Arnold A. Heft, owner of horses, NBA team, dies at 94


Arnold Heft in his office in Hyattsville, Md., in 1972. (Larry Morris/The Washington Post)
March 26

Arnold A. Heft, a former minor league baseball pitcher who later was a National Basketball Association referee, a co-owner of the Baltimore Bullets, a noted racehorse owner and a real estate entrepreneur, died March 12 at a retirement center in Bethesda, Md. He was 94.

The family announced the death but did not disclose the cause.

Mr. Heft, who had been an NBA referee for 13 years, was one of three Washington-based investors who bought the Bullets in 1964 for $1.1 million. The other two were Earl Foreman, a lawyer and part-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, and Abe Pollin, a Washington builder.

Pollin bought out his partners in 1968, at a reported cost of $1.8 million, and moved the franchise from Baltimore to Washington in 1973. He remained the principal owner of the team, now known as the Washington Wizards, until his death in 2009.

Mr. Heft was a real estate developer and was a part-owner of the Capital Centre, an arena in Landover, Md., where the Bullets and Washington Capitals played for many years. Disputes between Mr. Heft and Pollin over the Capital Centre led to a series of acrimonious lawsuits between the two in the 1980s.

One of Pollin’s attorneys said Mr. Heft was motivated by “unquenchable greed” and had been “an opportunist at every turn” while earning profits from the Capital Centre. Mr. Heft’s attorney said that Pollin had cut Mr. Heft out of the decision-making process concerning the arena and asked, “Does he even give any consideration that Mr. Heft even exists?”

The onetime friends and business partners, who had grown up in the same neighborhood in Washington, stopped speaking.

In later years, after Mr. Heft sold his construction and real estate interests, he owned a string of race horses.

“We started with a $30,000 investment and watched it grow,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1989. “The best thing about horeses is that they don’t ask to renegotiate.”

Several of Mr. Heft’s horses won stakes races, including Eighttofasttocatch — named for Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin — who won the Maryland Million Classic at Laurel Park last year.

Arnold Abraham Heft was born in Baltimore on May 29, 1919, and grew up in Washington. He was a 1937 graduate of the old Central High School and attended Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.

A former batboy for the Washington Senators, Mr. Heft later pitched in the minor leagues and won 22 games in 1941 for a Class D team in Owensboro, Ky. He served in the Navy during World War II.

Mr. Heft was a referee in the NBA and a predecessor league from 1948 to 1961. While working as a referee, he got to know Red Auerbach, the longtime coach of the Boston Celtics, who lived in Washington.

Mr. Heft became a member of a circle of Auerbach’s friends who met every Tuesday for lunch at a Chinese restaurant before Auerbach’s death in 2006. Mr. Heft named one of his racehorses, Red’s Round Table, after the gathering.

Mr. Heft was a board member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and a member of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Md.

Survivors include his wife of 73 years, Sylvia Abramson Heft of Bethesda; three daughters, Gwen Oppenheim and Barbara Heft, both of Bethesda, and Harriet Feldman of Rockville; a sister; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

— Baltimore Sun and staff reports

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