Today is a sad day for the Pollin family, the city of Washington D.C., the world of sports, and mankind itself, because Abe Pollin passed away at the age of 85 earlier this evening.
He was much more than the owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards or the longest tenured NBA owner to millions of people. Mr. Pollin was a beacon of courage and hope for all. His impact on the Washington Metropolitan Area for the past 46 years will be felt for countless future years ahead. He was a philanthropist whose generosity has donated countless millions of dollars that fed, clothed, housed, and educated many of the misfortunate dwellers of our Nation's Capitol.
He moved into the area in 1931 at the age of eight years old, and stayed in the area for the rest of his life. He attended George Washington University at a time when future NBA Legend Red Auerbach was a star player on the basketball team. After graduating, he went into the construction business and prospered. Pollin then made a business move in 1964 that changed the landscape of the area forever.
There had not been a professional basketball team since the Washington Capitols went defunct in 1951. Ironically, Auerbach had coached that team for three years and set records that still stand today. Pollin bought the Chicago Zephyrs for $1.1 million, which was a record at the time. He then moved the team to the city of Baltimore and named them the Bullets. The team moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1973, and has been here since.
His teams quickly became a force in the league, and helped the NBA from being a regional marketed game to the global entity is is today. The Bullets went to the Western Conference Finals in 1965, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. The Bullets then later became a consistent winner a few years later after drafting two of the greatest players in NBA history, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Wes Unseld, in two consecutive years on 1967 and 1968.
From 1969 to 1979, the Bullets won seven division titles, including five straight at one point. They also won Eastern Conference crown four times in the era, and won the NBA Championship in 1978. The franchise has failed to achieve any of these accolades since, though there have been several excellent teams that have competed over the last thirty seasons.
Thirty years ago, he had his Bullets travel overseas to play basketball in China to serve as an ambassador to the game and help spread the game into the global market. This was an important move, because several international players have played in the NBA since. The NBA commemorated this trip earlier in the year, and sent another team to play in China. Antawn Jamison and Randy Foye represented Pollin's Wizards in the games.
Another of Pollin's contributions to the city was bringing in the game of professional hockey in 1974, when the Washington Capitals were born. He has just built a huge arena in Landover, Maryland called the Capital Centre, and it was the first arena ever to have luxury box seating and a large screen television that stood in the middle of the arena suspended above the field of play.
The Capitals struggled for decades as the fourth most popular team in the area, behind the Redskins, Bullets, and the neighboring Baltimore Orioles. Many years the team struggled to make the playoffs, though their fortunes began to turn for the better in the 1980's. The Capitals even made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, but Pollin still lost over $20 million that season on the team. He then sold the team to current owner Ted Leonsis.
Pollin also brought the city women's professional basketball in 1998, when he founded the Washingtom Mystics just before the second year of the WNBA. The teams mostly struggled on the court, though they did reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002. What the Mystics did attain, however, was a huge following. They led the WNBA in attendance in six of the seven years Pollin owned the team. He sold the team to Leonsis just before the 2005 season.
One common theme he had with his ownership was a family run atmosphere. He was fiercely loyal to his players and teams. He would often voice his displeasure to media members who had spoken negatively of his teams, which he viewed as his family. His loyalty was legendary to the people of Washington D.C. especially.
When he changed the teams name from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1995, he gave his reasons as to being uncomfortable with the names connotation of violence in the wake of the areas high crime and murder rate. When his close friend, Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, he felt further compelled to hasten the move. Some fans note the lack of success the team has had since this moment, since the Wizards have mostly struggled.
It is almost fitting that his Wizards faced their long time rival Philadelphia 76ers today in D.C., a game he had planned on attending. The 76ers are coached by local legend Eddie Jordan, who was fired one year ago today by the Wizards after a stint of just over five years with the team. Jordan, like many other Wizard employees, probably stayed on longer than he deserved because of Pollin's loyalty.
Sometimes this loyalty was met with the chagrin of fans. This was echoed today by Bullets legend Unseld, the face of the franchise, when he said, "He saw the big picture. He had an answer for everything. He kept me on longer with the team than I should have been, and longer than perhaps I wanted to be at times. He knew what was best for the team and community."
Pollin always put the community first. This can be seen throughout the history of his ownership. He would often fire a star player if he felt that person was having a negative impact. The list of greats he cut ties with is long, and includes such players like Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, and Michael Jordan.
Though he often lamented the escalating salaries of players over the years, he knew how much impact they had on society. He was the man who demanded, and brought in, the rule of player conduct on the current labor agreement of the league. "You may or may not want to be role models, but you are role models. If you don't want to be role models, you should get out of this business and go do something else."
He was a role model himself. He saved a historic synagogue from being turned into a dance club a few blocks from his offices, even though it cost millions of dollars to refurbish. He gave every school in the city working computers so children could use them. He established a program called "Abe's Table", where his team would go door to door and give food to the needy. Today the program was out giving food when he passed away.
A mere hours before he died today, he spoke with his assistant on the phone. He told the assistant to make sure everyone employed by his Washington Sports & Entertainment Company went home early tomorrow to beat the holiday traffic. That truly epitomizes what type of character he had. As he stood on deaths doorstep, he was thinking of others.
The contribution that Pollin gave to the city that may be most remembered was when he built the Verizon Center in 1997 with his own money. He spent over $200 million on the building in his effort to revitalize a part of town that had not yet fully recovered from being torched to the ground during the 1968 riots. "I wanted to build a beautiful arena and one that served as a catalyst to turn things around downtown. I'm proud to say we succeeded in both scores."
That part of town is now immensely popular in the city, and is chock full of restaurants and other businesses. Every person who partakes in this areas enjoyment can thank Pollin for this, and can be reminded of his impact on the street named after him by the arena known to locals as, "The Phone Booth".
This year had been both mixed with pain and pleasure for Pollin. He was diagnosed with a rare disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. The disease impairs movement and balance, and left Pollin wheelchair bound in his final months. The disease and wheelchair did not slow him down, however, as Pollin could often be seen around his team so he could continue to stay close with his players.
Earlier this year, his Alma mater George Washington University inducted him into their School of Business Sports Executives Hall of Fame. At his induction he told fans that he wanted to win another championship, and that the team would not ever move so as long as he owned the team. "I've contracted a very rare disease, but it's not going to keep me from winning a championship. Until then I'm not going to quit, and I'm going to do whatever I can to win a championship for this town, for me, and for the fans."
Leonsis, his longtime business partner, is expected to take ownership of the Wizards and Washington Sports & Entertainment Company as agreed upon by the two men several years ago. Fans of the team are relieved at this thought, and expect the Wizards to be in the area for many more years to come.
All Abe Pollin wanted was for his teams to win. He did not own the Wizards for the money he made alone. He was a competitor, and it showed by his actions both with the team and community. Most of the fans of the team, especially the older ones who had been along with Abe on the fun journey, knew this.
As a life long fan of the team myself, I hope the Wizards rally and win a championship for him this season. Pollin would want them to win it all for the town, fans, and themselves first. As the Wizards would play with a heavy heart tonight against the 76ers, they showed a lot of energy and brotherhood in their hard fought 108 - 107 victory despite being short handed due to injuries.
They did for Abe. As team captain Antawn Jamison said, "It is tough. I love him. He had a lot of faith in me, and I am just trying to walk in the shoes he expected me to wear. It won't be the same without him with his pumping us up and wanting us to do our best. He loved the game of basketball, but is in a better place now. He saw us win tonight."
The real winners were us for having been blessed to have known and to have lived alongside him. Thank you Abe Pollin. Rest In Peace.