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Looking back: Arena was once the place to be

Looking back: Arena was once the place to be

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As we rode down Arthur Ashe Boulevard, it was hard not to notice the obvious contrast presented by this year’s Fourth of July opposed to others. The usually busy avenue was nearly deserted, and the normal hustle and bustle surrounding the Diamond was hauntingly missing.

As crews prepared to present a remote fashion of what has become a Richmond tradition, Fourth of July fireworks at the Diamond, the ticket booths were deserted and the large parking lot adjacent sat empty.

As we rode past and headed home, my eye wandered to a space behind the Diamond that now houses the Sports Backer Stadium, a modern facility that sponsors a number of high school and college events.

I thought of an image of that same area from a time many decades ago, before the constant hum of the interstate traffic or intermittent bus arrivals made their mark on the area.

Before there was a Robbins Center, Richmond Coliseum or Ashe Center, there was a monstrosity of a building called the Richmond Arena. For many Richmonders, that facility holds fond memories of their first basketball game, concert or that first time on a pair of roller skates.

The building wasn’t fancy, a sort of half-barrel inverted design that resembled an aircraft hangar. Now, my memories of that area are faded, but names like Moore’s Speedway and the Richmond Stockyards remain in my earliest recollections of the city.

It was a time in Richmond when high school football was played at both City Stadium and Parker Field, and high school basketball was played at The Arena.

For many years, the unheated and non-climate controlled Arena served as the home of University of Richmond basketball games. It was the venue for any big indoor sporting event, including boxing and wrestling matches.

Built in 1904, Richmond’s arena was designed as an exhibition hall for the Virginia State Fair, which held its annual gathering on those grounds until World War II. The Army used the facility for vehicle storage during the war and the city obtained the property when the conflict ended.

At the time, there wasn’t a venue in the city that could seat more than 2,000 spectators, so University of Richmond began calling it home for its basketball games.

And most won’t remember the aging ghost of a building that hosted the Virginia Squires, the Commonwealth’s entry into the new American Basketball Association in its first year of existence. And who knows how many saw Meadowlark Lemon mystify fans as the Harlem Globetrotters drew the largest crowd ever to see an event at The Arena.

And for many, like me, The Arena holds a special place in our hearts as we remember our nights at the Roller Rink and those dirty wooden floors that were sure harder than they looked. I have a distinct memory of being stuck on the end of one of those large revolving lines of skaters where the person on the end reached sound barrier speeds before having the wisdom to let go and fall. I’m still looking for the kid that ran over my fingers while I was down.

The years of wear and tear finally took its toll on the old facility and it closed in 1986, sitting empty for over a decade before finally being demolished.

The crowds found other venues like the Coliseum to enjoy basketball or concerts, and roller skating moved to smaller facilities or disappeared. But, for many of us, memories made of times spent at the Richmond Arena stand the test of time.

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