First Impressions of Abe Pollin; Wes Unseld: “He was a Washingtonian”
Mr. Pollin was a good owner. Not particularly adept at guiding a franchise toward winning (at least in my lifetime), but a good owner. He was a loyal man, a trait which countless will stand in line to attest. Perhaps, at times, that loyalty got in the way of winning. But that wasn’t the path Abe wanted to take. It didn’t mean he wanted to win any less than the next fan for life. This team, this city was damn lucky to have Abe Pollin on their side. So cheers to the captain of the vessel, here’s to hoping your successor steers the ship at least as good as you did, and to the best of your championship aspirations. (Ted Leonsis, is that you stepping forward?)
Post-game reactions to Mr. Pollin’s passing from Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Wes Unseld.
I spoke with some others before the game about the first time they met Mr. Pollin and their impression of him.
“The first time I met him was five or six years ago upstairs in his office, and he told me that he wanted me here. And him and Mr. Grunfeld presented me with a contract for five years, to remain a Washington Wizard. That was a moment which was great for my family, a life-changing experience. I’m very thankful for him … for life.”
“The first time I met him one-on-one was when I came down to interview for the job. I sat in his boardroom here, and it was an interview that lasted about 10 minutes. He shook my hand and says, ‘You’re my coach.’ And I said, ‘I wanna be your coach.’ I don’t think any other interview has gone like that in the NBA. He said, ‘We don’t need a contract, your handshake is good enough for me.’ And I walked out and said, ‘Jeez, I gotta tell my agent that I took a job and there’s no money involved.’ But that’s the kind of man he was … he knew and I knew. He was very special, no doubt about it.”
“I remember when I came up here to interview for my first time. He asked about me. He didn’t ask too much about basketball, he wanted to know about my family. He wanted to know about my children, my parents, my background. We probably spent the first half hour about that before we ever talked about the game or basketball. That’s the kind of person he is. He wanted to know you as an individual. He’s very big on family. He was very, very big on loyalty. And he was very big on good people.”
“The first time I met him was when I signed my first deal. He told me that he didn’t have a lot of money to pay for me right now. But if I do the things I was supposed to do, I’d be in a good situation. And I did. He looked out for me. He was just a guy who loved this ball club, he was always around, always had a smile on his face. He respected us and we respected him.”
“It was many years ago …. my rookie year, training camp. That was the first chance I got to meet him. When I first met him, I knew he was a guy who loved his team, his players. You just got that vibe from him.
The rest of the season is for him. Whatever hump there is, or whatever is holding us back, we gotta get over it for him.”
What Others Are Saying:
Abe Pollin helped save my hometown.
You may think that’s hyperbole. You’d be wrong.
And that’s why, I guess, I was sadder than I thought I’d be upon hearing that Pollin had died Tuesday at 85, after a series of illnesses. Part of it is work-related; I am fairly certain that there aren’t many people who’ve seen more Bullets/Wizards games over the last two decades than I. Covering the Bullets was my first beat; a decade later, I interviewed President Clinton in a Verizon suite. Part of it was sentimental; going to Pollin’s Capital Centre with my dad is one of my first sports memories.
While snooping around the Wizards six years ago trying to find out whether a deflated Michael Jordan wanted to remain with the organization, a person I rarely talk to called me on the telephone and, without introduction, opened with an absolute stunner.
“There will be a meeting in Washington next week at which Michael Jordan will be fired,” the voice said.
I laughed at first, figuring it was a joke. Even now, it’s still hard to fathom.
Who fires a general manager named Michael Jordan?
The original class of 55 “adoptees” from Seat Pleasant Elementary eventually went up to 59, after four kids transferred to the school and Pollin and Cohen said, “Let ’em in!” According to the I Have a Dream Foundation, which monitored Pollin’s gift, 49 of those kids graduated from high school, and 39 went to a trade school or college on the owner’s dime. As of 2007, 17 had received at least one college degree.
That quality, that resistance to change, also hampered Pollin’s franchise. I never considered it a coincidence that he won his lone NBA championship in 1978, the year before the modern era of the NBA began. That fall, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and everything became bigger, more lucrative, more expensive. As the sport became more star-driven, the Bullets kept adding the big names when it was too late. They brought in Bernard King and Moses Malone, but neither had a playoff series victory to show for his time there. So the team took to marketing the visiting stars as a way to sell tickets.
In the 1990s, while other teams were moving into their own practice facilities such as the Bulls’ modern Berto Center in suburban Chicago, the Bullets remained in a cramped old gym at Bowie State University, where they were known to lose a player or two to injuries suffered from colliding with the thinly padded wall just beyond the baselines. When other teams used hydraulic guns to shoot T-shirts high into the stands, the Bullets’ mascot tossed shirts as high as he could with a lacrosse stick.
He arrived in Washington more than 75 years ago, the gangly son of a Russian metal worker named Morris Pollinovsky who came to America a poor man speaking no English. Through decades of hard work and a seemingly unstoppable will, Abe Pollin rose to the top of the worlds of business, philanthropy and professional sports. In the process, he transformed his adopted home town by bringing professional basketball and hockey franchises here and spending $220 million to build a massive sports and entertainment arena that has dramatically changed the face of downtown Washington.
Abe Pollin was pugnacious to the end, refusing to walk away until he saw his beloved NBA franchise hoist a second championship banner.
It was not meant to be.
He passed away with his team mired in injuries and uncertainty and friction. That seemingly was the fate of the franchise since the ’80s. Its big-name players would succumb to injury, and another season would be lost.
Pollin sometimes was criticized for the so-called “mom and pop” way he ran the franchise. He sometimes was criticized for his devotion to his employees – he was loyal to a fault, they said.
If that is so, his was a fault to be valued in sports today, when loyalties are too often measured by the bottom line.
The bottom line about Abe Pollin was that he was ours. He was part of the District.
Like any rich man who spent his life negotiating deals and trying to move forward with his projects, Pollin made some enemies during his life, but far fewer it always seemed to me than 90 percent of the men who own professional sports franchises. While some of the richest men in the world refuse to spend their own monies to build an arena, Pollin spent his to build two, which I would remind myself whenever Pollin refused to spend elsewhere.
As the media listened to Unseld tell stories, it didn’t feel like we were on the hunt for quotes in a story, and it definitely didn’t feel like we were in an NBA arena. It felt like our grandfather had chosen this moment, on this day, to reflect, and we were lucky enough to be in attendance to hear the stories.
After Mr. Unseld’s speech, I listened to Team President Ernie Grunfeld and Wizards’ guard DeShawn Stevenson discuss what Mr. Pollin meant to them, and then I prepared for the game. I felt overwhelmed by the all the information I received, and I even commented to someone next to me, “I don’t even want the game to start yet, I have so much to process.”
Unfortunately though, the game had to start, but before it did, there was a moment of silence for Mr. Pollin. And for those brief eight seconds, the house that Pollin built was completely silent, while his picture, with the years he lived under it, hovered over all of us in attendance on the giant flat screen.
He eschewed a life as a real estate mogul in exchange for life as the owner of the Baltimore Bullets, characterized early on as the definition of risky business. Rather than making professional sports ownership into a hobby venture, he envisioned a lucrative business operation. A fearless proposition for a team that was not perennially successful, and had very few supporters in the region.