The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority has voted 10-2 in favor of closing the Izod Center, the 34-year-old arena in East Rutherford, NJ. Not shocking news, but it stings as it was here, more than any other venue, that my ideas and passions for sport and stadia took hold.
The Izod Center hasn’t had a clear purpose ever since the Devils moved to Newark’s Prudential Center in 2007 and the Nets left for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2013. The Center continued to host music concerts and the occasional basketball game but even that reduced schedule was an unwelcome distraction from local politicians’ preferred focus on the development of the nearby Prudential Center and the revitalization of downtown Newark. In recent years the Izod Center had gained a somewhat pariah status.
When I first visited the Izod Center in the early 1980s it went by its original name of Brendan Byrne Arena in honor of the then New Jersey Governor. I was five years old and tagging along with my older brother’s basketball team to see Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers take on the newly relocated New Jersey Nets. The defining moment for me wasn’t seeing Erving or Daryl Dawkins in person but traversing the top of the arena as it dipped behind the baskets and rose up high above the sidelines in repeated games of ‘manhunt’.
In 1989, we moved to South Orange, NJ, home of Seton Hall University, and my Dad went in on three season tickets to the perennial Big East doormats who called the Meadowlands home. My brother and I were mainly excited to see bigger teams like Syracuse and Georgetown with their bigger stars Billy Owens and Alonzo Mourning, but from Section 113 that season Seton Hall caught lightning in a bottle, won 20 games and made it to the NCAA Tournament Finals. I was hooked.
I saw Duke and UConn battle in NCAA tournament regional finals in 1990, Drazen Petrovic, Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman light it up regularly and I even got to play on the floor with my 8th grade team, prior to a Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls game. The arena hosted NCAA Final Fours, NBA Championships, Stanley Cup Playoffs, rock concerts and truck pulls, it was a well used building, more white mule than white elephant.
Brendan Byrne Arena was a different species to the new, more urban Prudential and Barclays Centers that replaced it. Along with Giants Stadium and the Meadowlands Racetrack, the arena made up the vast Meadowlands Sports Complex, a sport facility designed to cater to the surrounding New Jersey suburbs. Unlike Madison Square Garden, which fits neatly into the Manhattan grid, or Yankee Stadium which anchors the South Bronx, the Meadowlands floats amid the Meadowlands marshes alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. A rather anonymous, soulless complex, the three venues were connected by a network of surface parking lots, roads and elevated walkways. It might not seem possible to develop an affinity for a place so removed from urban life, but I did, and now I crave its practical design and honest infrastructural character in the landscape of often overly complicated modern stadia.
Brendan Byrne Arena had a simple, single concourse layout. After entering one its four corners, you either descended to the 100 level or went up to the 200s, a refreshingly straight forward sequence compared to the gauntlet of escalators and multiple concourses at, for example, Barclays Center.
A simple menu of hot dogs and knishes was the – quite perfect – extent of the food options available. Sightlines were fine enough and a seat in the upper reaches of section 208 were no worse for a NJ Nets game then, than a Brooklyn Nets game now.
Giants Stadium was replaced by a much bigger and even drabber football stadium in 2010, and the once-stalled Xanadu shopping complex was taken over by the Mall of America folks and rebranded the American Dream. The Meadowlands was always an ambitious project and Brendan Byrne Arena seems to have become a victim of its own ambitions. It was a busy thirty-four years at the Sports Complex alongside the NJ Turnpike, may its hard-working nature and its clean, simple design inspire arenas for years to come. For now, the lights have gone out at Brendan Byrne.