Year after year, John Chaney listened to the same question about his ambitious non-conference schedule.
“Why don’t you play these games in our place?” Chaney recalled being asked repeatedly.
For the men’s basketball team, “our place” was McGonigle Hall, a cramped gym that seated 3,900.The high-profile teams Chaney scheduled refused to play there. So, he either played them at the Palestra, the Spectrum or on the road.
If Temple was to raise its basketball program to the highest level, Chaney said it needed a better facility. Thus became the dream for The Forum at The Apollo at Temple, now known as the Liacouras Center, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this season.
The arena has housed its share of great players, teams and moments. Two of Chaney’s Elite Eight squads played there. Pepe Sanchez, Lynn Greer, David Hawkins and Mardy Collins, among others, called the Liacouras Center home. On the women’s side, Candice Dupree and Kamesha Hairston suited up for Dawn Staley, whose Owls won their first Atlantic Ten Conference title there in 2002.
But the joys of the last 10 years were preceded by a number of hardships in actually getting the stadium built.
“It was the biggest struggle that I can think of for something that was supposed to be so simplistic in nature,” Chaney said. “Peter Liacouras and Jim White fought like the dickens to get this moving after the state had given us $35 million. . . . We squandered away almost nine years struggling with the mayor and his people to get this thing done.”
Aspirations for a larger basketball arena came about in the 1980s, when Liacouras, the university’s president sought to transform Temple from a commuter school to a one with a national presence.
“I wanted to build up a presence on Temple’s campus,” Liacouras said. “What better way to do it than through basketball and a hot basketball program?”
Temple kicked around several ideas for an arena to be built east of Broad Street, Liacouras said, but eventually settled on the current site when the tract became available for sale. Temple purchased the land for $7.3 million in 1988.
The state awarded Temple $31.1 million in October 1992 for a basketball and convocation center. For several years, Philadelphia City Council held up the project, as the city refused to grant Temple permits necessary to begin construction. The two parties bickered on whether Temple would have control of a $5 million housing donation.
Chaney vocally opposed then-City Council president John Street, at times using his postgame press conferences to blast Street for stalling the project. On several occasions the project seemed dead.
“He and [Bill] Cosby created a lot of mischief,” Liacouras said of Chaney’s antics. “I had them doing a lot of the dirty work.”
Finally, in November 1995, the two sides reached a compromise. A community board was established to handle the $5 million and Temple could examine the board’s financial books once a year.
The Apollo became a reality.
“When these politicians who opposed realized they had lost, they called a press conference to say it was their idea,” Liacouras said. “I was laughing, but I didn’t say anything. You have to do that sometimes. You can’t worry about your ego.”
Groundbreaking for the project, which included the Liacouras Center, the Independence Blue Cross Recreation Center and parking garage, began in January 1996. Slowly, the arena began to take shape.
“I remember going to classes and checking how the building was being built and trying to imagine what it would be like,” Sanchez said. “Then we came back from the summer and it was almost built. It was a dream. It was unbelievable. We knew we were the team to play there first. We were extremely excited.”
The Owls christened the Apollo with a 76-61 victory against No. 18 Fresno State on Dec. 9, 1997. Lynard Stewart, whose father helped construct the arena, scored Temple’s first bucket and topped the Owls’ with 15 rebounds.
Beating Fresno State was nice, but the Owls felt they had risen to college basketball’s biggest stage with the building’s opening, former center Lamont Barnes said.
“The opening of the arena, feeling like you have more of a big-time happening,” Barnes said. “In McGonigle, it was so small and a little congested. It was an exciting thing, walking in there, like Madison Square Garden. It made you feel big-time.”
Then, of course, there were the feelings of Chaney, who finally owned the recruiting tool he first desired in the late ’80s. Barnes said it was difficult to perceive Chaney’s reaction, but Sanchez didn’t think so.
“I could tell by looking at him,” Sanchez said. “All the hard work and years it took for him and Peter to convince people to make that building. I know coach was proud in making that house. With a big arena like that, it was much easier to compete and develop as a power.”
Now, Chaney could draw the likes of Michigan State, Wake Forest, Indiana, North Carolina State and Maryland.
“One of the things that gave me hope was our president, Peter Liacouras, never stopped – not one day – drawing up plans and having all kinds of ideas and put forth these ideas for what it means for the city, the community and the university,” Chaney said. “It seemed everyday he’d present me ideas as to what it would be.”
To Liacouras, the arena was more than just a place for basketball. It was a major stepping stone in developing a campus that would draw students from across the country.
“Before I was president, there was a movement to move Temple to the suburbs,” Liacouras said. “[I said,] ‘We’re going to stay in Philadelphia and we’re going to build a presence to invite people all over the country.’ Some people laughed at it.”
Few are laughing now. Since the Liacouras Center was built, in conjunction with Tuttleman Learning Center, numerous dorms and facilities have sprouted on Temple’s campus.
“It takes a long time for things to come in line,” Liacouras said. “To change the place from what it was in 20-25 years is pretty mercurial.”
“His idea was realized,” Chaney said. “Most of us dream, but very few of us become the dream.”
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.