SAN DIEGO — Early this year, a little-known La Jolla multimillionaire named H. G. (Harry) Cooper seized the attention of the financial, political and sports communities of San Diego with the public announcement of his vision: a 22,900-seat, $120-million, privately funded sports palace that soon would lure the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League here.
In the four months since the announcement, the NHL and, to a lesser extent, the NBA have taken stock of his moves. Cooper's people have been studying the written and unwritten rules for expansion or relocation of franchises in the two leagues.
San Diego's chances of getting a professional hockey or basketball team are uncertain at best. Though there appears to be a slim possibility of landing an NHL franchise, the NBA seems a far less likely prospect.
"If I had Harry Cooper's kind of money, I'd retire and live happily," said Vin Ciruzzi, president of the Sports Arena and a supporter of Cooper's efforts. "But, if his plans don't go through, it won't be because he didn't try."
Public Relations Disaster
Ciruzzi has spent five years trying to repair the public relations disaster caused by Sports Arena tenant wars and the loss to Los Angeles of the NBA's Clippers on May 15, 1984.
He met with the NHL's board of governors last December and visited privately with John Ziegler, the league's president.
The meeting was set up by Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, who would like to see an NHL franchise in San Diego. It would cut down the travel grind for his players and create an instant geographical rivalry.
"The NHL in San Diego has good potential," McNall said. "But there are a lot of factors involved. A lot will depend on the strength of the offer. The one thing the league does not want to do is expand into a city that may be a problem area."
At its April meetings, Ziegler announced plans for expansion. He didn't say when or where or how many teams the 21-franchise NHL figures to add. But the smart money says the league will add either three or four when its board of governors meets in December.
One of the things the board is waiting to review is a report from the NHL's Franchise and Market Analysis Committee, of which McNall is a member.
At least nine cities have expressed interest in obtaining an expansion franchise. Milwaukee and Hamilton, Ontario, are well ahead of a second tier of cities--including San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle--in the battle for expansion grants.
Even more than Hamilton, Milwaukee has everything going for it: a new arena, local ownership, lots of money and, in point man Lloyd Pettit, a person with longtime NHL contacts.
By contrast, San Diego's arena is still a blueprint. Its ownership hasn't been identified, though Cooper says a group led by "somebody with semi-deep pockets whom we all know in San Diego" will step forth in the next 30 days.
An NHL expansion franchise in San Diego would almost certainly have to play its first year or two in the existing, less-desirable Sports Arena, which seats 13,600 for hockey.
The NHL's average attendance was up to 87% of capacity this year, from the 1987-1988 season, when its average of 14,425 per game represented 86% of capacity.
A remote alternative is persuading an existing NHL franchise to move to San Diego. But, says Jerry Helper, the league's director of information: "We have made every effort to dissuade people from relocating. Only under the direst of circumstances do we want to do that."
When Cooper, 56, first announced plans to simultaneously buy the Sports Arena lease and set about finding a site for his "palace"--which would be designed by architect Gino Rossetti and patterned after the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., where the Detroit Pistons play--he denigrated the Sports Arena.
"This might sound silly," Cooper said in February, "but it doesn't have a winning feel to it. You could move a successful team like the Lakers into that place, and the next year they'd be losers."
That statement didn't sit well with the local politicians who Cooper was apparently bypassing in his one-man crusade to bring more professional sports to San Diego. Nor was it encouraging to the dogged Ciruzzi, who had spent five years trying to eradicate animosities left behind by predecessor Peter Graham and Clipper owner Donald Sterling, who moved the NBA team to the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Two weeks ago, Cooper did an about-face. Sort of.
"If you walk through the Sports Arena," he said, "it's clean. It's more than just fresh paint. Three million dollars in the past three years have been put into that place."
But moments later he was talking about the dangers of owning the company that runs the Sports Arena in the infant years of the hoped-for NHL team.
Not Just Buying a Lease