The way it was
Listen to your elders. They can tell you, as I’m about to tell you now, what things were like a half-century ago, before cell phones, emails, laptops, hybrid cars, GPS, global warming, social media and lots of other stuff that we all somehow managed without back then. Specifically, I’m going to describe the moment 50 years ago when big-time sports came to Long Island, this identity-challenged sprawl of suburbia forever in the shadow of the entertainment and cultural center that is New York City.
It wasn’t especially auspicious. But when the Nassau Coliseum opened its doors on Feb. 11, 1972 for a professional basketball game in the short-lived American Basketball Association, it indeed was the beginning of establishing Long Islanders’ sense of joining the in-crowd.
On the eve of that event, new Coliseum executives were promising future top-shelf events previously available only in Gotham — ice shows, boxing championships, major college basketball, roller derby, the Globetrotters, boat shows, ice shows, auto shows, dog shows. The mountain was going to come to us Mohammads.
Not all of that worked out so spectacularly. But the Coliseum, rather quickly, did come to represent a reasonable alternative to Manhattan’s elitism. And here’s how it started:
That Feb. 11 debut, which I covered for Newsday, officially was an “unofficial” opening, with only about half of the planned 15,000 seats installed. Furthermore, the available seats all were in the upper bowl, not quite binocular range but hardly courtside perches. Nineteen-seventy-two ticket prices beside the point — $5.50 to $7.50 — all 7,892 spectators were in the cheap seats.
Given the unfinished state of the building, intrepid ushers were armed with mimeographed charts of the seating design, worried that the chalk marks numbering the sections might be accidentally erased. Shortly before halftime, a minor water leak developed in the hallway leading to the locker rooms.
But the game — a 129–121 New York Nets victory over the Pittsburgh Condors — was lively enough and so were the spectators. (Fittingly, one could argue, the venue’s first technical foul was assessed to Nets coach Lou Carnesecca, the now-97-year old New York sports institution known for his passionate involvement in the game, including his pointed assessments of referees’ work.)
Overall, the step up in atmosphere and amenities was a clear improvement over the Nets’ previous home at the generously named Island Garden. “Like going,” veteran Nets guard Bill Melchionni said that night, “from the outhouse to a bathroom with plumbing.”
Then and for the rest of the basketball season, the Coliseum made due with a portable floor, baskets and scoreboard all transported from the Nets previous home, prompting Pittsburgh coach Mark Binstein — who had been a Nets executive when the ABA materialized for 1967–68 season — to sarcastically express surprise “that they built a $28 million arena and still are using the same scoreboard I bought five years ago for $1,800.”
In fact the Coliseum, from the start, was a no-frills, affordable establishment, equivalent to the post-World War II Levitt housing that long defined Long Island. It was not state-of-the-art, hardly Big Town glitz, but it was the ideal counterweight to Madison Square Garden. It was analogous to the style of Al Arbour — humble and efficient — who cemented Long Island’s big-league identity by coaching the hockey Islanders to four Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s.
And it was a terrific place to watch a game. Anywhere in the building.
Of course the Nets left years ago, off to New Jersey in 1977 and resettled in Brooklyn in 2012, so the Coliseum became almost exclusively associated with the Islanders, who played there from 1972 to 2015 and split time between the Coliseum and Brooklyn from 2018 to 2021.
Then last Nov. 20, upon the Islanders’ move into their new $1.1 billion arena at Belmont Park, came gushing reports — rubbing-their-eyes-in-disbelief reactions by fans, players and officials over that venue’s stupendous architectural and technological marvels. For added emphasis, there were comparisons to the Coliseum cast as going from a dull black-and-white existence to full color, descriptions of the Coliseum as “that cramped, spare venue,” a “dingy old building,” a “dumpy….old barn.”
I have not been to the Belmont Park edifice and am confident it is nice. Its hefty price tag, after all, could buy a lot of bells, whistles and comfort for all involved. Even with inflation, that $1.1 billion amounts to six times what it cost to bring the Coliseum into being.
Okay, the Coliseum is undeniably from a previous era — a previous century! But having frequented the Coliseum with some regularity, going back to Feb. 11, 1972 — fifty years ago! — as well as covering the Islanders’ initial appearance there in October of ’72, I am here to bear witness to the old joint’s functionality and ambience.
Time marches on. But, kids, you missed a good thing.