Abe Pollin: A public-spirited life

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

AS FAR AS Washingtonians are concerned, the most important thing about Abe Pollin is that he was one of us. By that we mean not that he was necessarily a man of the people, whatever that is these days, but simply that he was part of this community through and through. He did well here, and he did a lot of good in return. He made a fortune in construction but became better known as the owner of Washington's pro basketball team. And while he hadn't had a champion in a long time, he accomplished something far more important for Washington sports fans: Rather than taking teams out of this town, he brought them here. He built, first, an arena on the Beltway and then the one downtown that has contributed greatly to the renaissance of a neighborhood rich in history and tradition.

So, yes, Abe Pollin gave basketball and hockey to the nation's capital. And, yes, he built his teams a place to play that in turn helped revive the city. But all that tends to cast him in the role of sports owner as titan. That's not what he was, any more than he was the sports owner as meddler, tyrant or rootless fortune-seeker. He was a thoughtful and public-spirited man whose list of charitable and civic activities -- helping feed and educate the city's schoolchildren, aiding the homeless, establishing a prize for pediatric research, and much, much more -- was as impressive as his work for mutual understanding and respect among the people of this region. Much of his life was a sustained effort, with his wife, Irene, to better the community, and for the most part it was carried on without a great deal of public attention.

Six years ago, Mr. Pollin fired Michael Jordan, then perhaps the most famous man in the world. The experiment of having Mr. Jordan run the Washington Wizards (and even play for them) hadn't worked out. Mr. Pollin was vilified by some, but it was a mark of the reputation he had built over more than 40 years as the owner of a National Basketball Association franchise that he continued to be one of the most respected figures in the sporting world, especially among those who knew him best in this city and region. One of them, Caron Butler, a young, emerging leader of the Wizards, said of his boss that he wanted to win in the playoffs for him because "he's just a real genuine man." That probably pleased Abe Pollin as much as anything he'd heard in a good long time -- and his was a good long time in our city.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company