June 21, 2011
One website I am really digging these days is called funwhileitlasted.net, a site dedicated to short-lived pro sports teams. It was from that site that I learned about the Philadelphia Kings, a pro basketball team that played in West Philly in front of crowds that were only slightly larger than your average Wednesday night quizzo crowd, and whose short but sordid history includes cocaine, arson, and fraud.
Larry Lavin was a dental student at Penn when he started dealing cocaine, and within a few short years he was a millionaire. Of course, all of that money was cash coming in untaxed, so he had to find something to invest it in. Enter Mark Stewart, business manager for Freddie Shero, coach of the Flyers, as well as for a couple of Eagles. Stewart convinced Lavin to purchase the Philadelphia Arena, located at 45th and Market Street.
The Arena had housed numerous basketball and hockey teams through the years, with the Warriors and later the Sixers even playing occasional games there before the Spectrum opened. It was best known, however, as a boxing venue. Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Frazier, and Gene Tunney all fought there through the years.
By 1980 it had fallen into disrepair, as the Spectrum made it somewhat superfluous. But Stewart convinced Lavin to buy it for $100 k, and then convinced him to purchase the Lancaster Red Roses of the Continental Basketball Association and move them into his new arena. In an effort to generate local goodwill, they named the Arena Martin Luther King, Jr. Arena and named the team the Kings.
Stewart hired former Sixer great Hal Greer to coach the team and signed former NBA star Cazzie Russell to lead them on the court. Russell was as advertised, scoring 19 ppg, but that didn’t seem to excite the local populace…two months into their inaugural season, they were averaging about 150 fans per game. After the season, the team was sent back to Lancaster.
Now without a team, the storied Philadelphia Arena was essentially worthless. Stewart tried bringing in roller derby. As you might suspect, that went over like a lead balloon in an all-black neighborhood. Desperate to bring in anybody, the Arena was then booked with dubious preachers, including one who claimed to raise people from the dead. Lavin stopped giving money to Stewart, who was now on the hook for a worthless, dilapidated building. So Stewart did what any right thinking criminal would do. He had the place burned down. But the job was incomplete, and only the roof, the roof, the roof caught on fire. Stewart tried to claim his insurance, but his insurance company, seeing that the fire was highly suspicious, declined the claim. In 1983, the building was set on fire again, and this time burned to the ground.
The FBI and IRS had begun studying Stewart, and it was while investigating him that they came across a dentist named Larry Lavin. Stewart was charged with tax fraud and sentenced to 4 years in prison. Lavin would be arrested in 1984, skip town while on bail, and live under an assumed identity in Virginia Beach for two years before being found, arrested, and sentenced to 42 years in prison. He made parole several years ago, and currently lives in Tampa, FL.
So while the cocaine funded Philadelphia Kings were but a blip on the local sports radar, the cocaine funded Philadelphia Arena was destroyed after an illustrious 63 year career. And in a somewhat ironic twist, a google search of “Philadelphia Arena” and “fire” turns up this little gem: the Doors playing Light My Fire at the Philadelphia Arena in 1968, 13 years before Mark Stewart took their advice.