They sold pieces of the Spectrum, the guy said.
What? When? What are you talking about?
A few weeks ago, he said; I picked up a few chairs.
How come I didn't hear about this?You don't read the newspaper enough, he said, wryly, being the sports columnist that he is.
I felt my pulse quicken. I was frightened but not sure why. It's not like I'm a pop culture freak who snaps up souvenirs when big old landmarks tumble down. Something huge was at stake.
Had I missed a chance to bring back to life that which I had lost so long ago?
There were two seats in that Spectrum, you see, that needed to be mine. Needed to be unbolted from that old arena and handed over to me and to no one else. This was the only thought as I began to sweat.
An old ticket stub is all I've got from that day. It's a piece of serrated, glossed paper, no more than two inches long and an inch wide. Its owner jumped from those seats on April 8, 1984, as Julius Erving nailed a fall-away jumper with four seconds left. The Doctor's surgical dollop toward the net helped the Sixers cream the hapless Knicks, 109-108, in front of 17,313 fans.
From my berth in Section 37, Row 10, Seat 12, and the spot next to me, a 13-year-old tomboyish girl and her normally subdued immigrant father hopped to their feet in ecstasy. Our seat cushions flapped violently as we rejoiced at the team we had come to know from the sofa of our Upper Darby home.
I was the son my father never had, sort of. One of three girls, I had spent countless hours with him having anxiety attacks watching the Sixers become world champions the year before. When we weren't doing that, I was standing by his side at his small sandwich shop a half block from the Tower Theater.
That game was the only time my dad took me to the Spectrum. He was a busy guy: six days a week, no paid vacations, behind the meat slicer, coming home every night smelling like onions, pickles, ham and cooked salami. He didn't even make it to my middle school basketball games. (I was a bench warmer, sadly, which was good that he never came.)
At 12 bucks a pop - $25.26 in today's dollars - our one game was just affordable enough for a one-time splurge. And boy, did we get a show.
But I needed more. Specifically, I had a plan to stalk the players out back. I needed autographs. I needed to meet Julius Erving. I was obsessed. I convinced this no-drama dad of mine to stand on tired feet a bit longer as I indulged my preposterous fixation.
One by one, players strolled out. I got a few B-list autographs from players whose scrawl I can hardly make out anymore. The A-listers – Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone – were nowhere to be found.
But then came Dr. J.
I was skinny and scrawny and generally polite, but I elbowed my way into a small scrum and got within inches of the man who could fly to the basket like a swan.
"Can I please have your autograph?" I begged.
"I'm not giving out autographs today," he said, "but I'll shake your hand."
The next few seconds were slow motion: An enormous hand the size of Montana wrapped around my bony fingers like a warm, leathery glove and squeezed.
Eleven years later, I was back at the Spectrum.
Mice were crawling in the stands, the acoustics were miserable, warm champagne oozed on the floor, and right near the half-court line I sat on a folding chair for my college graduation. It was spring 1992.
My father and mother were in the stands, and the stands were mostly empty. Did I mention the mice? But hey – I was in Sixersland. I couldn't think of a better place to be handed an advanced degree in learning.
I looked around wondering where, exactly, those two seats from 1984 were. I spied the rafters and admired the championship jerseys which, to this day, still fail to include Moses Malone (an outrage that has not dimmed with the passing of time, by the way).
Three years later, I was back at the Spectrum. The Sixers were playing their last season there. It was March 1996. The team was so bad it was almost ridiculous to embark on a story about how awful they were. But I couldn't resist; the next year they'd move next door into what is now the Wells Fargo Center.
I was now a grown-up, 25 years old, armed with a working journalist's freedom to explore with a pen, paper and press credentials. I interviewed fans in the stands and forced myself to watch some of the action against the Minnesota Timberwolves. One guy had a paper bag over his head, he was so embarrassed by the team.
I took a breather in the press box. It was ugly out on the court. The Sixers were on their way to losing to the brutally pathetic Timberwolves. As a Daily News scribe put it the next day: "losing 103-90 to a team that had lost by a nightmarish 41 points in Miami the previous evening."
As I stood at one end of the long, narrow press box, a towering figure waltzed in.
My jaw dropped. My grip tightened on my notebook. I squinted and slowly approached the man, wiping my hand on my pant leg as I extended it for an introduction.
"My name is Maria Panaritis," I said. "I'm a reporter with the Associated Press."
He shook my hand, and I was 13 again.
I went home that night and would have called my dad with the news: I interviewed Doctor J! But those days had come to an end. He died 12 months earlier, when I was 24, of a heart attack.
The Spectrum overlords who have turned its demise into a protracted spectacle of sentimentality are peddling bricks for $39.95. Must be one hell of a brick.
I can see why it's attractive; when people disappear, people search for things they can touch - a brick, a scarf, a letter - to keep those people still somehow here, among the living. I didn't have to worry about that as long as the Spectrum was still up and running. But with it coming down Tuesday, I worried that only a memento would keep the fantasy alive in my heart.
But then, I sat at this keyboard. And I realized - as you often do when you sit at a keyboard - that some memories don't go down, even with the wrecking ball.
Maria Panaritis is a staff writer who works in the Business department at The Inquirer. Contact her at 215-854-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.