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.
Late last year, George Solomon, a legend in my business who knows of such things, called Mr. Pollin "the most important sports figure in the Washington area."
It was almost comical that Stern, 66, referred to himself as "old school" yesterday. Between Mr. Pollin's junior and senior years of college, while obtaining his bachelor of arts in business administration from George Washington, Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy.
What a life lived, no? The man graduated months after D-Day.
At 85, he is of course not the same, spry man who hilariously called himself a "half-ass builder" yesterday, who at GW in the 1940s never partook of the university life because he was too busy changing his clothes between classes and his construction work.
He has progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative disease of the brain that impairs movements and balance. Often mistaken for Parkinson's, its victims include the actor Dudley Moore.
When I wrote of his illness last May, I wrote it was "not directly life-threatening." But several readers corrected me, including one whose brother died from the disease in 2002. He pointed out that the progressive nature of the disease leads to trouble swallowing, the deterioration of eyesight and eventual death.
As he sat in his wheelchair yesterday, with his head bearing a cumbersome neck brace and tilting to the left, there was no sugarcoating Mr. Pollin's health. Which is why it took so much courage to be wheeled to the podium by his eldest son, Robert, and speak to the 150 or so guests who had come to pay him homage, to tell stories, to be genuinely happy for the award, one of many bestowed upon him the past 60 or so years.
"Up until about a year ago, he had a tough time going into the wheelchair," Mrs. Pollin said. "He cared about how he looked to people and felt his lot was, 'Well, now I belong to the handicapped.' But last summer we went up to a place in the Berkshires. He wanted to see [the symphony at] Tanglewood, and that was it. His desire for life, of wanting to live, made him stop worrying about how he looked and what people thought. He made up his mind to go out again."
"Obviously I'm ill," he said to reporters in a quiet whisper before the ceremony. "I never expected to be in a wheelchair because I've contracted a very rare disease. But it's not going to keep me from winning a championship."
We could go into his career as a businessman, but being the first NBA owner to take a team to China in 1979 or having the gumption to hire and then fire Michael Jordan doesn't do justice to the buildings Mr. Pollin built, the hungry continuing to be fed at "Abe's Table" or the civic-minded icon he has become. He's the man who made sure Stern's mother had proper medical care in Moscow after she accidentally took a fall there several years ago -- the man who is called "Mr. Pollin" by nearly everyone, not because he told his employees to but out of respect for what he means to this city.
"You know what I remember most about my father?" said Jim Pollin, 51. "As busy as my father was growing up -- he bought the team when I was about 8 years old -- he was home for dinner every night -- every night, even when he traveled all day."
Among the guests yesterday was Arnold Siegal, the retired Maryland professor who has been Mr. Pollin's technical consultant since, well, forever. Arnold was 11 years old when a kid of about the same age wandered into his living room to be taught Hebrew by the same teacher.
"The finest man I know," he said of his lifelong friend. "I remember he was a very serious guy for his age. He seemed to know things that were going on that we didn't."
Maybe that's why the most enduring image for me yesterday was not that of an octogenarian fighting this awful affliction, summoning the resolve for a public appearance while his body was in a hammerlock.
No, it came in that video tribute, the weathered, black-and-white, circa-1930s photo of a boy, born in Philadelphia in 1923, coming to Washington with his parents to start a new life. Even at maybe 8 years old, little Abraham Pollin looked like he had big plans. It was as if the boy in the photo foresaw a blueprint for a city, and a life full of purpose and possibility.