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The endless gifts of Abe Pollin

By Colbert I. King
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For years to come in our nation's capital, we shall have a deep chasm that Abe Pollin used to fill. The obituaries will recite Pollin's record as owner of the Wizards and Mystics professional basketball teams. That alone would warrant space on the obit page.

But his legacy is far more than that.

Pollin is the man who almost single-handedly brought Washington, D.C., back to life.

And he did it with his own money and at great risk. His decision to move the Wizards from Largo to Gallery Place in 1997 was a big gamble, made even more dicey because he also decided to build a state-of-the art arena where the pro basketball team would play its games. That decision to invest so much in a ghost town began the renaissance of downtown Washington.

Even so, the Abe Pollin whom I celebrate today was much more than a sports entrepreneur and an urban visionary. Yes, he was an unabashed "homer" (which I, as a Washington native, appreciate). Abe loved his adopted city and rooted hard for anything and everybody who wore a "W."

Some of my warmest moments with Abe were spent standing with him, looking out the upper-floor windows of the mammoth arena (first MCI Center, now Verizon Center) at Seventh and G streets NW, and recalling the department stores and other places that had once occupied the neighborhood.

But my very best times with Abe had nothing to do with sports or revisiting old memories.

Abe was wearing his hat as local chairman of the UNICEF fundraising drive when we first met, in the early 1980s. I was a banker then, and we were to meet under similar circumstances for several years.

Each time these Washington area business types were called together, usually by Abe's aide and traveling companion, Terry Lierman, Abe would fill us in on his latest trip to an area of the developing world that desperately needed financial assistance.

I quickly learned that Pollin was not one of those Washington big shots who was willing to lend his or her name and Rolodex to a fundraising effort but was loath to lift a finger.

Abe would come to the meeting equipped with video of the villages he visited and children he met there. Pollin went to places probably never seen by those country's own leaders. With the same energy and determination that he put into bringing Washington back from the brink of permanent economic stagnation, Pollin made the area's corporate treasurers cough up on behalf of the developing world's poor.

I also got to see Pollin at his best, when no one was looking.

As an editorial writer and later a columnist for The Post, I often wrote about problems that descended on individuals and organizations in this city that were trying to help the least among us.

The phone would ring. Abe would be on the line. Ask readers to help, he would say. "I'll contribute the rest," he would add, instructing me to not mention his name.

A few years ago, at a local fundraiser for the homeless, it became clear that the group trying to help them had come close to reaching its ambitious goal but had still fallen short. I was standing next to Abe when he quietly beckoned his legal counsel, Mary Ann Niles, and told her to tell the group's president not to worry, that their fundraising would be put over the top.

Out of his own pocket, Abe Pollin made up the difference.

He did that, without fail, for his city.

"Missed" is not the word.

kingc@washpost.com

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