Sydney Kings, Cold Chisel, Elton John, then it’s curtains for Sydney Entertainment Centre

The Kingdome: Home of the Sydney Kings since 1990. Photo: Supplied Sydney Entertainment Centre, circa 1990. Photo: Fairfax Archive

Champ: Jeff Fenech wins a world championship at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, 7 March 1988. Photo: Fairfax Archives

In their  early negotiations with Sydney Entertainment Centre management, the Sydney Kings were told in no uncertain terms that, despite their offer to book in 14 dates per season, if a big musical act wanted the arena the basketballers would have to make way. After all, the argument went, one Elton John or Bruce Springsteen concert would generate more money than the Kings could all year.

By 1993, within three seasons of Kings owner Mike Wrublewski and coach Bob Turner risking everything by moving their club from the 4000-seat State Sports Centre at Homebush to the 10,000-seat Entertainment Centre in the CBD, seats were being set up in the foyer on game nights for those who couldn’t get a ticket.

“Elton John came for an eight-date tour and they had him play for five nights,” Turner recalls. “Then they bumped him out for the Saturday night, put down a basketball court, kept all the rigging on the ceiling and so on, we played and then they had him back on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. It was a complete reversal.”

Turner says he and Wrublewski were branded as crazy by those who felt basketball could never fill a facility built for big concerts and shows. Yet, the Kings averaged 8000 per game in their first season there and sold out all but one match in their second.

“The secret was that a lot of the crowd weren’t basketball people,” Turner says. “We promoted the venue as being easy to get to, you could have dinner first, maybe at Chinatown, come to the basketball and then maybe go to a bar afterwards. It was a great night out.

“We promoted it like Madison Square Garden. It had a great atmosphere and it gave the sport so much more credibility. The corporates came, sponsors, and by the time I left in 1995 we were making a million dollars a year in profit.”

Much water has gone under the bridge for the Kings since those days, a lot of it murky. But there is no denying the integral role the Sydney Entertainment Centre – or the Kingdome, as fans referred to it – played in their story.

On Sunday the curtain will come down on the Kings’ quarter-century association with the arena when they play the Perth Wildcats in a double header with the Sydney Uni Flames WNBL side. From Tuesday Cold Chisel, who played their famous Last Stand gigs there just months after it opened in 1983, will play three shows and John Farnham one, before, perhaps fittingly, Elton John performs on Saturday. Assets will then be cleared out and the keys handed to construction company Lend Lease on New Year’s Eve. Hoarding will be erected, demolition will start in late January and continue for three months.

Kingdome: Home of the Sydney Kings since 1990. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Its replacement will be a new entertainment facility, featuring three theatres, of 9000, 2500 and 1000 capacity, respectively, situated closer to the new convention and exhibition centre, and linked by walkway. The structure will feature state-of-the-art technology for a new era, but it will take a long time before it can begin to match the legacy its predecessor forged over the past 32 years.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” says general manager Steve Hevern, who began his association with the venue as a maintenance electrician the year the Kings moved there.

“It’s been a pioneer for the music industry and the indoor sport industry. Just this year alone we’ve done professional bull riding, the Sydney darts championships, the Harlem Globetrotters… It’s so diverse. I remember we did the sumo wrestling back in the ’90s. In my first year, we won the netball world championships here with that shot in the last second. It was awesome. Jeff Fenech, Kostya Tszyu, Anthony Mundine … it’s been an honour to work here.

“It will be missed, and rightly so. So many people have had good experiences in this place. It’s formed a place in history in both sport and live music and it’s done a great job serving the city.”

Inside the auditorium. 16 May 1983. Photo: Fairfax Archive

MUCH of the Sydney Entertainment Centre’s lifespan mirrored Australia’s coming of age. In 1983 and ’84, the nation was on a high. The charismatic Bob Hawke had become prime minister, Australian actors, musicians and artists were making a mark internationally and Paul Hogan was throwing shrimp on the barbie. The America’s Cup win and the Wallabies’ rugby union grand slam was a shot of sporting confidence and pride. There was business success, openness and optimism and the country’s biggest city needed top-class facilities to welcome the world.

Few athletes of the era could better epitomise the concept of national awakening than boxer Jeff Fenech, who fought two of his most important bouts at the Entertainment Centre. Not long after Australia II had gone on display at the venue, Fenech defended his IBF World Bantamweight title in a 15-round unanimous decision against Jerome Coffee. A year later, in 1986, Fenech – who many felt had been robbed of a medal at the 1984 Olympics – beat the gold medallist, Steve McCrory, in a 14th-round TKO.

“I’ll never forget walking out to the roar, the atmosphere was great,” Fenech says. “It was one of those venues where every seat in the house was great. It was just amazing, I loved it.

“While you’re fighting you try not to listen but there were times in the McCrory fight when I was hurt a little, had an injury, and you could hear the crowd every time I threw a punch that landed, they were behind me and lifted me.

“I remember seeing Kerry Packer, Paul Hogan, the great rugby league players, Ron Coote, George Piggins, all those guys in the front row, watching this little kid from Marrickville, which made it even more special. I’d see some amazing people who I admired, people I only dreamt I could be as good as.”

Fenech has memories of his fight against Coffee in late 1985 outgrossing Bruce Springsteen at the box office.

“It was a pretty big deal for me, all the hype. It’s a pretty special place for me,” he says. “My daughters never saw me fight, but whenever I go past there I always point out ‘Dad filled that place up’.”

The year after Fenech filled the place for his fight with McCrory, Turner put on the venue’s first game of basketball when he somehow organised for the Soviet Union team to tour. He also convinced the owner of Perth Entertainment Centre, Kerry Stokes, to buy a portable court floor and fly it over to Sydney after the opening game in Perth.

“No one had played basketball there before and what we didn’t realise was that, at the time, there was an orchestra pit at one end that had boards over the top of it,” Turner says.

“We put the court down but the weight of the court and the baskets sunk the whole thing down straight into the orchestra pit. There was all sorts of messing around to prop it up so we could play the game.”

The tour was another gamble by the young entrepreneur and, although the dressing rooms were made for entertainers, not basketballers – for instance, the showers weren’t built for seven footers – the success of the building as a sporting venue was one of the key ingredients to making the venture work.

“I’ll never forget walking in just after the doors opened and there were two people sitting in the top row right at the end. I said to myself ‘That’s the only ticket they could buy’. It was a great feeling because we knew it was the first sold-out sports match at the venue. It was a great moment.

“We brought the Soviets back the next year and I knew Mike Wrublewski, who had started the Sydney Kings in 1988, was starting to really think about basing the Kings there. That tour opened a lot of people’s minds to what the game could become and how the Entertainment Centre could be used.”

Turner was there for the first basketball game and he’ll be at the last. No doubt throughout the night many memories will flood through his and other spectators’ minds.

“Back when mobile phones were the size of a stereo, I remember we were getting ready to play the first Kings game at the Entertainment Centre,” Turner says. “We were having a shoot around early on game day and a reporter called to ask what it was like.

“I said ‘What’s it like? I’m standing here in the middle of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, shooting baskets and our team’s going to play here tonight. It’s amazing’.”

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