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MIKE PENNER

Long Beach Taps Power of Pyramid

October 14, 1994|MIKE PENNER

The videotape opens with scenes of ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics on a stone wall. The Sphinx's head. Cleopatra's profile. A gold-encrusted scepter.

"It was built 3,000 years ago," the narration dramatically begins. "A symbol of greatness. A daring, bold and adventurous project. It still stands today--a stunning monument. The Great Pyramid of Egypt."

Blink once and it is three millennia later. Construction workers in hard hats are laying cement, welding girders.

"Now," the narration continues, "a young, bold, vibrant university community has matured into one of the leading universities in the nation, and, like the Egypt of old, it is building a symbol--a landmark destined to become one of the most significant buildings in all of Southern California.

"The Pyramid at The Beach."

This is quite a stretch from the old spiel about the old basketball facility on campus--"The Gym That's So Bad It's Good."

But Long Beach State is stepping up in the arena of athletic arenas, as Dave O'Brien, the school's athletic director, can attest, from far too personal an experience.

O'Brien was trying to impress a potential corporate sponsor by leading him through a site inspection of the nearly completed, 18-story-high, 5,000-seat Pyramid, which next month becomes the luxurious home of 49er basketball and volleyball.

O'Brien's guest was the president of an international conglomerate who didn't speak much English and spent most of the tour observing and nodding. Finally the group reached the concourse level--the highest level in the building, but still some 190 feet below the roof's peak--and the CEO whispered something to his assistant.

"He's concerned about how visible it is," the assistant informed O'Brien.

"He wants to go up."

O'Brien tried to explain that there was no more up. The CEO wouldn't hear of it. The geodesic design of the overhead "space-frame"--sort of an Erector set on growth hormones--fascinated him.

"He wants to climb up," the assistant told O'Brien.

O'Brien gulped, grimaced and soon found himself leading the CEO of a very important, very rich corporation up a shaking catwalk ladder, one sweaty rung at a time.

"We get to the first landing," O'Brien says, "and I show him, 'See, you can see the 405 and 605 freeways from here. You want to go higher?'

"He says, 'Yes. Higher.'

"So we get to the second landing and I say, 'President, not only can you now see the 405 and the 605, but also the Pacific Ocean.' He still wants to go higher.

"We reach the third landing and I tell him, 'President, not only can you see the 405, 605 and the Pacific Ocean from here, but you're going to have to duck because there's an American Airlines jet coming our way. Look, you can wave at the pilot.'

"He still doesn't seem impressed and I'm thinking I'm playing some kind of game of chicken here. I'm not going all the way to the top. The fourth landing has no railing, and from there it's a 210-foot drop.

"I point this out to him. He says, yes, he's seen enough. So we climb back down, I've got soot all over me, my white shirt is ruined."

But once O'Brien saw that check with all the pretty zeros, going above and beyond was worth the effort, no?

"That donation hasn't come in yet," O'Brien says, able to laugh about it now. "He owes me $3 million. . . 'Come on, you got to at least buy a sign.' "

Pyramid power is quite a force, they say.

It can drive a man to risk life, limb and serious nosebleed, to go where no college athletic director has gone before.

It can send a new assistant athletic director, Cal State Fullerton escapee Bill Shumard, giggling as he claims, "I kiss the ground here every day."

It can leave a veteran basketball coach, Seth Greenberg, slack-jawed as he stares at his new digs and remembers what he left behind--the half-nook, half-cranny, 1,900-seat-and-try-not-to-exhale quaint little "Gold Mine."

"Did you stand outside at the bottom and look at it all the way to the top?" Greenberg excitedly asks a visitor. "It just keeps going and going, into the sky. It's awesome.

"When I'm with recruits, it's the first thing I show them."

The Pyramid is Long Beach hitting the lottery, winning $22 million and leaving the trailer park behind. Although, for the moment, the trailers remain. Until the new offices in the Pyramid are finished, the 49er athletic staff continues to operate out of a series of temporary buildings.

This has always lent a certain realism to Long Beach's claim of being an athletic department on the move.

"People can't possibly understand what the Pyramid means to us," O'Brien says. "Seth's office is a closet. I'm working in a trailer. Three or four years ago, we had all these budget cuts, it was all doom and gloom.

"Things couldn't get worse. If they didn't get better, we couldn't get a bus to the games."

Thanks to an $11-million assist from the state, the Pyramid offered Long Beach a way out, albeit in typical Long Beach fashion.

Why a Pyramid?

"It was the cheapest way to build it," Shumard says.

"It was cost efficient," Don Dyer, the arena's executive director, says. "We got a deal."

Same for the beechwood court that is now being pieced together on the cement floor of the building.

"Every other court in the country is maple," Dyer says. "Beechwood is common in Europe. We got this company from the Netherlands to build us two beechwood floors--one on the court, one in our aerobics room--for less than the price of one maple floor."

The result is a towering, glimmering, cobalt-blue icon that won't open until Nov. 30--Long Beach vs. Detroit Mercy in men's basketball--but is already a city landmark.

"It follows you around," Greenberg says, beaming. "The 405, 605, 710. Everywhere you go, it follows you around."

After 40 years of lugging the Gold Mine like a ball and chain, that's a change that qualifies at Long Beach State as the eighth wonder of the world.

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