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Win One For the Owner

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Practice was over, presumably followed by a film session and a team meeting before the flight. That's when the request from the owner came from above.

"It kind of caught us off guard," Caron Butler said. "We heard he wanted to see us for a minute. Mr. Pollin wanted to tell us something before we left for Cleveland."

Abe Pollin, 84 years old, frail, fighting a crippling disease, waited for the Wizards in his third-floor office at Verizon Center yesterday. Some climbed stairs past the concourse. Others took the elevator. They all gathered around to hear the franchise patriarch gather his strength and speak.

In his 44 years of stewardship -- he bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1964 -- the NBA's senior owner told these Wizards he had been on both sides of the 3-1 equation. He knows what it's like to come back from a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game series and that awful feeling of losing a series after holding a 3-1 lead.

"He said he'll be anxious on Friday to see us back at the game," Antawn Jamison said, referring to the day Game 6 will be played, if necessary.

What else?

"He said, 'Win one for me,' " Jamison said.

He said that?

"Yep. He's still sharp as a tack. He's got it goin' on."

"He probably spent 15 or 20 minutes with us, wishing us well," Butler said. "And then he said to go out and obviously do this for your families and do this for yourselves. But, least of all, do it for him.

"I was like, 'Man, those are some words of inspiration.' "

In the hallway leading to the locker room, there is a photo of Pollin bearhugging Wes Unseld on that championship night, June 7, 1978, when the Washington Bullets won their first and only NBA title.

Thirty years later, neither the organization nor the league has seen fit to commemorate the accomplishment. It's a shame, because at the least the team could have trotted out Unseld, Phil Chenier from behind the microphone and some of their teammates before a playoff game, to let the people who believe that everything began with Gilbert Arenas know what came before him.

Pollin's last on-court appearance was for the overdue retirement of Earl Monroe's No. 10 jersey in December, a night of nostalgia and homage that should be included in every pregame playoff video, the way they do in tradition-rich New York and Boston.

Pollin never has publicly disclosed the disease doctors diagnosed several months ago, but many of his friends know he is suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative disease of the brain that impairs movements and balance. It often is mistaken for Parkinson's and gets progressively worse, but it is not directly life-threatening.

Pollin often enters the team's locker room after wins in a wheelchair. Forty-four years after he bought the team, he still speaks often with the players, especially Butler, Arenas and Jamison, whom he has compared in professionalism and character to Unseld.

"The man means a lot to me," Butler said. "Ernie [Grunfeld] made the trade to bring me here, but Mr. Pollin had to really sign off. Bringing me here to the city, embracing me like he did, rewarding me financially, being happy about my all-star appearances and then in the summer making phone calls, checking on me and my family.

"He's just a real genuine man. I would love it if we could do it for him."

Pollin made mistakes, losing players early in his tenure because of his well-known frugality. And who knows what goes through a man's mind when he decides, "That's it, I've got to fire Michael Jordan," as Pollin did amid harsh criticism -- mixed with widespread approval -- in 2003.

He also opened his wallet, because that's what the Internet billionaire boys club was doing in American professional sports. At a time when cities with crumbling schools siphon money from their taxpayers or businesses to fund stadiums -- hello, Nationals Park -- Abe Pollin built Verizon Center with his own money.

He spent $200 million with the dream of a broader commercial life returning to downtown -- reputable businesses, condos and restaurants sprouting up around an arena. The promise of economic redevelopment was delivered, and today the area around Verizon Center has much of the District's best food and nightlife.

It's funny, no, how Cleveland commissioned a study to determine the economic impact of LeBron James, what one otherworldly player has done for a downtrodden city the past five years?

Much of Pollin's adult life -- 60-plus years -- has been about feeding the hungry, supporting causes, believing in Washington and the annual prospects of its NBA team. On the day the stretch of F Street NW in front of the arena was dedicated to him -- when it became Abe Pollin Way -- Pollin took Mayor Adrian M. Fenty aside and came up with a couple of new ideas in which he hoped to help raise funds for public schools in the District.

"He's so loyal," Wizards assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. said after practice yesterday. Wes Jr. was 3 years old when his father led Washington to the title. He never has held another job in basketball other than with the Washington organization, and stood a few feet away from that famous photo of the owner and his best player, locked in a euphoric embrace, locked in time.

"I think the world of him," he said. "He's always treated me and my family fairly. He allowed me to grow and develop over the years and I'll never forget that."

Abe Pollin is not well. He does not ask for much, save a good day of health here and there and a victory by his basketball team. Against LeBron James and every imaginable hurdle, he wants one badly tonight in Cleveland.

Thirty years after he won his only NBA title, why not give him one?

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