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Frank's Place: Remembering when Spectrum's roof blew off

I don't know about you, but as a proud Philadelphian my cheeks glow as red as a Phillies cap whenever a discussion turns to our city's sports facilities.

I don't know about you, but as a proud Philadelphian my cheeks glow as red as a Phillies cap whenever a discussion turns to our city's sports facilities.

My embarrassment is justified.

While the taxpayers who funded many of them were promised civic assets, Philadelphia's stadiums and arenas more often have been stains on the city's reputation.

Ramshackle Baker Bowl burned once, collapsed twice. JFK Stadium was shoddily built, rarely used, and devoid of good vantage points. And when a website recently ranked "The Worst Stadiums in American History," Veterans Stadium finished a well-deserved first.

Last week, persistent moisture on the Wells Fargo Center basketball floor forced the postponement of a 76ers-Kings game. As social media exploded with anti-Philadelphia snark, I glowed crimson again.

Why must the sports we love so devotedly shame us so often?

Nearly 50 years ago, homesick in Wisconsin, I was mocked by my hockey-crazed dormitory mates. Their scorn was precipitated by an item we'd seen on the CBS Evening News, a brief report on a Philadelphia sporting embarrassment much worse than a slippery floor or unplayable turf.

Shortly before 2 p.m. on Feb. 17, 1968, as Spectrum president Hal Freeman relaxed in his basement office during an Ice Capades show, a nephew popped his head in the door.

"Hey, Uncle Hal," he said to Freeman, who died in 1998, "I think you've got a problem. The roof is blowing off."

Minutes before, 11,000 spectators had heard what sounded like an approaching freight train as high winds tore off a hefty chunk of the new arena's roof and dumped it into the parking lot.

With sunlight and cold air suddenly pouring through a gaping hole, the terrified crowd filed out. As it did, a whimsical Ice Capades band played "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder."

The Inquirer's editorial board and many civic leaders argued that the arena should be shuttered until adequate repairs were completed.

Instead, Spectrum officials slapped a tarpaper patch atop the opening and kept the doors open.

Two weeks later, on March 1, a cold front swept more high winds into South Philadelphia. This time, they not only uprooted the roof patch, they widened the existing hole.

Angry now, 57-year-old Mayor James H.J. Tate climbed a ladder to the top of the roof and inspected the latest damage. After descending, he told waiting reporters that the arena was closed until further notice.

Suddenly the Spectrum, the city's pride when it opened the previous autumn, became a national punch line.

Johnny Carson joked about it during his monologues. Out-of-town sportswriters and columnists, many of whom already snickered at us, turned their typewriters on the city.

"[The Philadelphia sports fan looks on] glum and helpless while his basketball and hockey teams - potential champions both -charge into the most frenzied and profitable moments of their seasons without a roof to call their own," Sports Illustrated's William Johnson wrote, adding that the Spectrum was "built along the clean, if uninspired, lines of a six-story sardine can".

And then things got really ugly.

Developer Jerry Wolman went bankrupt, triggering a nasty battle for control of the damaged building and the brand-new hockey team that played there, the Flyers.

The Inquirer's Republican owner, Walter Annenberg, used the incident to renew a feud with Matt McCloskey, a powerful Democrat whose construction company had built the Spectrum.

District Attorney Arlen Specter, who'd narrowly lost to Tate in the previous mayoral election, saw a different opening, this one political. He launched an investigation.

Among other things, it revealed that the Spectrum's developers hadn't acquired the proper building permits, either for its construction or for its roof repairs.

Meanwhile, successful seasons by the facility's two prime tenants were cruelly disrupted, their championship prospects gone with the wind.

The 76ers, the defending NBA champions who had the league's best record on that Feb. 17, were forced to return to what Johnson termed "the church-basement atmosphere of Convention Hall." When that 37-year-old building wasn't available, they played at the Palestra.

The hated Boston Celtics ended their hopes for a repeat when, in the Eastern Conference finals, they became the first NBA team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the series.

Meanwhile, the Flyers, atop the NHL's Western Conference that windswept day, had it even worse. Their home games were moved to New York, Toronto, and Quebec City.

Long after one Quebec City game ended, the Flyers got word that an L.A. Kings home loss had clinched the division for Philadelphia.

Their celebration took place, not in an arena filled with ecstatic home fans, but in a cramped Canadian hotel room in the middle of the night.

"Did we have to clinch now?" goalie Doug Favell complained after being summoned to the party. "I just took three sleeping pills, and The Slime People is on the late movie."

In the first round of the playoffs, the Flyers, back at the Spectrum by then, were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues.

The roof stayed put for the Spectrum's final 31 years. And I eventually got over my embarrassment.

Besides, if the hockey nuts in Ross Hall still wanted to rag me about Philly and the Spectrum's roof, I could always point to the encouraging news that filled Philadelphia's sports pages that winter.

"Laugh now," I could say. "You won't be laughing when we're done with the new all-purpose stadium they're building right across the street from the Spectrum. From what I hear, it's going to be the best sports facility in the world."