 1996 T of C when Rashon Burno, who I had the pleasure to coach as a child in Biddy basketball in Jersey City, steal his way to prominence by leading the fabulous Friars to the state title and winning the T of C Most Valuable Player award.
I felt like a proud father that night, especially when Burno acknowledged me among my friends and colleagues in a post-game press conference.
So there was a major sense of sadness driving past the place last week. It was raining, of course. Construction workers had installed concrete barricades to prevent any access. A lone security guard sat in a booth far outside.
It’s almost the same sickening feeling that I had when they tore down Giants Stadium five years ago. But at that time, there was hope for the future with the new MetLife Stadium. With this closing, there is no hope, just the finality.
I’ll forever remember the Meadowlands Arena, for what it meant to northern New Jersey, for what it meant to so many people who spent so much time escaping from life’s daily grind there. I did the math and counted at least 1,500 dates over 30 years that I covered events there. That’s almost five full years of my life.
It meant a lot to me, because it was not only a place that I went to on a regular basis, but it was also a place that gave us New Jerseyans a sense of pride. We weren’t the subject of jokes and ridicule. We had a big-time arena with big-time events. Yes, New Jersey, right across the river from Manhattan, was big time, right down to the names of the teams.
For that, we’ll forever have the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, the people who ran the arena for ages, great people like Michael Graime and Helen Strus, to thank for making us all feel relevant and important, and not some joke about what exit we lived near.