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For Abe Pollin, Sweet Vindication

By John Feinstein
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page A17

Even those in Washington who don't pay much attention to sports remember the famous picture that appeared in this newspaper two years ago: Michael Jordan driving away from the MCI Center in his Mercedes convertible with the Illinois license plate, leaving the Washington Wizards in his rearview mirror. Minutes earlier, Jordan had been fired by Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who told him that he didn't want him returning to the job he'd abandoned as the team's CEO two years earlier to un-retire as a player for the third time.

Pollin's dismissal of Jordan set off a firestorm both here and around the country. How dare he fire Michael Jordan? Pollin, who was 79 at the time, was called a doddering old man, a blundering, incompetent owner and, in some circles, a racist. At least one sports commentator likened the firing to a plantation owner's sending one of his colored folk back to the fields. Another said the Wizards would never -- repeat, never -- be a viable team in this city as long as Pollin owned them.

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Two years later the Wizards are in the playoffs for the first time since 1998 and the second since 1988. On Sunday evening, they will open a first-round series in Chicago against the team Jordan made great in the city where Jordan lives. When the series comes to MCI Center for Game 3 next week, the building will be sold-out and jumping with energy. The Wizards, under general manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach Eddie (no relation) Jordan, have put together an exciting young team that should continue to improve.

Michael Jordan remains unemployed, unless you count the commercials he appears in. That brings to mind another prediction made after his firing that hasn't exactly come true: that teams would line up to hire him as an executive or make him a minority owner. Apparently the terms Jordan has demanded have been too much for other team owners, who probably also have noted the renaissance of the Wizards post-Michael.

To sum up: A lot of people owe Pollin an apology.

Pollin has been a lightning rod in this area for a long time. When he became a team owner here more than 30 years ago, bringing the Bullets from Baltimore, he and his pal Peter O'Malley, the onetime Prince George's County political boss, twisted a lot of arms to put together the sweetheart deal that placed Pollin and the Bullets in the Capital Centre in Landover. In the 1980s, when Pollin threatened to fold his hockey team, some columnists in this newspaper accused him of blackmail -- of trying to get everyone in town to ante up to keep the Capitals alive. Pollin angrily responded by taking out a full-page ad in The Post attacking the columnists. He has never taken criticism lightly, and he becomes especially upset when he's accused of political maneuvering.

In fact, Pollin has played politics at times, as most very wealthy men do. But it's worth remembering that unlike most of today's team owners, he built MCI Center with his own money. And even with a bad basketball team and a mediocre hockey team that didn't play a single game this season because of a lockout, the downtown area has thrived since the building opened in 1997.

There's no question Pollin has made mistakes. He has hired bad coaches, and the team has made some truly bad draft picks. But he has also been victimized by bad luck at times. Certainly no one criticized the decision to hire Jordan as CEO five years ago; in fact, the town went nuts. But Jordan arrived in Washington wearing Armani, not Number 23, and it soon became apparent that he wasn't going to be paying much attention to the team he was supposed to run. He was in Chicago most of the time, often leaving the Wizards in the hands of his pals, whom he hired -- at great expense to Pollin -- to be his walk-around guys and front men. When Jordan decided early in his tenure to fire his coach, he sent Wes Unseld to do the job, because he was busy at the Super Bowl launching a new promotional venture.

Jordan's best move as CEO appeared to be his decision to come back and play again. But while his presence in uniform ensured sellouts in MCI Center and around the league, it probably set the Wizards back, because every move the team made -- Jordan technically gave up his power over personnel decisions but was clearly still in charge -- was designed to make it better in the small window of time that Jordan was still playing. Remember the Jerry Stackhouse-for-Richard Hamilton deal? How'd that work out?

Which is why Pollin's decision to fire Jordan the CEO made perfect sense. Jordan the player was incomparable; even at 40 he was still a force. But Jordan the CEO mailed it in most of the time. He made one poor decision after another (does the name Kwame Brown ring a bell?), and he seemed to think that because he was Michael Jordan, everyone in basketball would simply roll over for him. It didn't happen that way, and the Wizards were a worse team under Jordan -- both as an executive and player -- than they had been before.

Pollin knew that. He also knew there was no reason to believe Jordan was going to work any harder or any more effectively in a second stint as CEO. He knew he'd be attacked for the decision to fire him, although he could hardly have expected to be labeled a racist, having hired, over the years, an African American general manager (Wes Unseld) and five African American head coaches -- more than any other owner.

Pollin offered refunds to season ticket holders before the start of last season. A few people took him up on the offer. They're probably regretting that decision now.

The writer's most recent book is "Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery."

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