By John Feinstein
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
When someone who has been in the public eye for almost 50 years dies, it is often asked what was his legacy. In Abe Pollin's case, the answer stands on F Street NW between Sixth and Seventh streets.
It is Verizon Center.
That unique fact in no way diminishes the charity work Pollin did over the years, up until his death Tuesday at age 85. But to understand what Pollin meant to this town and to this region, you have to walk inside Verizon Center and then take a walk around the neighborhood that surrounds the building.
It isn't just that Pollin spent close to $220 million of his own money to build the arena back in 1997. He did far more than that. He brought NBA basketball to the Washington area in 1973 and then downtown 24 years later. He did the same thing for NHL hockey, acquiring the Capitals as an expansion team in 1974. The Capitals broke all records for futility in their first season (a record of 8-67-5) before becoming a perennial playoff team in the 1980s.
In the spring of 1998, the Caps almost made Pollin's dream come true when they reached the Stanley Cup finals, before losing to the Detroit Red Wings. Pollin will not get to lift the historic trophy if and when the Capitals finally win their first Stanley Cup. But it was Pollin who created the Caps and suffered with them through many bad seasons.
It was also Pollin who brought the area its first basketball championship when the then-Bullets won the NBA title in 1978. That victory, which culminated in a gripping seven-game final series against the Seattle Supersonics, was part of a remarkable five-year run during which the Bullets reached the NBA finals three times.
When big corporate money overtook the NBA in the 1980s and 1990s, the Bullets -- now the Wizards -- struggled. They went from barely making the playoffs to not making the playoffs at all. In 2000, Pollin took a huge gamble, bringing Michael Jordan to Washington as a minority owner and team president. The thinking was that Jordan's presence would give the franchise new life and that his unique influence on the game would bring top free agents to Washington. Unfortunately, the best player Jordan brought to town was Jordan. He came out of retirement for two years and, though he played well for a man approaching 40, he was, well, no Michael Jordan. The Wizards missed the playoffs both years Jordan played and all three years he was in charge of the team. Jordan was very good at spending money, just not on good players.
So Pollin made a tough decision. He didn't fire Jordan the basketball great; he fired Jordan the failed executive. Pollin was universally ripped by most in the local media for having the audacity to fire Michael Jordan. Some even claimed the firing had a racial undertone.
Which was ridiculous. Pollin was a tough, unrelenting businessman who was sensitive to criticism but not afraid of it. He could see the Wizards were floundering under Jordan. He knew he had been too patient with other general managers and coaches. Often he was criticized for being too loyal. After firing Jordan, Pollin hired as his replacement Ernie Grunfeld, who pieced together a team that ended the Wizards' 17-year playoff drought in 2005 and then made the playoffs for four straight seasons.
During those playoff years, as during the Capitals' playoff appearances the past two seasons, Verizon Center was packed -- and filled with the sounds of joy that a successful team brings to a city. Before and after those games, fans poured into the restaurants and businesses that have sprung up in the once burnt-out area around the arena.
All of that -- the joy, the packed houses, the downtown revival -- happened because Abe Pollin decided to spend $1.1 million with four partners to buy the Bullets in 1964. In those days, the Bullets played in a small downtown arena in Baltimore, run almost as a mom-and-pop franchise in what was then a nine-team NBA.
Now the Wizards and Caps are part of 30-team leagues and play in a 19,000-seat palace in an area where almost no one ever dreamed there could be great basketball or great hockey, or great concerts or great restaurants.
But Abe Pollin dreamed they could be there. And it is because of those dreams that he will never be forgotten.
John Feinstein, a contributor to The Post, is the author of 25 books. His most recent book is "Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series."