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The oasis on Route 17

NJ.com logo NJ.com 12/5/2021 Amy Kuperinsky, nj.com

The manic bleeps and dings of video games. The primordial pizza grease dripping in yellow rivulets onto white paper plates. The unrivaled majesty of the simulator ride.

To Jersey kids of the ’90s, SportsWorld had it all.

A $5 roll of gold tokens was the ticket to the best kind of chaos — new and old arcade favorites, air hockey, bumper cars, bowling, mini-golf and more drew thick crowds to the Paramus indoor amusement park, a first in the area.

“It was like sensory overload,” says Felix Gomez, who used to work at the LaserTron section, where customers would enter a dark room and do battle with blasters and plastic game packs around neon-lit pillars. “Like, ‘Wow, all this is in one place.’”

In Bergen County, kids had malls and movies galore. But at SportsWorld, which opened in the fall of 1991, they found something new and shiny to play with — an interactive way to get their ya-yas out with like-minded souls in a space bigger than a football field.

“It was overwhelming because we’d never seen something like this before,” says Jason Hopper, a customer who became an employee of more than a decade.

To mark the 30th anniversary of SportsWorld’s debut, NJ Advance Media traveled back to the age of slap bracelets and bowl cuts with those who still adore the beloved attraction, whether they were owners, employees or customers spending some of the best days of their lives there.

It was a mecca of arcade games, sports and laser tag, an indoor amusement park that was as much a social hot spot for New Jersey teens and tweens as an overstimulating playland.

The huge room of attractions on Route 17 made its own lane as a place for freewheeling fun for nearly 15 years. Like elder millennials, sometimes called Xennials or the Oregon Trail generation, SportsWorld embraced nascent digital entertainment while holding a torch for vintage amusements. This oasis for millions of kids — and kids at heart — arrived during the decline of arcade culture and surge in home video game consoles.

At the time, getting together with friends in person for a night of electronic thrills was a top draw — prior to the rise of the internet, social media and smartphones and before consuming so many hours of TV that your TV asks if you’re still watching.

And North Jersey kids weren’t the only audience. SportsWorld quickly gained a reputation as a place to be for celebrities, too, drawing the likes of Michael Jackson, Michael J. Fox, Yankees all-star Don Mattingly, Giants legend Lawrence Taylor and other high-profile guests who would bring their children for games or one of the biggest draws — birthday parties.

“Honestly, I wish it was still here,” says Paige Sheehan, who worked as a party host at the fun factory. “Nobody needs to leave their house anymore.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic wore on, those kids at heart were more than happy to recount the glory days of the local hangout.

“It’s a relic of a more physical world,” says Pete Nersesian, a customer in the early ’90s — a time when “if we wanted to see other people and engage with them, we would have to actually go to a physical place to do that.”

Today, all that remains of SportsWorld are the game tokens sometimes found mixed in with errant change — and the cherished memories.

A nightclub for kids

In those first few years, droves of teens clamored to get inside.

“I couldn’t believe how many people came,” says Marcia Gaeta Tarnoff, a former SportsWorld special events manager. “It was just like, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ They came. And they came, and they came.”

It was the boardwalk without the boardwalk — rows and rows of games and rides, from old-school standards like Skee-Ball and bumper cars to the newest arcade games.

Admission was free during the day, but required the purchase of a $5 roll of 20 gold tokens at night to deter non-paying regulars. Silver tokens, which cost $1, were used for entry to rides. Games would generate scrolls of tickets for the customer, who could turn in their bounty for a trinket of their choosing at the prize counter.

“It just blew up,” says Matthew Larko, 45, who was hired at SportsWorld before it opened in 1991. “It was packed day in, day out, during the week, holidays, lines out the door.”

The exterior of the complex — a tall fortress painted an unassuming gray — hardly teased what was inside: lasers, video games and virtual reality.

SportsWorld’s ensuing frenzy was more like an eight-ring circus than an amusement park — if you could find your way in. Some kids queued up with report cards in hand, since each A was worth three free tokens.

“You walk in and you don’t know where to begin,” says Hopper, 47, who grew up in Elmwood Park. “Think of Great Adventure, but in a 56,000-square-foot facility — things are on top of each other.”

He took his first date there.

“It was like a club,” says Hopper, who started working at the LaserTron section in 1993, when he was on summer break after his first year at Montclair State University, and became an assistant manager. “It was just packed. People were just everywhere.”

SportsWorld amounted to more games than sports, but past a bevy of pinball machines — Pinball Alley — there was a mini-golf course. There were also (short-lived) batting cages and Bowlingo, a small bowling attraction that provided the slightest nod to a previous tenant. (Long before SportsWorld, the Route 17 spot was home to Paramus Lanes, a 50-lane bowling alley that drew celebrity spectators like Jayne Mansfield and Joe Louis for televised games.)

Past the front desk, there was the Speedway area with racing arcade games where customers could take the wheel. A Space Probe ride lifted kids skyward.

“It was a big, wide-open place — it was like a warehouse of amusements,” says Nersesian, 47, who grew up in Hillsdale and lives in Medford, Massachusetts. “Pretty exciting if you were a Bergen County kid with nothing to do.”

Parents could bring young children to Wonder World, a separate kiddie play area with a ball pit. Meanwhile, hungry gamers headed to the Food Zone for pizza, fries and hot dogs.

“You would spend the whole day there,” says John Sigona, a lifelong Paramus resident who first visited the attraction in his teens. “It was an amalgamation of so much stuff in one building.”

He says while today’s kids might not be bowled over — exposed to behemoths like the 3-million-square-foot American Dream mega mall in East Rutherford (which has more than one theme park and an indoor ski slope) — “back then, in the early ’90s as a kid, it was a big thing.”

SportsWorld was also a place where teens could spend time with friends late at night, a refreshing departure from the usual diners, malls, pool halls and bowling alleys.

Ted Straka, 45, started working there in the fall of 1992, when he was a student at Paramus High School.

“I think it was to our generation what the Palisades Amusement Park was to the people maybe 25, 30 years older than us,” he says. The famed outdoor attraction in Cliffside Park and Fort Lee — known for its wave pool, roller coasters and concerts — drew generations of visitors to 38 acres of the Palisades from 1898 to 1971, before being replaced by luxury apartments.

As tastes changed, the SportsWorld lineup did, too.

Early on, a billiards hall inside the venue was replaced with LaserTron, a laser tag romp billed “the ultimate action game.” It had its own dedicated staff and admission fee ($7 or $12 for a double session). Red and green teams would battle it out with their “laser” guns as a smoke machine wafted mist across the room.

SportsWorld also had the Venturer Simulator, a purveyor of “motion theater.” Starting in 1993, customers climbed into the futuristic blue and yellow enclosure (it got a facelift over the years) for a simulation delivered by way of giant floppy disks. You could opt for bobsledding, downhill skiing and a roller coaster, among other themes.

“It always broke down,” Hopper says. “They were always trying to fix that thing.”

The venue also showcased “virtual reality before virtual reality was a thing,” says Sheehan, 45. A sign posted above a forerunner to today’s VR headsets — two “pods” — invited customers to “transport into the next generation.”

In the ’90s, it seemed like the final frontier.

Nersesian’s favorite SportsWorld story played out on a more “primitive” video game, he says — R.B.I. Baseball.

The arcade staple had a joystick for adjusting the batter and a button for swinging. He would always pick the Yankees, despite the team’s woeful record at the time — “terrible,” he says, “on its way to getting worse.”

One evening he ended up playing R.B.I. Baseball until nearly 1 a.m. Most customers had already left as the University of Massachusetts student, home on holiday break, feverishly fed the machine tokens at each inning. Nersesian was absolutely determined to beat the game for the first time.

As he entered the ninth, the display suddenly went blank. Dumbfounded, he checked neighboring screens. Sure enough, power had been shut off in the amusement park. A crestfallen Nersesian approached a manager with a complaint: He had spent 30 minutes on the game, it was loaded with tokens and he surely had time left before closing.

The man looked straight past him.

“Yeah, well, only one SportsWorld,” the manager said, walking away.

Nersesian, who now works with companies on energy infrastructure, hasn’t gotten over it.

“I’m still mad.”

Lightning in a bottle

Just who dreamed up this entertainment hub?

Allan Mekles was one of the original owners of SportsWorld, running the business with co-owners Lloyd Putter, Tommy Ruocco and Teddy Jabara.

“We were like four 40-year-old kids living the life of teenagers,” says Mekles (“Mecklis”), 68, who lives in the Dominican Republic, where he owns banana plantations. “We were having the best time of anybody. We would go there and play pinball all the time when we were supposed to be working.”

Before SportsWorld, Mekles, Jabara and Putter ran The Billiard Club on Route 4 in Englewood. But Mekles was curious about a younger crowd. He coached youth sports when his children were growing up, and it was his kids, he says, who gave him the idea for a year-round amusement park. Not just somewhere to go, but a place with “everything.”

Paramus, known to many as “the mall capital of the world” for its bustling retail corridor, has plenty of stores (some chains have as many as three locations in the same ZIP code), but no walkable downtown or Main Street. The borough is bisected instead by the churn of Route 17 and the Garden State Parkway. By the time Mekles’ entertainment hub opened on 17 North, local kids were tired of “loitering” at the malls.

“At SportsWorld, you were active,” says Bret Leuthner, a former employee. “You were actively playing and participating and socializing.”

Just walking in the door, customers had access to as many as 200 rides and games.

Leuthner, 46, says he was the inaugural staffer of what would eventually be a workforce of 100.

“I was the first one in the ledger,” he says. “My employee number was 0001.”

He watched as SportsWorld turned into a packed drop-off and pickup spot. Parents started throwing money at the place to take care of their children’s birthday parties.

“The amount of business that we did was insane,” Mekles says. “We had thousands of people in there.”

The owners knew they had lightning in a bottle.

Chuck E. Cheese had games and pizza, and would-be competitors were on the rise nationwide — including the more adult-oriented Dave & Buster’s and Discovery Zone, which was geared toward young children and opened a Paramus location. But the SportsWorld owners saw their concept as new to the local area.

“We were the first one that really had rides in the facility, rides and games indoors,” says Putter, 70, a former Alpine resident who lives in Delray Beach, Florida.

Decades later, he sometimes runs into people who fondly recall SportsWorld and mention its tokens — asking if he’ll buy them back, he says. “That’s a pretty regular joke.”

Putter, who worked in commercial real estate (he’s still in the business), knew the busy Paramus area and was excited at the prospect of opening something in the entertainment realm.

Despite SportsWorld’s resounding success, the original owners sold the business in 1993 to Dr. Bruce Mindich, former head cardiologist at Valley Hospital. He made them “an offer that couldn’t be refused,” Mekles says.

But his time there wasn’t easily forgotten.

“Even to this day there are so many kids — my kids’ kids — that say, ‘Why don’t you do it again?’” Mekles says.

He saw in Mindich what he recognized in himself — a 40-something “kid.” And in SportsWorld, Mindich, now 73, recognized a certain cross-generational appeal.

“There was something in it for almost every level of child and childlike person,” says the doctor from Ridgewood. “It really served the entire community.”

But Mindich operated as more of a behind-the-scenes player. His partners in SportsWorld were attorney Helaine Brick-Cabot and her husband, Lawrence Brick-Cabot.

Lawrence — Larry — ran day-to-day operations as president and became the face of the company for 13 years, overseeing the venue until it closed. He died in 2013 at 93.

“Even though he ran a tight ship, he was just loved by everyone,” Helaine says.

Larry joined the business later in life, after a multifaceted career. In the 1960s, the World War II veteran would face off against future vice president Nelson Rockefeller, then Republican governor of New York, as a Democratic state assemblyman (known as Lawrence A. Cabot) in Westchester. He was also president of J. Ramsey Reese, a business that made screw machine products for Fortune 500 companies.

“Larry was a soft-spoken, kind soul,” Leuthner says.

But the owners didn’t shape SportsWorld’s success on their own. Kids were involved from the very beginning.

Finding fun ... and future spouses

Before the business opened, Putter ran a logo contest, awarding a $1,000 scholarship to the student whose design the owners picked. The approach doubled as a promotion, ensuring that when SportsWorld welcomed its first customers at 4 p.m. on a Friday, people were already there.

Leuthner, who became one of the longest-serving employees, was in high school when he started in 1991 as a ride attendant, later moving to the front desk.

“From day one, it was fun to be among the people there,” he says.


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Even after he got a 9-to-5 job, he kept his SportsWorld gig, leaving only about a year before the business closed.

Like many former employees, Leuthner keeps in touch with his old SportsWorld crew. He remembers “little hijinks,” like when the staff would mess with the bowling area, manipulating the pins, which were connected to strings (they would fly up and the ball would roll underneath).

One weeknight each year, the business shut down so staff could host the SportsWorld Olympics, a holiday party competition for employees that involved multiple games and a mad dash through Wonder World (before it closed for good, he took home the trophy).

Leuthner, who now lives in Vernon and works as director of broadcasting and media relations for the Sussex County Miners independent minor league baseball team, started the SportsWorld job his senior year at Paramus High School.

If interviews NJ Advance Media conducted are any indication, a sizable chunk of the Paramus class of 1994 worked there.

“If you went to Paramus High School, that was your job,” says Paige Sheehan.

At 17, she was posted at the front desk before she became a birthday party host, escorting children to various parts of the amusement park. She also served the many kids who visited as part of school or camp groups.

“It was hectic, but looking back on it, it was great,” says Sheehan, who lives in Nyack, New York and is still in the party business today, specializing in face painting.

Larko, a PHS student who grew up behind SportsWorld on Farview Avenue, got on the payroll at 15, cycling through the front desk, rides and birthday parties.

His brother followed in his footsteps a few years later.

“There was a sense of pride to work there,” Larko says. “It was almost like a status symbol to say you worked at SportsWorld.”

Marcia Gaeta Tarnoff grew up in Nutley and started working at SportsWorld when she was in her early 20s, finding the opportunity when she was with the company that installed the karaoke booth. Soon, she was presiding over the venue’s birthday party empire as special events manager.

“Every child wanted to have their party there,” says Gaeta Tarnoff, 53, who lives in Montville and runs her own marketing firm. “One mom wanted to outdo the other.”

At its height, SportsWorld was hosting 100-plus children’s birthday parties per week, she says.

“It was one of the best times of my life,” Gaeta Tarnoff says of her decade at the Paramus haunt.

Fielding requests from so many families could be a bit much, but they tipped the hosts well for parties, which cost between $500 and $600 and included tokens, pizza, a Carvel ice cream cake and a private room.

“You think about Willy Wonka, the excitement when kids see the candy. That’s how it was when kids walked into SportsWorld,” Gaeta Tarnoff says.

Michele Paredes, 47, wore the requisite referee shirt — the uniform for all SportsWorld birthday party hosts — while tending to party rooms and shepherding groups of children to different attractions.

“It just had a great vibe. The people that worked there were having a really good time, and the kids loved it,” Paredes says. “It was just great to see all those happy faces.”

There was an event space upstairs, too, used for large gatherings, banquets and parties like bar and bat mitzvahs. And yes, even weddings.

“I actually had my engagement party there, believe it or not,” Gaeta Tarnoff says.

Charles Juszczak met his wife at SportsWorld, where he worked from 1997 until the facility closed in 2006.

The eventual director of operations arrived after putting in a few years at another famous Jersey attraction — Action Park. Juszczak started at the Vernon water park in 1986, when he was 15, sweeping up garbage at the infamous and revered venue known for its thrilling rides and disastrous spills, later moving on to the rides.

He was in his 20s, working in Wildwood and craving a return to North Jersey, when he saw a job ad for a party host at SportsWorld. Juszczak showed up for the interview in a suit and tie, not grasping the type of gig it was.

That’s when he first saw Denise Parente (PHS class of ’94). She worked at the front desk and the ticket redemption counter, handing people those coveted prizes. They started dating less than a year later. The Fair Lawn couple married in 2002 and celebrated their 19th anniversary this year.

Juszczak, 50, is currently general manager at The Funplex, another indoor amusement park in East Hanover (with an outdoor water park) that hosts groups and birthday parties. Back in the late ’90s, the owners of SportsWorld realized he had significant experience, including a stint at Disney World, so they offered him a spot on the management team. (Denise left SportsWorld so she wouldn’t be dating a superior.)

SportsWorld was the first time he saw so much in such a contained space.

“The people were great. The guests were awesome, and we were very busy,” Juszczak says.

The crowds rose a few notches on weekends. Sundays were a hot ticket because all the malls in Paramus were closed, in accordance with local blue laws.

“That place was packed for the first several years on Friday and Saturday nights,” says Leuthner, who met his wife through a friend on the party staff.

In the early 2000s, crowds reached a critical mass during a promotional event for radio station Z100 — Juszczak remembers a swarm of about 500 people as fans vied for a boy band ticket giveaway.

So many large groups were bused in during the summers that Larry Brick-Cabot started calling SportsWorld the “Paramus Bus Depot.”

Michael Jackson, Richard Branson, Boy George ...

There was no shortage of celebrities among the crowds. Most arrived with their kids in tow.

“We had tons and tons of famous people,” Helaine Brick-Cabot says. “It was weekly.”

One of their earliest victories seemed to become urban legend as soon as it came to pass.

Mention SportsWorld to any local, and they’ll inevitably bring up Michael Jackson’s visit — a story usually relayed to them by someone who wasn’t there.

The King of Pop found SportsWorld early on, months after releasing his No. 1 album “Dangerous” at the end of 1991.

Putter, one of the co-owners at the time, was in a Broadway theater when he received a call that Jackson was on his way to the fledgling business. They closed SportsWorld to the public so the megastar and his guest, a child, could have their run of the place.

After racing back to Paramus, Putter shook hands with Jackson, then 33, who signed records and gave gifts to the small amount of people allowed inside.

“He was delightful, and he was grateful,” Putter says.

Few employees were there for the actual event, adding to the mystery. However, there was photographic proof.

“Renting out” the business for free to Jackson for the better part of a day turned out to be a great investment. The story raised the amusement park’s profile and generated significant traffic.

“For the next month, every day you couldn’t get in the door,” Mekles says. “We had to limit the number of people.”

In fact, SportsWorld did so well it attracted interest from a certain billionaire.

“This guy walks in with these cowboy boots,” says Mekles, who used to live in Cresskill and Alpine. “I had no clue who he was.”

The man proceeded to sit down and hoist those boots up on Mekles’ desk.

That man was Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, who told Mekles he loved the concept and wanted to open SportsWorlds, well, “all over the world.”

Mekles didn’t make any deals with Branson, but after he realized who he was, he thought it could have been a fruitful match.

A litany of celebrities followed. Former couple Tatum O’Neal and John McEnroe. Rapper DMX. Actor Jimmy Smits. TV journalist Connie Chung. Boy George performed a concert at the venue.

“Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani came all the time,” Helaine Brick-Cabot says.

Michael J. Fox hosted a birthday party for his kid at SportsWorld.

“He was one of the most down-to-earth people I ever met there,” says Straka, who now lives in Park Ridge.

When Harrison Ford’s son enjoyed some LaserTron (his dad was off filming the 1998 movie “Six Days, Seven Nights”), staff joked that it was like seeing “little Han Solo” shooting a laser gun, Hopper says.

He once teamed up with Mattingly’s son against his MVP father.

The Yankees first baseman was one in a long series of athletes who were customers, putting the “sports” in SportsWorld. They included Rangers forward Luc Robitaille, Yankees catcher and Newark native Rick Cerone, Giants players Howard Cross and Ottis Anderson and Wayne Chrebet, a Jets wide receiver who grew up in Garfield.

But lines were drawn, occasionally. Producers for “The Sopranos,” which debuted on HBO in 1999, wanted to film at SportsWorld, Helaine Brick-Cabot says.

The owners declined.

Adult fun in the dark

The amusement park did host its own share of not-so-G-rated activity.

Gomez was a high school student at Passaic Tech in Wayne in 1994 when he started working in the LaserTron section. The Paterson resident recalls seeing teens meet up with their crushes for first dates at SportsWorld.

“They’d have the awkward pizza,” he says.

But things could get steamy.

Mark “Gus” Scott, former drummer for Paramus glam metal band Trixter, affectionately remembers his days there for multiple reasons — one being what happened in the dark.

“LaserTron was the king attraction for me,” he says of the lights-out part of SportsWorld. “If I happened to go with a lady friend, it was easy to sneak off in the corner.”

Larko, who met his first serious girlfriend working at the amusement park, recalls teen passions running high.

“There was always people hooking up,” he says. “There was always drama ... You break up and then you gotta see that person the next day. It was just awkward.”

Someone lost their virginity in the LaserTron tech room, where staff would fix broken packs, says Hopper, who appears in a very ’90s, neon-hued introductory video that players would watch (“LaserTron ladies are great warriors too!”).

“There were probably other things that happened in that back room that I don’t know about,” he says.

And those weren’t the only things afoot at LaserTron. A smoke machine in the wall would waft vapor to set the mood in the attraction. But the mist could also provide cover for staffers smoking marijuana blunts.

That atmosphere had customers coming back — and sometimes joining the team.

Scott was with Trixter in 1990 when the band released its self-titled debut album, which would reach No. 28 on the Billboard 200. The group used the amusement park as a backdrop for promotional photos.

“That was certainly the spot to go to,” says Scott, 53, who now lives in Phoenix.

When glam metal fell out of favor, he looked for a career change.

“I got married, bought a house, bought a car and I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with myself?’” Scott says. “I needed to find a place that I really could enjoy. I couldn’t just punch a ticket, work 9 to 5 at some cubicle somewhere.”

So he got a job at SportsWorld in marketing and advertising.

“When you have a great time somewhere, that place holds a special place in your heart,” says Scott, who was “discharged” after working there for more than three years. “And that’s a beautiful thing.”

The bitter end

Charles Juszczak remembers SportsWorld’s last gasp.

It was a Sunday in February 2006, and it had snowed a foot and half the day before.

“It was a massive storm,” he says. “It was horrible.”

Staff barely made it in for the final day of business, but Juszczak was determined to pay tribute. He spread out thousands of photos he had taken over the years — now lost to time (or on a disc somewhere, he says). Customers secured their last tickets and prizes, taking a parting turn on the rides.

The job ads for party hosts and token slingers never advertised broadened horizons. But many of those who spent their formative years at SportsWorld say the place was like a training ground for their future selves.

Straka, the Paramus High student who started working there in 1992, says his years as an employee exposed him to greater diversity than he would usually encounter.

“I learned so much about so many different cultures there,” he says. “I didn’t understand all the different sects of Judaism until I worked there.”

Straka launched his current career working in sports memorabilia at SportsWorld after attending his first trading card show in the event space upstairs.

“Going there and being able to meet people of all different walks, interacting and talking and building social skills, it set a foundation for where I am today,” says Gomez, the Passaic Tech student who now serves as a psychiatric technician at a forensic hospital in California.

Today, Larko works in Panama for U.S. federal law enforcement. He says being around local police officers who worked SportsWorld security moved him in the direction of his calling.

“I was young, naive, innocent,” he says. “I was shy. And I left there with my career.”

Former party host Sheehan and LaserTron assistant manager Hopper now work at The Arc, a nonprofit in Congers, Rockland County that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

And after all this time, the sounds and sights of SportsWorld linger.

Hopper has a LaserTron jacket and a sign from the amusement park in his personal collection. Sheehan still works children’s birthday parties, but can channel the old daily soundtrack of dueling arcade screens.

“I could hear the particular video games in my head at night,” she says, laughing.

Now all the sweaty arcade buttons, flashing lights and intrepid laser battles are just a memory.

Several factors played a role in SportsWorld’s closure. To Helaine Brick-Cabot, the reason is straightforward.

“The landlord wouldn’t renew our lease,” she says. “They were selling the building.”

Raymour & Flanigan, the furniture store, had made an attractive offer. Mindich and the Brick-Cabots didn’t counter.

“It was unfortunately the time to let it go,” Mindich says.

While sad, the development wasn’t exactly unexpected, Brick-Cabot says.

Costs had gone up. Video games became obsolete in a matter of months, Mindich says, especially as they became more sophisticated.

“The brand new games were not coming in,” Hopper says. “The result was a lot of kids played those games elsewhere.”

Even if SportsWorld’s games had been cutting edge, gaming culture had evolved. The rise of the internet and the emergence of games with sophisticated graphics and elaborate narratives meant players were increasingly staying home on PCs, Xboxes and PlayStations.

Sigona, a former SportsWorld customer, remembers visiting on a weekday afternoon when the indoor amusement park was in decline.

“There was nobody in there,” he says. “It was very eerie.”

Sigona, 45, used to watch as two players would man the machine guns of the “Terminator 2: Judgment Day″ arcade game. Just being there to witness them make it to the next level was exciting. But tokens became a relic when you could compete with friends and strangers through online multiplayer options without getting out of bed.

“You really didn’t need to spend a dollar on a video game,” he says.

In the winter of 2006, all the games were cleared out to make way for couches, coffee tables and dining rooms sets. The site — 200 Route 17 North in Paramus — remains occupied by a Raymour & Flanigan.

It was just too much when Sheehan first drove by and saw the venue swallowed up by the commercial landscape of her hometown.

“I was heartbroken,” she says. “Because that was my childhood, gone.”

Looking back, the current surplus of interior design and furniture retailers on Route 17 — particularly in Paramus — made it all but certain that prime real estate like SportsWorld would eventually be subsumed by the dominant business theme.

“It’s all fluid. It’s all in transition, and we have our memory of our little part of it,” Nersesian says. “I guess Route 17 is a great allegory for life in that way. We all think our experience mattered much more than it probably does in the grand scheme of things.”

But it still matters. To this day, employees and customers reminisce about SportsWorld.

Even after it closed in 2006, the local fixture lived on in the writing of bestselling Bergen County authors Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark.

In 2019, a piece of SportsWorld showed up in a junkyard next to Justin Mathews’ Hackensack condo.

It was none other than the Venturer Simulator. Mathews, 45, spotted the ride in the trash heap and remembered it from his high school days (Glen Rock class of ‘95).

The attraction, once looked upon with awe, certainly appeared worse for wear. Now, it was just another form of scrap metal.

Before the artifact was hauled away, he posted photos on Facebook.

“I was happy,” he says. “I got 300 likes.”

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Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at akuperinsky@njadvancemedia.com and followed at @AmyKup on Twitter.

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