With all the new stuff happening in town, we thought it would be good to also give a nod to one of Owensboro’s classic, most historic buildings: the Owensboro Sportscenter. Most of us have been to the Sportscenter countless times for basketball games and high school graduations. But in its heyday, the Sportscenter was a premier venue and hosted many of the biggest names in show business. Owensboro Living sat down with Sportscenter Manager Hal Mischel to talk about some of the best moments in the history of the Sportscenter.
OL – Is the rumor that KISS set the roof on fire true?
HM – Yes, that one’s true. KISS played here in 1975 and their pyrotechnics did set the roof on fire a little bit. I’ve heard that from several people. There’s a banner hanging up commemorating that concert. The other amazing thing about that night is tickets were only $5 in advance and $6 at the door. Can you imagine?
But back in the earlier days, a lot of big names artists came through, especially in the late 50s and 60s. Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Gene Autry, Eddie Arnold, Liberace, Merle Haggard. Then other people too, like Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Victor Borge.
Jack Hicks tells the story that when Liberace played here, it was his birthday. So after the show he was staying at the old Owensboro Motel and he invited Jack back to the hotel for his birthday party.
OL – There’s also a banner about UK playing here.
HM – Yeah, UK played here several times. Adolph Rupp’s “Fab Five” team actually dedicated this building on February 5th, 1949. It’d be hard to imagine UK playing here today, but back then this was a large building. So some of the SEC teams would schedule UK here and count it as a home game so they could collect the gate. Actually, the building opened the night before for a high school double header, but that UK game was the official grand opening.
OL – That’s really fitting because this place is really known for basketball.
HM – Yeah, with all the high school teams and KWC winning 8 national championships. The Globetrotters have been here several times. UofE actually played a whole season here while Roberts Stadium was being built. But the USI and Wesleyan rivalries were really something. One night Bruce Pearl got so upset at a game he ripped a sink off the wall in the locker room. He even mentioned it one time in an interview on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” They asked him where his favorite arena to coach was and his answer was right here at the Sportscenter because of that rivalry. He said there’s nothing like the Sportscenter when it’s full.
OL – What was the largest crowd ever at the Sportscenter?
HM – Roy Rogers actually drew the biggest crowd. He was very popular at the time. Jack Hicks told me another neat story about that night too. This probably wouldn’t happen today, but Jack drove Roy and his wife and baby boy to the Evansville airport after the show. Word had gotten out somehow, so as Jack was driving up to the airport there was a huge crowd waiting for Roy. So Jack asked if he wanted him to drive around back and Roy said “No, these people came to see me. I’ll get out and greet them.” And he did.
OL – What about some names that are popular today?
HM – How ‘bout David Letterman? They used to have variety shows here on Saturdays. J. Richard Gaw, who was the second manager here, told me that when David Letterman was young, about 12 or 13, his dad drove him down here one time and he performed for one of those Saturday variety shows.
OL – How did the Sportscenter come about?
HM – There was a group of guys here in town that really started pushing it because they wanted a place for basketball games that would hold more than 1,000 people. John Medley, Clyde Watson, William Gant, Bill Thompson, and I believe a few others. There was a state law in the late 40s that allowed communities to fund municipal projects through bonds. The city guaranteed the bonds with profits from the municipal light plant. When it was built, part of the deal was it was going to be a veterans memorial, which it still is today if you look right outside the front doors here. So it was a combination of all those things. It was dedicated in ’47 and like I said, it opened in ’49 with that UK game.
It really was one of the biggest arenas in the midwest when it was built. There’s an article someone showed me one time from Memphis in the 50s where someone was criticizing the city of Memphis and it mentioned us in the article. It said something like “Well if Owensboro, Kentucky can support an arena like that, how come Memphis can’t afford it.” So yeah, it was a big deal.
It’s safe to say that everyone in Owensboro has some type of memory tied to the Sportscenter, whether it’s a game, concert, graduation, or some other event. With all the new, shiny buildings going up downtown and out on 54, it’s also good to still have an old friend like the Sportscenter hanging around sometimes. So here’s to many more memories to come in the old wooden chair backs!