At USC, it's love and basketball

Trojans in Hollywood eye a renaissance with Galen Center

From Buster Keaton's silent gem "College" to the Kevin Costner baseball drama "For Love of the Game," USC has built a reputation in Hollywood as a home for sports-themed projects.

Now the university is reveling in the results of its biggest sports production ever — the $139 million Galen Center, the new state-of-the-art home of Trojans basketball that fans and alumni in Hollywood hope will make USC competitive with the legendary UCLA program across town.

"UCLA has eclipsed the whole area with basketball for a long, long time, but we've made it easier for them by not having anything to showcase," says longtime Trojans supporter Barney Rosenzweig, who executive produced TV's "Cagney & Lacey."

"The recruits would go to UCLA, see Pauley Pavilion and all those banners, then come to USC, and we'd have to say, 'Well we don't actually have an arena.' It was a real disadvantage. Now (men's coach) Tim Floyd has some tools to work with."

The Romanesque arena on the corner on Figueroa Street and Jefferson Boulevard will seat 10,258 for basketball and features 22 luxury suites, a 7,000-square-foot VIP banquet area, a USC Hall of Fame and a team store. A large window to the north offers a spectacular view of downtown. The Galen Center also will play host to concerts, family shows and TV shoots, giving live-entertainment promoters a spanking new option in Los Angeles.

The first concert is Saturday night, when soul great Al Green performs.

The USC men's basketball team has not had a legitimate home on campus for decades, forced to make due at the Olympic Auditorium, Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Shrine Auditorium and, most recently, the Sports Arena (it played its first game there in 1959).

Carol Dougherty, USC's senior associate athletic director and the Galen Center's project director, explains with a grin that the idea for an on-campus facility goes back a bit further than most people realize.

"Last year when the university was celebrating its 125th anniversary, we found in the archives a document written by the founding clergy their master plan where a sports and entertainment facility was to be the third building on campus," she says. "So we are a little late in getting that under way."

The project was jump-started by a $35 million donation from USC alumnus Louis Galen and his wife, Helene. (Founding sponsors including Coca-Cola, Office Depot, AT&T and Aramark Corp. also contributed at least $6 million apiece.)

Galen's first donation to USC was 25 cents — years ago, that got him through the children's gate at the Los Angeles Coliseum for a Trojans football game. Later, as a hot dog vendor, he was delighted to get paid to watch USC play.

"I loved it because you couldn't sell during the games, so we had to sit and watch," he recalls. "I made good money as a kid."

After graduating from USC law school, Galen would make good money as an adult, becoming a founder of World Savings & Loan, the second-largest thrift in the U.S.

The best seats in the new house won't be cheap. In its goal to raise $17 million from PSLs, or personal seat licenses, USC took a different approach.

"We have 143 floor seats, and we are sold out," Dougherty says. "We didn't sell them as courtside seats; we included (two seats) as a benefit in a donation of $500,000 or more to the construction of the arena." In all, USC is seeking to sell PSLs for 3,200 seats; more than two-thirds have been sold.

Revenue also will be generated from the luxury suites. There are 11 on each side of the arena, leasing for $35,000-$50,000 a year. Most have been sold.

USC's athletic department is on its own in terms of raising money and receives no subsidies from the university.

The Kennedy Founders Club area, where seat-license holders will be served a specially prepared meal before the event, can hold 490 people indoors and 200 on the outdoor patio. Concessions in general will be run by Aramark; the facility operator is Global Spectrum.

Men's basketball likely will draw the biggest crowds, but planners designed the building to make it feel "full" regardless of the event. The USC women's basketball and men's and women's volleyball teams also play there (the first game at the arena was women's volleyball Oct. 12 against Stanford).

"We didn't want teams that don't draw 10,000 fans to feel swallowed up in a huge arena," says Los Angeles-based Joe Diesko of HNTB Sports Architecture. "We took those 10,000 seats and split them into two decks so we can drop a curtain and block out the upper deck. Even if you only have 2,000 or 3,000 people in the lower deck, it still feels full."

Diesko adds that a steep sightline puts fans in the upper level "right on top of the action." The building also was designed with acoustics in mind and offers a 60-by-40-foot stage for concerts (capacity 7,400).

Dougherty talks about the competition for musical acts and how she has been aided by major players in the field.

Staples Center execs "have been very helpful," she says. "I've taken promoters on tours here, and with our 7,000 concert capacity, we sort of fall into a niche that nobody else occupies. Staples (with about 20,000 seats) won't be in direct competition with us."

Dougherty also notes that the arena has several TV projects that will shoot there, including "College Jeopardy," and is talking about hosting award shows.

But make no mistake, the Galen Center is primarily about men's college basketball. UCLA, with its 11 national championships and the aura of John Wooden, has been the neighborhood bully for a half- century, but now Trojans hoops boosters are talking about taking their program to a higher level.

"Any true fan of college basketball loves having a state-of-the-art facility for a home arena," says Bruce Rosenblum, president of Warner Bros. Television Group and a USC graduate who has been supporting Trojans sports for more than a quarter-century. "This should quickly enable the university to build a top-flight program attracting some of the best recruits in the country."

Guard OJ Mayo of Huntington, W.Va., considered by experts as the best player in high school, has visited USC, though no formal commitment to attend has been made.

"We have never recruited the No. 1 basketball player, and it looks like we will be successful once OJ Mayo commits," says Tauper Taylor, CEO of production company Cookie Jar Entertainment and a season ticket holder for more than a decade. "People are talking about him being the next LeBron James."

The first men's basketball game at Galen Center is scheduled for Nov. 16 against South Carolina, and the first home game with UCLA is Jan. 13.

"We have been praying for (a new arena) for at least the 32 years that I've been going to Trojan basketball games," says television producer Scott Stone ("The Mole," "Fame"). "I think the Bruins are shaking in their boots a little. If our basketball team can match our football team, it is going to be a one-school town."