July 12, 2016

Where The Wizards Played: Chicago

In a normal year, I'd be just getting back from Las Vegas at this point in July, having spent a few days in the desert watching Washington Wizards Summer League hoops. I made my first Summer League trip in 2008 and was hooked immediately. Here was a new, more intimate way to see the NBA at work and I loved it instantly. Since that first trip, I've been every year except for 2011, when the lockout wiped out Summer League entirely.

But this is not a normal year as it turns out. After seven consecutive Summer Leagues I decided last year I'd give it a break for at least one year. Over the almost decade I'd been faithfully returning to Sin City, I'd seen the weeklong series of games get transformed from a hidden gem that not even the taxi drivers in Vegas knew about to a marquee destination for fans all over the southwest and beyond. In 2015, there were lines at the doors, packed seating areas and less of an ability to connect and chat with players, coaches and GMs. I'd had enough at least for one year. 

But I couldn't just bail on Summer League without getting out of the Washington, D.C. area. So this past weekend, I hopped a flight to Chicago for a couple of days out in the Windy City. And as a testament or a sinister indication of how completely the Wizards have permeated my life, I of course tracked down some sites which long ago meant something to this Wizards team.

The Wizards have changed their name as a franchise five times, more times than any other NBA club out there. For the last 53 seasons, the Wizards have been known (in sequence) as the Baltimore Bullets, Capital Bullets, Washington Bullets and Washington Wizards. Before that, the team was in Chicago. For just two seasons. They spent the 1961-1962 season as the Chicago Packers and the 1962-1963 season as the Chicago Zephyrs. I'm guessing the name change between the two seasons was made because no self respecting Chicago sports fan ever wants to chant "Let's go Packers!" A year after the Zephyrs started play, they were in Baltimore as the Bullets and there would be no more Packers or Zephyrs in the NBA. 

I've been to Chicago a few times before last week so I had checked off a number of my Chicago must see destinations. When I started putting my agenda together for this trip, I decided I should add the spot where the Wizards played those first two seasons to my list so I could go see where exactly the franchise started out. As it turned out, I had to go to two separate spots in the city because in addition to changing their name, they also switched arenas. I expected to find very little and that turned out to be almost true but I did find a couple of interesting sites which made this side trip totally worthwhile. 

1961-1962: Chicago Packers

How fitting would it be if the future Wizards played near the old Chicago Union Stock Yards which presumably inspired the Packers name? Well...very fitting would be the answer; perfect, even. And they did.

The Union Stock Yards were opened in 1865 in an area of Chicago right along the railroad which had previously been the location for various smaller stock yards used to hold cattle and pigs for slaughter prior to that time. With the creation of the Union Stock Yards, the railroad barons who owned and controlled the Yards created the largest single meat processing plant in the world and used their trains to distribute their product all over the Midwest and east coast. They also created an unsanitary dangerous place to work which employed the least powerful classes of people in Chicago, a situation which inspired Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle as a fiction-based-on-fact expose of the exploitation of workers in Chicago. Ultimately, his book had a huge influence on the labor movement in the United States in addition to giving rise to new health laws for operations involving food processing. It's also survived pretty well and is a good read.

In 1934 the Stock Yards built a building to host the 1934 International Livestock Exhibition and it was this facility, otherwise known as the International Amphitheater (postcard above), in which the Packers-Zephyrs-Bullets-Wizards franchise played their inaugural season's home games. It seated all of 9,000 for basketball and was used for that purpose for just the one season that the Packers played ball here. The building was closed in 1971, the same year the Stock Yards were closed, and it disappeared for good in 1999. 

International Amphitheatre site today.
Today the site is less than impressive. There's almost no memory of the Stock Yards around and there's an Aramark Uniform Services building on the block formerly occupied by the Amphitheatre. There's a Wizards tie-in here: Aramark is company that primarily supplies patrons like me with mediocre food and overpriced beer at Verizon Center. Appropriate, I guess, that the building they built here is about as exciting as I get about their food at Wizards games. It was better for me looking at the site to imagine the International Amphitheatre still in place. 

Where the Wizards played their first season is important to the history of Chicago and the United States and it has nothing to do with basketball. Head to the north and west of the old Amphitheatre site and you'll find the old main entrance to the Union Stock Yards, a gorgeous Richardson Romanesque arched structure that looks sufficiently important to announce the Stock Yards' presence. There's nothing else to do in this part of Chicago that I could see this past weekend but it's probably worth a look if you are ever in this area of town. 

1962-1963: Chicago Zephyrs

A year after they started playing at the International Amphitheatre, the Packers ditched their name and their home building and moved in to the Chicago Coliseum, which was located on South Wabash Avenue right at the intersection with East 14th Place. The Coliseum was one of the most infamous buildings in the United States back in its heyday, but that was when the building was a prison in Richmond, Virginia, not when it was an event venue in the Midwest.

Yep, that's right. A prison. The Coliseum (postcard above) began life as a warehouse by the side of the James River in Richmond, Virginia and the original construction date of the building is likely unknown. But in 1861 the Confederacy had started to use the building as a prison for Union officers and continued to use it for that purpose until 1864, the year before the Civil War ended. The Libby Prison, as it ended up being called, was probably second only to Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia in terms of notoriety. And that's saying something. Andersonville was pretty much hell on Earth for the men who were held there.

Despite that background, someone cared so much about the building that he paid to have it dismantled and moved to Chicago. That someone was candy manufacturer Charles Gunther, who relocated the building in 1889 and opened it as the Libby Prison Civil War Museum. Ten years later, Gunther closed the museum and tore most of the building down and the Chicago Coliseum was born out of the rubble, so to speak. Part of the castellated wall of the façade was retained and integrated into the exterior of the building but the rest was gone.

The building was still standing as an events center when the Packers turned Zephyrs were looking for a new home in 1963. A little bit of refurbishment for the new tenant turned the Coliseum into a 7,000 seat venue for professional hoops. That was 2,000 fewer seats than the team had the first season, although I can't imagine that was a problem for the last placed Zephyrs: no attendance figures exist for the team but the NBA Champion Boston Celtics that year drew an average of fewer than 5,000 fans per contest.

Chicago Coliseum site today.
The Coliseum disappeared entirely in 1982, although a part of it is allegedly on display in the Chicago History Museum. Visit South Wabash and 14th Place today and you'll find a huge city block with a variety of buildings on the site, the perfect place for a basketball arena. The Coliseum has been replaced with the Soka-Gakkai International building. Soka-Gakkai is a Japanese based Buddhist group which bases its beliefs on the teachings of the 13th century Japanese priest Nichiren. File this in the "you learn something every day" category.

As a building site, the lot where the Coliseum stood is far more connected to the city of Chicago than the site where the Packers played. The old Stock Yards area has an industrial and abandoned feel; the Zephyrs had a home that is way more vibrant and bustling in present day Chicago. And just like the Stock Yards gate over by the International Amphitheatre, I found another spot worth visiting on this site: Vice District Brewing Company, an English ale style brewery with six offerings on tap which I enjoyed in a sampler before moving on to other weekend out of town activities.

My experience at Vice District was pretty standard. Six different brews, six three to four ounce sampler glasses sequenced from lightest to darkest. I'm a porter lover at heart but at Vice District I did not love the porter the best, finding it too coffee flavored. I'd uncharacteristically order the Kitchen Sink beer here, which is their lightest offering.

But in talking with the bartender (Howard University grad btw!) it appears the best is yet to come for Vice District and their brewmaster, who refreshingly is a woman (not the norm in the brewing industry). They have been in business two years but are planning an expansion with a production and canning facility on the south side of town in addition to some experimentation with sour ales, a much overlooked (in my opinion) Belgian brewing style. I'd love to go back once it's up and running.

Two years. Two names. Two buildings. And then basketball was gone from Chicago to Baltimore. Of course in 1966 Chicago got the Bulls, so tell me who got the better end of that deal. I can't necessarily recommend the two places the Wizards played in the Windy City as must sees when you are in the Midwest, but there's at least something interesting in both spots. Now I know where the Wizards started out. I somehow feel a bit more connected to the team and Chicago for it. Maybe I'll be back at Summer League next year. Then again, maybe not.

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