Uncategorized Blaisdell hits the big Five-0 By Ferd Lewis Jan. 12, 2014 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! KRYSTLE MARCELLUS / KMARCELLUS@STARADVERTISER.COM2014 January 10 SPT - Neal Blaisdell Center Arena on Friday, January 10, 2014. Honolulu Star-Advertiser Photo by Krystle Marcellus Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Florida State basketball coach Hugh Durham had the ninth-ranked team in the country on the floor against the University of Hawaii and a religious leader (Oral Roberts) sitting close beside him on the bench. But on a December night in 1971, Durham said he knew they were all in over their heads. "We weren’t going to win in that crazy place," Durham would say later. "You could feel it." "That crazy place" was the thunderous, sold-out Honolulu International Center, later renamed Neal S. Blaisdell Center, and it had become the frenzied home to the legendary Fabulous Five. And Durham was right — the Seminoles lost two games there while providing memorable drama and enduring controversy to the facility’s lore. He pulled his team off the floor down 30-10 after being assessed a technical foul and then came back four nights later to lose 81-76. Since its opening at the corner of Ward Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard 50 years ago, the facility, which was renamed in 1976 for the Honolulu mayor who oversaw its beginning, has occupied a prime place in the sports fabric of the state, providing highlights and tales retold and passed down by generations. The initial name revealed much about the hopes for a future that it would make Honolulu an international sporting destination, 11 years before the opening of Aloha Stadium. "It brought Hawaii into more of the, quote, big time," recalls Jim Leahey, who did public address announcing there before moving into a nearly half-century radio and television sportscasting career. With the Fabulous Five as pied pipers, going a combined 37-1 there between 1970-71 and 1971-72, the HIC rocked with crowds approaching 8,000 even as all the Rainbows’ home games were shown live on statewide television. "It was a super-charged atmosphere," recalls guard Dwight Holiday. "The people fed off of us and we fed off of their enthusiasm." In the seven years after its 1964 opening, the arena became a showplace for basketball, boxing and pro wrestling, all of which drew throngs in the pre-cable TV days. On land that once was home to the 100-acre Ward Estate, it provided a spacious and stylish air-conditioned upgrade from the venerable, creaky 31-year-old Civic Auditorium about a half-mile away on King Street. The ponds that surround the arena today are reminiscent of the lake featured on the property that was sold to the city just prior to statehood. Tiny Chaminade University sprang the biggest upset in college basketball history there, and Pete Maravich of Louisiana State put on an individual exhibition that had even his opponents mesmerized. "Pistol Pete" put up 53 points on St. John’s in 1969 (this was before the advent of the 3-point shot) and punctuated it with a halfcourt pass off the backboard for an assist. Promoter Don King waxed poetic about the arena being a "cathedral" for boxing. Wrestler Freddie Blassie once asked, "How many pencil-neck geeks can you fit in here anyway?" Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, disgusted by a Hoosiers loss in the Rainbow Classic, flung his plaid jacket there and demanded that a box of goodwill pineapples given to the team be dumped off the bus. And a skinny high school basketball player then known as Barry Obama, who played in ILH games on Saturday afternoons en route to Punahou School’s 1979 state championship, got his first taste of crowds there. YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A CHAMINADE In late 1982, word was that Chaminade University, the small school atop Kalaepohaku, was looking to give itself a broader identity and might change its name to the University of Honolulu to better brand itself. But those plans vanished two days before Christmas, when its NAIA basketball team knocked off mighty Virginia, the No. 1-ranked team in the country. A disbelieving nation awoke on Christmas Eve morning to find the Cavaliers had fallen to coach Merv Lopes’ Silverswords, 77-72. Mark Rodrigues’ lob pass to 6-foot, 2-inch guard Tim Dunham, who dunked over Virginia’s 7-foot, 4-inch center Ralph Sampson, the college player of the year, came to be symbolic of the upset. In days, Chaminade found itself on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the talk of ESPN. WHERE BOXING BECAME KING Even now, nearly 40 years later, the sounds of boxing from the arena still resonate with 61-year-old Ben Villaflor. "I think about how exciting it was, sitting in your dressing room before your fight, listening to the crowd in the arena screaming and (stomping)," recalls Villaflor, now the sergeant of arms at the state Capitol. Villaflor, who first fought there as an 18-year-old in 1971, spent much of his pugilistic career in its ring, where he waged five world junior lightweight title fights and packed the house for promoter Sad Sam Ichinose. It was world welterweight contender Stan Harrington (64-18, 26 KOs), a Palama native, who ushered in what Bobby Lee, longtime Hawaii State Boxing Commission executive, calls the "big fight heyday" for boxing in the arena. Harrington, a star attraction at the Civic, moved to the HIC, where he fought a Who’s Who of the division, foremost among them being two 10-round decisions over Sugar Ray Robinson in 1965, the first drawing 8,406. Adolph Pruitt (44-12-2, 30 KOs), Domi Manalang (56-6-6, 31 KOs), Villaflor and Andy Ganigan (34-5, 30 KOs) would follow, each attracting crowds in excess of 8,000. When Ganigan, an undefeated (25-0) Oahu Sugar Co. worker, fought Chicago’s Johnny Lira for the U.S. Boxing Association lightweight title in 1978 at the sold-out arena, security was hard pressed to keep additional fans from scaling the back walls to gain entrance. Muhammad Ali, who stopped over en route to the Thrilla in Manilla and other fights, fought a six-round exhibition against then-sparring partner Jimmy Ellis in 1966. Ali and boxing were a draw even in closed-circuit TV events, the big one coming in March 1971, when Ali fought Joe Frazier. WAHINE AWAKENING In 1976 the fledgling Rainbow Wahine volleyball program was beginning its third season and visionary women’s athletic director Donnis Thompson decided to take it out of creaky Klum Gym and try to open it to a wider following by opening at Blaisdell against UCLA. Coach Dave Shoji, beginning his second year, was skeptical of the idea, saying, "I don’t think anybody, in their wildest dreams, could have imagined 7,000 people attending a women’s volleyball game at that time." Yet, the place was nearly packed to see the Bruins prevail in a four-set match and eventually the Rainbow Wahine would go on to become what they remain today, the biggest draw in women’s volleyball. JORDAN PLAYED THERE The Rainbow Classic debuted in 1964, when the HIC opened, and it would not be a coincidence that the two grew by leaps and bounds in popularity together. The eight-team tournament was the brainchild of UH basketball coach Red Rocha and 14th Naval District athletic director Chuck Leahey, whose progeny, son Jim and grandson Kanoa, later worked there as sportscasters. The event gave fans a taste of big-time college basketball. Its honor roll includes Michael Jordan leading North Carolina to the 1982 title and UH’s Bob Nash of the Fabulous Five grabbing 30 rebounds in a game against Arizona State in 1971. In 1992, three of the teams in the NCAA Final Four — Michigan, North Carolina and Kansas — appeared in the classic semifinals. And in the last classic played at Blaisdell, Trevor Ruffin scored 42 points, including 10-for-11 3-point shooting, against Louisville in 1993. The 442nd Veterans Club and Ralph Yempuku brought sumo to the arena for 30 years and the sport’s ironman, Jesse (Takamiyama) Kuhaulua of Maui, made his last ring appearance there, breaking into tears when a telegram was read from President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Pro martial arts, which whet the appetite for MMA shows of today, filled the arena from the 1970s on, with Benny "the Jet" Urquidez, Teddy Limoz and Dennis Alexio among the popular draws. Indoor football and bull riding eventually joined the menu. These days, Jim Leahey said, "You can still feel the history when you walk into the building. All the great games, matches and fights that took place there over the years. The history is all around you."