Mike Wise: Pollin Has Spent a Lifetime Realizing the Possibilities

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Of all the Abe Pollin yarns wove yesterday at his alma mater, my favorite came from his wife of 65 years, Irene. As her husband graciously greeted friends and family who knelt beside his wheelchair in Smith Center on the campus of George Washington University, Mrs. Pollin told of the night, 30-odd years ago, when President Jimmy Carter came to Capital Centre to see the Atlanta Hawks play the Bullets.

"The president will sit here," Mr. Pollin was told by a member of the Secret Service.

"No way," Ornery Abe said. "That's my seat."

"But, sir, it's the president of the United States."

"He can have any seat in the building, but this is my seat."

Carter took his seat that night, all right -- the one next to the man who built the building.

Mrs. Pollin related that story a couple of days after opening a thank you letter from President Obama, who came up to the owner's box during halftime of the Bulls-Wizards game 10 days ago to spend a few moments with his hosts.

Pollin bought the team nine administrations ago, in 1964, months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Carter. Reagan. Clinton. Both Bushes. And now, Obama. All of them have come to see Mr. Pollin's basketball team play the past three decades. And so it was apropos on the day he was inducted into GW's Business Sports Executives Hall of Fame that NBA Commissioner David Stern was present.

"He did things not always in the best economic interests of himself but always in the best economic interests of Washington, D.C.," Stern said about an hour before a feel-good tribute to a one-time wacky brainstorm in the mid-1990s that today is Verizon Center, the anchor that brought an impoverished, dilapidated area of the District back to commercial life in 1997.

He already has a street named for him, but it would be good and right to rename the area around the Verizon Center "Pollin Quarter," because without Mr. Pollin there would be no Penn Quarter.

After the final brick was laid in 1997, Mr. Pollin, who spent $200 million of his coin because the city was bankrupt at the time, signed the same piece of the foundation that all the hod carriers and brick masons had signed, thanking them for their work.

"We'd do it all again for you, Abe," one of them replied, and that was essentially the theme of the luncheon for Mr. Pollin yesterday afternoon.

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