ABE POLLIN 1923-2009

Wizards owner helped transform D.C.

Washington, D.C., locals react to the death of Abe Pollin, 85, and remember the ways he transformed the city in the areas of sports, business, and philanthropy.
By Peter Perl
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

He arrived in Washington more than 75 years ago, the gangly son of a Russian metal worker named Morris Pollinovsky who came to America a poor man speaking no English. Through decades of hard work and a seemingly unstoppable will, Abe Pollin rose to the top of the worlds of business, philanthropy and professional sports. In the process, he transformed his adopted home town by bringing professional basketball and hockey franchises here and spending $220 million to build a massive sports and entertainment arena that has dramatically changed the face of downtown Washington.

Mr. Pollin, 85, died Tuesday of the rare neurological disease corticobasal degeneration. He was among the last of the old-school pro sports owners, running the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards and earlier the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals as a family business, shaped by his strong personality and his intense loyalties. His teams lost more than they won, and fans often criticized his personnel moves or his failure to spend more money, but Mr. Pollin invariably remained set in his ways.

Mr. Pollin, through his indomitable drive and fierce devotion to his adopted home town, left his imprint on the city as no other sports owner or businessman has done. In addition to building thousands of units of housing for a range of incomes, he was the pillar of countless charitable and civic efforts, culminating in his building MCI Center (now Verizon Center) in 1997 and triggering a stunning renaissance of Gallery Place and surrounding neighborhoods.

Former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams said the city benefited greatly from Mr. Pollin's largess, including small projects such as endowing a Boys and Girls Club. "He was a wonderful guy, and, unlike some, he was just very plain-spoken and never one to do a lot of self-promotion" about his charitable work, Williams said.

Mr. Pollin amassed a considerable fortune as a housing developer during the 1960s, constructing offices and apartment buildings throughout the Washington area that he often named for family members: His first major project was Robert Towers, near the Pentagon, named for his first son, and his final project, a 500-unit luxury complex in Chevy Chase, was the Irene, named for his wife.

"Abe Pollin reflects an ownership style that was forged in a different era," NBA Commissioner David Stern, a longtime friend, once said of the league's senior owner.

His personal life was marred by tragedy when he lost two children to congenital heart disease, a 13-month-old son and a 16-year-old-daughter. He was so stricken by his daughter Linda's death in 1963 that he gave up the construction business and took a year off in what he later described as a deep depression.

His grief also contributed to several separations from his wife, although they ultimately reconciled. "When you lose a child, it's the worst punishment that a person can have," Mr. Pollin said in a 1991 Washington Post profile. "Part of your heart, your gut, your soul, part of you dies, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of my daughter."

Despite the adulation that Washington bestows on the rich and influential, Mr. Pollin sometimes seemed to those around him to be a solitary, even melancholy, man.

He fought through his pain in part by building the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing Project in Southeast Washington, with three- and four-bedroom apartments to accommodate large families. His personal loss also propelled Mr. Pollin, a self-professed sports nut, to throw himself into the high-risk venture of buying a struggling pro basketball team, the Baltimore Bullets, in 1964 for the then-huge sum of $1.1 million. Mr. Pollin changed the name and moved the Washington Bullets to Prince George's County in 1973. He also built the Capital Centre in Landover, since demolished, to house the team, along with his new NHL hockey franchise.

The high point of Mr. Pollin's sports career came when his beloved Bullets won the NBA championship in 1978. But for two decades after that, the Bullets (whose name Mr. Pollin changed to the Wizards in 1997) were perennial losers. The Capitals did not fare much better, although they reached the Stanley Cup finals once, in 1998, before Mr. Pollin sold the team in 1999 to AOL executive Ted Leonsis.

Strong-willed and sometimes cantankerous, Mr. Pollin adamantly refused to compromise his principles in the sports world, even if it meant losing. He got rid of all-star basketball players such as Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace because he did not like their erratic lifestyles and work habits, and he suffered through a public relations nightmare in 2003 when he summarily fired Michael Jordan, then the most famous athlete on the planet. Jordan, who made a highly publicized comeback for the Wizards as a basketball executive and then as a player, had brought national attention and increased revenue to a mediocre franchise. But Mr. Pollin saw Jordan as a selfish and disruptive influence.

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