Long-standing loyalty

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unless they once lived a modest life, most rich, powerful men rarely connect with the working class. It's not merely about their status or social circles; it's just not in most of their DNAs.

So pardon if the stories of Wes and Earl the Pearl and Michael Jordan come later; pardon if the next few paragraphs are devoted to people of whom you've probably never heard.

Ernie Fingers was on the verge of tears Tuesday night in his office underneath Verizon Center, where the building that Abe Pollin built shook and the home team won, on the night they memorialized the man they call, "Mr. P."

"Best person I've ever known," Ernie said quietly hours after he had heard Mr. Pollin passed away. Ernie began working for Mr. Pollin in 1974 as his chief engineer of electronics. Having climbed Mr. P's ladder of loyalty like so many others in the building, 35 years later Ernie is the arena's vice president of television operations.

"Today was very close to when I lost my mother; he was my Pops away from home," he said, stopping, lowering his head. "I'm sorry, it's just been a tough day."

Roscoe Reeves was a cabbie in the District when I met him eight years ago while writing a story about the Wizards owner for another newspaper. Asked what he thought of Pollin, his 60-something eyes lit up: "Oh, Mr. Pollin, what a gentleman. I've known him since he was a young man. His father, Morris, sold bricks to the builders, and Mr. Pollin worked with him. A very socially conscious person, he is."

Roscoe, it turned out, worked as a locker room attendant at the Jewish Community Center, which the Pollins frequented as far back as the early 1940s. He remembered the son as an accomplished handball player and someone who always made time for him.

"Yes, I do remember," Mr. Pollin said, a bit stunned at the reference, when I asked him. "Roscoe Reeves." Laughing, he added: "But he's got the handball part wrong. I was a very good squash player."

Antawn Jamison nodded at the portrait being painted of Mr. P, whom the veteran forward said worried as much about his millionaires as his minimum-wage minions. "I have a friend here who said to me today, 'If it hadn't been for Mr. Pollin, I'd probably be dead.' It wasn't just the players he cared about; he got people off the streets in D.C."

While snooping around the Wizards six years ago trying to find out whether a deflated Michael Jordan wanted to remain with the organization, a person I rarely talk to called me on the telephone and, without introduction, opened with an absolute stunner.

"There will be a meeting in Washington next week at which Michael Jordan will be fired," the voice said.

I laughed at first, figuring it was a joke. Even now, it's still hard to fathom.

Who fires a general manager named Michael Jordan?

Mr. P, the same owner unable to fire Wes Unseld. "A very loyal person," Unseld said in the media room here, adding, "I never doubted that he stayed longer with me than he should have and longer than I wanted to. I wanted to be fired, but he never did. If he wanted me to stay, I was going to stay."

Mr. P, the same man who would use $220 million of his own fortune to build a downtown arena at a time when the District was broke, because he had this dream that a broader, commercial life would one day take the place of syringes and sirens. Walking outside the building Tuesday night, how long before a modest act of civic pride is taken, in which Penn Quarter is renamed Pollin Quarter?

What owner refuses to charge a city for his arena? The same person who paid for the college education of children he never met, the same person who fed hungry, homeless people in Washington at "Abe's Table," some of whom he personally served, others of whom he never saw.

I never knew the, shall we say, economical owner who didn't want to pay some of his players enough to keep them in town in the 1960s and 1970s. And I rarely caught a glimpse of the stubborn soul who took it very personally when he wasn't properly respected by either a player or his agent.

Instead, I remember meeting a man in 2001 in his office, who almost wanted to spend more time talking about giving someone room and board rather than how he and Irene coaxed Jordan into coming to Washington over poached salmon in his home.

"About 50 years from now, when they ride by here, people will ask, 'Who built that building?' '' Mr. Pollin said. "Some guy named Smith,' they'll say. Because no one remembers. For feeding hungry children, yes, I'd like to be remembered. For taking care of the homeless, I'd like to be remembered.''

Or how the couple lost two children, a 13-month-old son and a teenage daughter, both to heart problems. Linda Pollin was 16 years old when she underwent her second heart operation at Johns Hopkins Medical Center on June 25, 1963.

"That's the great pain of my life," Mr. Pollin said then. "It stays with you forever. No parent should ever feel the pain of losing a child."

I remember the employees in his arena they only knew as "Mr. Pollin" and "Mr. P," who out of respect never deigned to call "Abe" -- swearing by him because he swore by them. Above all else, loyalty was his calling card. He didn't care whether you were the drywall guy at the construction site or you happened to be the general manager whom he bear-hugged on that glorious night in 1978 when he won his only NBA title; if you were with him in the beginning, you always had a job, for better or worse.

"I remember how tired we both were," Unseld said of the iconic photo that hangs in the hallway outside the team's dressing room. "I don't know who was holding who up."

I don't pretend to know him better than any reporter in this town who covered him much longer. And there's only so much a very wealthy man can be romanticized on the day he passed away. I surely can't pretend to know what it's like to live in the world of potentates he lived in.

But I did get to meet his son Jim, 51, at the GW function last March. Jim said his father, who bought the team when he was about 8 years old, was home for dinner every night, "even when he traveled all day."

Before he is called a civic-minded philanthropist, before he is eulogized as the man who brought Washington its only NBA title 31 years ago and one day hired and fired Michael Jordan, "He was a great father," Wes said. "Great friend."

No matter how much money you have or how many buildings you build -- how many players you sign and trade -- who doesn't want that said about them before they die?

Several years ago during a lunchtime award ceremony honoring years of service, Ernie Fingers presented an award. "In front of everyone," he began, "I looked at Mr. Pollin," and echoed what a lot of Washington is feeling today:

"Mr. Pollin is the kind of person every little child hopes he grows up to be and every old man wished he had been."

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