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Wizards owner helped transform D.C.

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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.

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Mr. Pollin denied making this deal but later offered Feld 3 percent. Feld filed suit, and the parties eventually reached an out-of-court settlement. Meantime, work got underway on Capital Centre and what was usually a two-year endeavor was completed in 15 months, a record at the time. With his father in attendance, Mr. Pollin opened the $16 million Capital Centre on Dec. 2, 1973, with the Washington Bullets beating the Seattle SuperSonics. The arena's firsts included luxury suites and large-screen TVs as well as seats concentrated along the baselines.

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As the Capitals struggled in the early years, the Bullets began to come together on the court, adding Elvin Hayes before the 1972-73 season. The team reached the NBA Finals in 1975, when it lost to the Golden State Warriors. But three years later, under a new coach, Dick Motta, the Bullets defeated the SuperSonics in a tense seven-game series -- Washington's first major professional sports championship since the Redskins had won an NFL title in 1942.

The Bullets' success only added to Mr. Pollin's high profile in the capital. Proud of his reputation as a man of his word who liked to help those less fortunate than he, Mr. Pollin turned more of his attention to philanthropy. In 1999, along with several international humanitarian organizations, he began funding research into the long-term effects of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on Kurds in Halabja, a town in northern Iraq. In 2002, Mr. Pollin and his wife established the Pollin Prize, a $200,000 annual award for pediatric research. The first recipients were four scientists who were rewarded for their pioneering research work on oral rehydration therapy, an inexpensive means to combat diarrhea caused by malnutrition.

With so many interests, Mr. Pollin also learned the hard way not to spread himself too thin. He was a founding director of County Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rockville, which collapsed during the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s. Mr. Pollin rarely attended board meetings. In 1983, after County Federal became insolvent, federal bank regulators sued officers, directors and employees for $21 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, charging gross negligence and other fiduciary improprieties.

Mr. Pollin and eight other outside directors agreed to a $1.32 million settlement, without any admission of liability or negligence, before the case went to the jury. Mr. Pollin said he ignored his duties. "I should've either resigned or gone to the meetings," Mr. Pollin said afterward. "But that was my mistake. I did neither, and I paid for it."

Mr. Pollin was also sued by his former Bullets partner, Arnold Heft in 1985, alleging mismanagement of funds. The suit accused Mr. Pollin of diverting Capital Centre profits to bolster his faltering sports franchises. Mr. Pollin said that although he didn't give Heft proper notification, he was only borrowing money and intended to repay Capital Centre in full.

The judge ordered Mr. Pollin to return the money to Capital Centre and to pay Heft's attorney fees but dismissed allegations of impropriety.

Although Mr. Pollin was admired for his kind-heartedness to employees, he was also known for playing hardball in business. In 1982, with the Bullets losing and the Capitals missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season, Mr. Pollin threatened to move or fold the hockey team unless various conditions were met, including the reduction on rent on the Capital Centre and a tax break from the county. Despite public opposition, he got his way, as the County Council approved the tax break with only one dissenter.

Mr. Pollin's fierce sense of mission and risk-taking was most evident in his construction of the Verizon Center, which he opened after several years of wrangling with District government. Mr. Pollin again recruited O'Malley, along with numerous business allies, to lobby city officials to invest more than $150 million in public resources in exchange for his moving the Wizards and Capitals to the downtown site at Gallery Place. When the financially strapped city balked, Mr. Pollin decided to build the arena himself, although the government still paid tens of millions of dollars in public improvements.

As the 20,674-seat arena was set to open, Mr. Pollin, then 74, told The Post: "I walk through that building (and) I get tears in my eyes. . . . It's unbelievable. I've got everything I've ever done in my life on the line. I've pledged everything. My advisers think I'm nuts. But I wanted to do something special for my town."

In 1999, Mr. Pollin reluctantly sold the Capitals to Leonsis, later saying that he nearly called off the deal several times because "I gave birth to this franchise. I nurtured this franchise" and did not want to sell. But Mr. Pollin sold the Caps, along with a 44 percent interest in his closely held sports company, Washington Sports and Entertainment Limited Partnership, which controls the Wizards and the arena. Leonsis had the right to buy the company if Mr. Pollin ever sold, but the owner repeatedly said that would never happen while Mr. Pollin was still alive.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Pollin led several efforts to aid the victims and families of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. He put his company name to one of them, an educational fund benefiting the children who lost a parent or guardian in the attack. Abe and Irene Pollin made the first donation of $100,000. When Jordan, whom Mr. Pollin hired in 2000 to be the Wizards' president of basketball operations, left the front office in the fall of 2001 to begin his final comeback as a player, he matched it as part of his pledge to donate his $1 million salary to the relief efforts.


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