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Wizards owner helped transform D.C.

Video
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.

After hiring a new coach and team president to replace Jordan, Mr. Pollin defiantly spoke to his critics in the third person, declaring, "Those of you in the media who have said Mr. Pollin was over the hill and incompetent, it proves that he still knows what he's doing."

The Wizards made the playoffs four straight seasons after Jordan left but, typical of their struggles under Pollin, got past the first round only once and collapsed last season, winning only 19 games.

Mr. Pollin was well known for his philanthropy, which touched global efforts such as UNICEF, while never forgetting local causes such as the I Have a Dream Foundation. He championed improving the lives of children, considering it an obligation of those who could afford to do so, and his contributions over the years were believed to be in the multiple millions.

In December 1984, Mr. Pollin read an op-ed column in The Post about 40,000 children dying daily from malnutrition in Africa. He called the writer, inquiring whether the number was a misprint. Mr. Pollin was assured it was accurate and was given a phone number for UNICEF's top U.S. official. Mr. Pollin organized a trip to northeastern Uganda to observe the pestilence first-hand and later spearheaded UNICEF relief drives for Africans, and then for Kurds in Northern Iraq, and for women and children to survive winter in Afghanistan.

"I don't know of others who have the global perspective he has," said Charles "Chip" Lyons, then president of UNICEF USA. "He's as much hard-charging for children in Uganda and Afghanistan as he is for kids in the District. He just gets that in a way that most people don't."

Humble origins

Mr. Pollin was born Dec. 3, 1923, in Philadelphia, where the family moved in 1914 after entering the United States at Ellis Island, where the name was changed from Pollinovsky by immigration officials. His father, Morris, began commuting to Washington for jobs as an independent contractor during the Depression and moved his family here in 1932. Morris Pollin started a construction business, which would eventually build more than 2,000 houses and numerous apartment buildings in and around Washington.

Like many young boys of that era, Abe Pollin's passion was baseball. He quickly switched allegiance from the Philadelphia Athletics to the Washington Senators. As a grade-school kid, when the Senators were playing at Griffith Stadium, he'd get a quarter from his mother, Jennie, for a bleacher seat out in the sun, and he later recalled envying the people who got to sit in the shade, close to the action. When the Senators were on the road, he ran to a drugstore and listened to a radio re-creation of the games.

Within three seasons, he twice observed baseball history from his perch in the bleachers: the Senators' last appearance in the World Series, in 1933, and Babe Ruth's final game with the New York Yankees a year later. He also attended Washington Redskins games at the old ballpark in 1937, the year the team moved here from Boston. He was an athletic kid but somewhat fragile. He broke fingers and busted ribs, and his mother kept taking him to the doctor because her "Abie Baby" would not gain weight.

He grew to be lanky (6 feet) and skinny (about 135 pounds) and considered himself a fairly good athlete. He played touch football, basketball and Ping-Pong, winning the table tennis championship of the Jewish Community Center. When he attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in Northwest, pals urged him to try out for the basketball team. But he passed up the audition at the last minute.

"I didn't want to put myself in the position of getting cut. . . . I chickened out," Mr. Pollin recalled decades later. "And to this day . . . I try not to back away from challenges. I try not to sit on the sidelines of life."

Abe and his older brother, Jack, joined their father and started Morris Pollin & Sons, contractors and builders. Earlier, Mr. Pollin worked summers for his dad, hauling bathtubs on his back to prove to his co-workers that he was more than the boss's son. A back injury he suffered during the heavy lifting rendered him 4-F when he later tried to enlist during World War II.

After graduating in 1941, Mr. Pollin worked for his father and awaited his enrollment that fall at the University of Maryland. That summer, he met Irene Kerchek, the niece of his uncle's wife, who was visiting from St. Louis. He was 18, she was 17, and they had a whirlwind summer romance of movie-going and sightseeing in a convertible he borrowed from his brother. Mr. Pollin promised to visit her during Christmas break, but Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, so seats on trains became scarce because of the war effort. Mr. Pollin kept promising to visit. "I thought, 'Is he kidding?' " she recalled. But he delivered, sitting on his suitcase on an all-night train ride.


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