The one thing Leonsis has thus far refrained from doing is changing the name back to the Bullets, however, despite pleas from many fans to do just that. Those calls may get a bit louder after Abe Pollin’s widow and former Wizards’ co-owner said recently she wouldn’t object to such a change.
“I respect my husband’s wishes. I love him very much. I miss him terribly. If the fans want to change it back — hey, why not?” Irene Pollin said. “To me, it’s what do the fans want? What’s going to please them? To me, they’re the ones who support, care.”
Abe Pollin changed the name from Bullets to Wizards in 1997, partly because he didn’t want the team to be associated with gun violence. Leonsis has consistently made public comments that he has no plans of going back to the Bullets.
Leonsis declined comment when asked to respond last week, but when the Wizards unveiled their new look last May, he told WJFK (106.7 FM) that a name change is “almost like a grandstanding thing. I mean, it’s a cheap way to get people to support you.”
He was asked again in October and told WTOP (103.5 FM), “there’s no name change that’s being contemplated.”
The Bullets made four trips to the NBA Finals in the 1970s, winning the championship in 1978, then went through a period of mediocrity during the 1980s and 1990s. The team has missed the playoffs in 10 of their 14 seasons as the Wizards, advancing to the second round just once.
The possibility of the name going back perhaps became more remote when Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton were suspended during the 2009-10 season for bringing guns to the locker room. But Leonsis, who started attending Bullets games as a student at Georgetown University, has mostly been reluctant for fear of insulting his predecessors — especially since Abe Pollin died just two years ago — and a desire to stay politically correct. Leonsis has written on his blog and said in interviews that many fans have also expressed that sentiment to him when arguing for a need to avoid calling the team the Bullets.
“I don’t agree with that,” Pollin said. “It wasn’t up to me to change it. It was really my husband. He was very uncomfortable. I think he got really upset when our friend, Yitzhak Rabin, was murdered. And I think it bothered him that the team he was involved with had a name like Bullets.”
Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, was assassinated in Nov. 1995, a few months after Abe Pollin announced that he was considering a name change for the franchise he bought for $1 million in 1964. The Baltimore Bullets were named after a 234-foot brick factory, the Phoenix Shot Tower, where bullets and cannons were produced from 1828 to 1892.
“When we bought the team, it had that name. It was ‘faster than a speeding bullet.’ That was the idea,” Irene Pollin said. “But at the time, the name bullet didn’t really signify violence and death. It was just a fast projectile, really. Which is a really different idea than a bullet that kills. Maybe it can be thought of again as a speeding projectile, but I doubt that Ted would want to change the name back.”
The Bullets moved to the Washington area in 1973 but held on to the name for nearly a quarter-century before the switch that coincided with the move to the arena now known as Verizon Center. Some fans and former players have never accepted the change.
“I like the name Wizards. You know why? I named it,” Irene Pollin said with a laugh. “For one thing, Washington Bullets is euphonious. Baltimore Bullets has the [alliteration]. But Washington, I thought it needed it’s own thing. We were changing it to something with a ‘W’ that sounded good with the name Washington. That’s why. There was a contest. But actually, what’s interesting, I say I named it, but in the contest, people did come up with the Wizards name. So it wasn’t just me.”
Pollin has attended one game since selling the team to Leonsis, sitting next to him for the home opener last season. She plans to attend the home opener against the New Jersey Nets on Monday, but has mostly maintained a low profile since representing the franchise at the NBA draft lottery and wearing her late husband’s championship ring as the Wizards won the rights to select John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick.
Pollin was excited when Leonsis re-branded the franchise with a design reminiscent of better times for the organization. “I like the look of it and I think the reason I like it is, because it has a lot of good memories,” Pollin said. “We won the championship. It could be other colors. But it doesn’t matter, there are a lot of people in Washington that remember that and remember that as a really fun time. And really, I like that idea.
“Look, he owns the team, he can do whatever he wants,” Pollin said of Leonsis.