Still fine at 40: Built in 1972, ORU’s Mabee Center remains an effective venue today
By BILL HAISTEN World Sports Writer
Published: 12/21/2012 2:05 AM
Last Modified: 12/21/2012 3:30 AM
The construction of Dallas’ Reunion Arena was completed in 1980. Within 15 years, the building was considered outdated. In 2009, it was demolished.
The construction of Oral Roberts University’s Mabee Center was completed in 1972. At the age of 40, the arena has aged beautifully – both in its appearance and viability.
In his 1985 autobiography, the Rev. Oral Roberts – who founded the university in 1963 – bragged about the Mabee Center, writing that there was “nothing like it in the state and few like it in the country.”
While the arena’s exterior and interior have a decidedly ’70s look, the Frank Wallace-designed Mabee Center remains an effective venue for events ranging from Golden Eagle basketball to Christian concerts, from church services to inter-tribal pow-wows, and from high school commencement ceremonies to the annual Miss Oklahoma pageant.
When “the “The Price is Right Live!” game show recently was conducted in the Mabee Center’s Johnston Theatre, it attracted a near-sellout crowd. Those in attendance were given the chance to win appliances, vacations and cars.
The Mabee Center is the site of about 300 events each year, arena general manager Tony Winters reports. The next one is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, when the University of Tulsa and ORU basketball teams clash in the Mayor’s Cup contest.
Seated behind the Golden Eagle bench – as he is for most home games – will be Richard Fuqua, the former ORU superstar who played his 1972-73 senior season at the Mabee Center. At the time, the arena commonly was referred to as “The House That Fuqua Built.”
“The first time I ever walked into the Mabee Center, it was amazing,” Fuqua, now a 62-year-old juvenile detention counselor for Tulsa County, said this week. “It was immaculate. We had a great locker room that had everything. It even had a jacuzzi.”
With 16 performances of at least 40 points – including a 49-points-on-49-shots outburst against Illinois State on Feb. 14, 1973 – Fuqua had a career scoring average of 27.1.
“The first time that anyone would see the Mabee Center, it would just blow their mind,” Fuqua said this week. “It’s still so well-kept today.”
Mabee Center maintenance always has been “a high priority” for the university, Winters said.
“It got painted every year. All seats and carpet cleaned,” he said. “Our staff just took a real pride in the building.
“Some places will close the doors on a dirty house. We won’t do that. After every event – even if there isn’t an event the next day – we clean the building. Because it was so ingeniously built, and so well-built – that’s why it’s still so very nice today.”
In his autobiography, Roberts wrote that he revealed his grand plan – to build a state-of-the-art arena on the ORU campus – during a 1970 meeting with 11 of his closest associates. Roberts asked his associates to make the first contributions on the spot, with cash from their wallets. Roberts collected $257.
The fund-raising campaign quickly gained traction. From the John Mabee Foundation of Tulsa, Roberts received a gift of $1 million.
Originally, the Mabee Center was expected to be a $5 million project. The cost wound up being $11 million, according to the Roberts book. If a comparable arena were built today – at 105,000 square feet and with a seating capacity of 10,575 for basketball – the cost would be in the range of $80 million to $100 million, Winters said.
Ted Owens would coach the ORU basketball team in 1985-87, but he experienced the Mabee Center for the first time in March 1974 – when he was the Kansas Jayhawks’ coach and ORU hosted the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
After Kansas outlasted the Eddie Sutton-coached Creighton Bluejays 55-54, the Jayhawks were matched with ORU for the regional championship – and a berth in the Final Four. In the most significant game ever played at the Mabee Center – two weeks after Elvis Presley headlined a pair of sold-out concerts in the same arena – Kansas defeated ORU 93-90 in overtime.
“It was incredible that Oral Roberts got an NCAA regional to be played at ORU. It said a lot about how advanced the facility was,” Owens said. “Back in those days, the Mabee Center was a palace. At that time, I didn’t know of any other place in the country that had a separate practice gym inside the arena. At Kansas, we were sharing Allen Fieldhouse with the track team.
“The Mabee Center is still in wonderful shape. There was great planning that went into it. The one mistake they made when it first opened – the original scoreboard was mounted too low. If you tried a deep pass from one end to the other, you might hit the scoreboard.”
In 1972, the first basketball game played in the arena did not involve the ORU team. Instead, it was an American Basketball Association regular-season contest matching the Dallas Chaparrals and New York Nets. Dallas prevailed 106-99. Among the 2,000 fans in attendance was 11-year-old Barry Lewis, now a Tulsa World Sports Writer and Tulsa sports historian.
ORU’s first Mabee Center game was played on Dec. 4, 1972, when the Titans defeated Wisconsin 90-76. Lewis was in attendance that night, too.
“To me,” Lewis recalls, “watching games at Mabee Center when it opened compared to five years earlier, when my family got its first color TV after having seen TV previously in black-and-white only.”
Lewis remembers the Mabee Center scoreboard as having been “incredibly impressive – especially with the message board below that could show some animation.
“Unlike the (Expo Square Pavilion’s) scoreboard, the Mabee Center scoreboard could show 100 points, which was important with the ORU teams in that era. At the Pavilion, if TU had 101 points, it would show up as 01 on the board. The (Mabee Center) scoreboard also had space for team fouls and individual fouls, rarely seen on scoreboards in those days.”
And during those early years, there was one more unique characteristic of basketball in the Mabee Center. The Rev. Roberts prohibited ORU fans from booing the opposing team or officials.
“Whenever fans would start to boo a call that went against ORU,” Lewis recounted, “Oral Roberts would stand up and signal to the crowd to stop.”