Abe Pollin Built More Than Wizards
Such a remembrance would be as understandable as it would be unfortunate.
Indeed, Pollin, who died Tuesday afternoon at 85 as the longest tenured owner in the NBA, was much more than the protagonist in the ending of MJ's basketball-playing career as he was cast -- and wrongly, by the way. He was the kind of owner every fan, and certainly every city leader, would love to have had. The nation's capital was lucky for the last 46 years Pollin owned the Wizards, which was why Wes Unseld -- truly the greatest pro basketball player in this city's history -- dragged himself into downtown Washington on Tuesday night for what was a unglamorous meeting of a losing team from Philadelphia and Pollin's losing Wizards.
"He loved Washington," said Unseld, who anchored the only championship, in 1978, which Pollin's teams ever mustered.
That's the irony in this city's appreciation for Pollin. He wasn't the best team owner in this city's history. That was, unquestionably, Jack Kent Cooke, the longtime owner of the local NFL team who shepherded three Super Bowl champions before allowing the club to be bought by its current owner.
Pollin, however, made Washington the sports town it has become and he did so in a most refreshing way: single-handedly
Just about the time I was becoming aware of professional sports, there was but one to follow here. That was the football team adorned in burgundy and gold. But in the middle '70s, Pollin gave us something else to cheer about, a basketball team he owned and imported from Baltimore called the Bullets and a hockey team he purchased from the NHL that got named the Capitals.
To top it all off, he built a stadium in a Maryland suburb for both to play in: the Capital Centre.
And all of that he did mostly with money from his own pocket. How 'bout that?
Unlike a lot of owners today, Pollin, a construction entrepreneur, also refused for the most part to interfere with the people he hired to run the sports in which he was invested. Over the years, they included black coaches starting with K.C. Jones in 1973, a black general manager in Unseld, and a woman, Susan O'Malley, as president.
Pollin repeated the use of his own wealth when the Cap Centre, as we all called it, became obsolete. He plunked down a couple hundred million of his own to secure a lot in an absolute dead zone of downtown D.C. and build another new home for his basketball and hockey franchises. It was originally called the MCI Center and quickly got nicknamed The Phone Booth.
When I moved back to my hometown a couple of years ago, it was in the midst of celebrating the 10-year anniversary of what is now called the Verizon Center, which was considered when Pollin built it the dumbest gamble in city history. Everyone was certain that even though Pollin built it no one would come. Downtown D.C. was too dangerous and there was nothing else there.
But after I rode the escalator up from the subway stop at the arena on Tuesday, I had to negotiate my way through the throngs that swarm this part of town nowadays. The arena is attached to the city's most-popular sports bar. It sits across the street from the brand new modern home of the Shakespeare theater. It is just around the corner from some of the best restaurants and watering holes, all of which bustle with humanity till the wee hours.
"He was the catalyst ... that revitalized the surrounding area," said Ted Leonsis, who bought the Capitals from Pollin and was supposed to assume the Wizards whenever and however Pollin's ownership ended. "Anyone walking down 7th Street, seeing the throngs of excited fans, the host of popular restaurants, hotels and nightspots, can attest to the lasting legacy of Mr. Pollin's deep commitment to D.C."
Pollin wasn't perfect. I still don't know why he parted with Jones as a coach, and his sending of everyone's favorite player Earl the Pearl Monroe to New York took forever to heal.
Pollin's biggest fault was loyalty. Most of us who rooted for the Wizards believe he kept Unseld in a leadership role for far too long than that single championship should have afforded him. The Wizards in the 80s and 90s were as unsuccessful a franchise as you could find.
But it wasn't as if his heart was in the wrong place or his wallet was closed to trying to make his teams -- no, our teams -- better.
And he should've dismissed Jordan. He wasn't what the team needed as a player at the time and his judgment for running the team, which was part of his role, was as suspect then as it is now. After Pollin suffered slings and arrows for dismissing Jordan, the team became a perennial playoff squad, if not ultimately a successful one.
"He was an exemplary figure in our community," Greater Washington Sports Alliance president Robert Sweeney said. "His many achievements transformed the role that sports can have in our lives."
The Wizards' chief of staff, Matt Williams, said the owner called him Tuesday morning with a reminder to let the staff go home early after the Philly game so they could beat the traffic for Thanksgiving. Hours after the game, which started with a moment of silence and ended with a Wizards' win, many of Pollin's employees milled around whispering their recollections of the only NBA owner Washingtonians have ever known.