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Out with the old, in with the...old? The XL Center reopens

POSTED October 09, 2014
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

HARTFORD – It may have been illegal and waved off by the ref, but it was a shot that has withstood the test of time in highlight reels.

The great Larry Bird, wearing the legendary white Celtics home jersey, stood behind the backboard on the baseline and threw the ball up over the glass and improbably through the net.

When watching that shot (just search “Larry Bird shot behind backboard” on YouTube) from back in 1986, you may notice something odd. While in that home uniform, Bird was not on the familiar Boston Garden green parquet floor. Instead, his presence was graced by an ugly red and yellow court - the ugly red and yellow court of the Hartford Civic Center.

“Larry had some great games here,” remembers long-time Celtics announcer Mike Gorman. “At that time, the Celtics were an electric team and every time we came here the games were sold out. Those are some great memories.”

For those who may not remember, the Celtics played at least three home games per year in Hartford until 1995. In addition to Bird’s famous teams of the 1980s, the likes of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal played here in an NBA uniform.

Since then, the Celtics have played the occasional preseason game in this building, including last night when they blew out the Knicks, 106-86, before 8,462.

While it’s always a good time to reflect when the Celtics come back to Hartford, Wednesday marked a new day in the now-XL Center’s history, as the arena reopened after a $35-million dollar renovation this summer.

The concourses have mercifully been refurbished. The hand-me-down scoreboard from the Staples Center has finally been discarded and replaced. The locker rooms received a much-needed upgrade. And new bars have been added in the lower sections on the eastern side of the arena.

Is the building still outdated? Absolutely. But at least it’s something - something long overdue.

After seeing minimal changes since the Whalers left in 1997, the arena is now at least somewhat presentable for when it will play host to the men's American Athletic Conference Tournament in March.

UConn’s hockey team, set to debut in its inaugural campaign in Hockey East, will make the XL Center its new home this season, which hopefully will light a spark within the Connecticut hockey community.

Big-name concerts, once the norm in Hartford, have been scooped up regularly by Mohegan Sun over the last decade. Maybe these upgrades can help Hartford get back in the mix.

As you know, UConn’s basketball teams are coming off championships. You would hope that alone would help boost attendance.

Wednesday’s gathering of over 8,000 was decent, especially considering it was a school/work night and the cheapest tickets were $35 in the upper reaches of the 200 sections (amongst the worst sightlines of any arena).

The split crowd saw the Rajon Rondo-less Celtics run the Knicks off the floor, led by Jared Sullinger’s 23 points, along with 11 points and six assists from their impressive rookie guard, Marcus Smart.

Carmelo Anthony, in Derek Fisher’s first game as head coach, scored 10 points in 20 minutes for the Knicks, and Amar’e Stoudemire added six off the bench.

As Rick Pitino infamously said, “Bird, Parish and McHale are not walking through that door.” They, obviously, did not on Wednesday.

But, on the renovated building’s first night, the Celtics playing here was a reminder what this place used to be.

From those 1980s Celtics to the 1986-87 Whalers to UConn’s violently loud crowd in the early days of Husky-mania, the Civic Center was, believe it or not, a premier venue.

The $35-million dollar investment will help make things a little better, at least for a few years. However, rekindling the golden days of the building will take a miracle shot like Larry Bird’s.

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