Many of the tributes you will hear about Abe Pollin will capture the essence of his kindness, his endearment to those he worked with and hired, and his undying affection for the Washington-Metropolitan area. Those are laudable portions of a man whose life meant so much to so many.
But his strongest characteristic is likely to be the one passed over by many writers; his fearless approach to life and profession.
Everything would point to life working against the son of a Russian immigrant in the early 1900s, but Abe Pollin crafted fortune out of opportunity and generosity out of affluence. 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.
When he decided that an arena for the team should be built, he took it to the suburbs of Prince George’s County. It was uncharted territory for a town so use to the urban digs of RFK Stadium. Without fear, he moved the Bullets to Landover and put Washington on the professional basketball map.
When the team struggled and man, did they struggle, he continued about his work of loyalty and dedication to his people. Wes Unseld, by his own admission, stayed around longer than he should have. Pollin frugally spent when he shouldn’t have and the Bullets lost for a lot longer than they should have. He wasn’t scared to run his business his way,right or wrong.
In 1997, in the face of rampant and hideous gun-related homicides in Washington D.C., Pollin held a contest to rename the team. Wizards, to the chagrin of many, became the new mascot. Abe Pollin wasn’t afraid about ticket sales and sponsorships falling off because of the move. He believed that he could do something to help save the city from itself, if only with a change of the name.
He drafted and traded without fear, he adopted minority children and nurtured them as his own without concern for what the social elite of Washington would think, and he gave freely and cheerfully, despite his basketball and hockey franchises’ plummeting appeal and profits.
And when it became apparent that one of the greatest players of all-time couldn’t suit the needs of his team or his city, he fired him without worry of league wide or local recourse.
Abe Pollin lived without fear and enjoyed the liberating feeling of courage. He playfully slapped players after wins and consoled them after losses. His teams were some of the worst you ever saw, yet he proudly owned them and never tired of trying to make them better by his rules and standards.
Thankfully, he lived to see the Wizards and Capitals come of age as relevant franchises and watched the city revitalize itself around his handiwork.
Once a builder, always a builder.
We can only hope to live so free and to die with a life as meaningful and as well-lived as Abe Pollin did.
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