The 1978 Washington Bullets championship trophy — and the man who looked over it

April 10, 2013

On the day before he died in 2008, Everett “Smokie” Bowie, 80 years old at the time and suffering from cancer, reported to work at Verizon Center, which he had been running since its opening in 1997. That night, family members recalled, he watched the Capitals’ game on television, but couldn’t stay up to catch the Wizards’ game on the West Coast. He went to sleep and never woke up. At his funeral, Abe Pollin, in a wheelchair himself by then, delivered an emotional eulogy.

Bowie was a quiet, private man who never sought the spotlight, and his name might have remained unknown to most were it not for a story in The Post last Friday about the 1978 NBA champion Washington Bullets and the championship trophy that came with it. This is the story of that trophy and the man who kept it safe — a man who, according to granddaughter Allison Barger Eddy, “cherished four things in life above all else: God, his family, Abe Pollin and the Washington Bullets.”

And it is a different story than the one related by current Wizards owner Ted Leonsis last week. Leonsis had said that when he took over ownership of the Wizards and Verizon Center in 2010, having bought them from the Pollin family, the 1978 championship trophy could not be located — until it was finally discovered in a closet at Bowie’s house. Upon retrieving it and finding it “with dings in it” and “matted,” Leonsis said, he paid to have it restored by Tiffany’s in Tysons Corner, after which it was put on display in a new case near the main entrance at Verizon Center.

However, according to the family of the late Bowie — as well as Irene Pollin, Abe’s widow and a part-owner of the Bullets and Capitals — none of that is true. They say the trophy was never at Bowie’s house and in fact was displayed — in a different case, built by a construction crew overseen by Bowie’s son, Mike — for most of the 2000s at Verizon Center.

“It never left the Verizon Center,” Irene Pollin said.

Contacted by The Post about the discrepancies in his account and that of the Pollin and Bowie families, Leonsis, through a spokesman, issued a statement that acknowledged the errors in his anecdote.

“The Bullets’ 1978 championship trophy wasn’t off-site when Monumental Sports & Entertainment purchased the team,” Leonsis’s statement said. “Rather, it was in a Verizon Center closet in a location that had limited access. Previously the trophy had been on display, but we initially had a difficult time locating it. Once we found it, we had it repaired and spruced up at Tiffany & Co. and placed it in a new display case on the arena’s main concourse.

“A championship is incredibly difficult to achieve, and we want to celebrate and respect our history. The organization was honored and grateful that the ’78 team, Mrs. Pollin and her sons were able to participate in last weekend’s 35th anniversary celebration. It was a great event for the players, our organization and the fans.”

On Friday, the day the original story ran in the newspaper, Irene Pollin called Leonsis to dispute his account of events, and the two “cleared the air,” she said. On Leonsis’s personal blog that day, he posted an entry, titled “Homage to the Pollin Family,” that praised the Pollins for their stewardship of the franchise and of Verizon Center.

In the spring and summer of 2010, just as Leonsis was taking over the Wizards and Verizon Center, work was being done on building a new, larger display case for the trophy. During that time, the trophy was kept, wrapped in protective material, in a room that was part of the Pollin Properties office suite on the arena’s third floor, according to Matt Williams, who served as a spokesman for the Wizards organization from 1988 to 2010.

“To the best of my memory, [the new display case] was ready to go just about the time Ted finished the purchase,” Williams said. “Those offices for Pollin Properties were probably the safest place in the building, because keys were limited.”

According to Mike Bowie, the room also held the trophy during the period from roughly 1997 to 2001, after the Capitals (purchased by Leonsis in 1999) and Wizards (as the Bullets were renamed in 1995) moved from Capital Centre to Verizon Center, but before the original display case had been built.

In 2001, Mike Bowie, who began working under his father in 1997 and eventually worked his way up to vice president, oversaw construction of a trophy case, with a mirrored back and a glass front, big enough to hold three trophies — the hope being that the Capitals and Washington Mystics would win championship trophies of their own. The case was displayed just to the east of the main entrance at Verizon Center — where many Wizards fans have recalled seeing it through much of the 2000s, until officials decided it needed a bigger case.

During that time, the display case was shared, on a rotating basis, by the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, so every four to six weeks, according to Mike Bowie, the trophy and all other Wizards memorabilia were removed and stored until it was the Wizards’ turn to have the case again.

As for the condition of the trophy in those days, Mike Bowie said, “I’m sure it could have been shined up. It was 30 years old. I didn’t see any dents on it, but I wasn’t examining it real close either.”

Smokie Bowie’s association with the Pollin family predates Abe Pollin’s ownership of the Bullets; he worked for the construction company founded in 1957 by Morris Pollin, Abe’s father. But by the Bullets’ 1970s heyday, he had become Abe Pollin’s right-hand man and eventually, his best friend. He was an executive vice president of Pollin’s company, Washington Sports & Entertainment, at the time of his passing.

“I’m pretty sure if Mr. Pollin was here, he would tell you my father was his best friend,” said Bonnie Barger, Bowie’s daughter. “They had spent many years together, and he cherished my father’s opinion. There wasn’t much that got done without him at least discussing things with my father first.”

After Bowie died, his family went through a closet where he stored some keepsakes from his career. They found a small box with some mementos, including a ticket stub from Game 6 of the 1978 NBA championship series at Capital Centre.

When it was time to bury Smokie Bowie (the nickname came from his younger days, when he used to smoke prodigiously, before giving up the habit later in life), his son, Mike, took the ticket stub and placed it gently into the coffin.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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