By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Decades ago, Abe Pollin showed up at Wes Unseld's wedding. Years later, he showed up at Unseld's father's funeral. Fill in the blanks for all the moments in between, "too many to even mention," said Unseld, a man who worked for Pollin as a player and a coach and an executive.
More than 30 years ago, Pollin met young lawyers who were just showing up in a business in which he had already toiled for years. "He couldn't have been nicer to me, a kid lawyer," said Gary Bettman, now the commissioner of the NHL. "Just extraordinarily kind, when he didn't need to be," said Stan Kasten, now the president of the Washington Nationals.
And when Matt Williams, the Washington Wizards' chief of staff and executive vice president, spoke with Pollin, his boss, Tuesday morning, the ailing owner of the Wizards had one message: "Make sure you let the staff out early tomorrow for Thanksgiving." This sentiment, Williams said, came a week after Pollin gave every member of his Washington Sports and Entertainment company a Thanksgiving bonus, "and it didn't matter if you were a part-time usher making $8 an hour or an executive making $800 an hour, you all got the same."
In the hours after Pollin died Tuesday at age 85, the man who brought both professional basketball and hockey to Washington was certainly remembered in the sports world as a pioneer, a man who fought fiercely for both sports in the District and leaves a tangible legacy in the arena in which the Wizards played Tuesday night, Verizon Center.
But Pollin was remembered, perhaps more, for the personal touches that colored nearly every interaction he had with any of his employees, be they multimillionaire players or anonymous concessionaires.
"He's probably the most loyal man I've ever known in my life," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said.
That was true even decades ago, when both the then-Bullets and Capitals were relatively new to Washington. In 1978, Kasten was a young executive with the Atlanta Hawks. The Bullets' road to the NBA title, Pollin's crowning achievement in 45 years of life in the NBA, included a sweep of the Hawks. In defeat, though, Kasten learned from Pollin, both about personal interactions and how the NBA -- and its franchises -- might best be run.
"The one over-riding characteristic that I remember, especially from way back then, was that Abe was always league-first," Kasten said by phone Tuesday. "League ahead of team. That's not always easy to do, but it's so critical as you're building these leagues. We went through some tough times over the years on many different issues, and he was a tough guy -- always very determined and principled. But if it was ever league versus team, he looked to the strength of the collective enterprise. He understood that."
That kind of acumen helped make Pollin, as Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said Tuesday in a statement, "an icon in the sports world" and, as NBA Commissioner David Stern said in another statement, the NBA's "most revered member." But those who worked for him said he did not expect reverence in return. Business meetings almost always began with questions about an employee's family. Grunfeld first met Pollin in 2003. The setting: An interview to be the club's general manager.
"He was asking about me," Grunfeld said. "He didn't ask too much about basketball. He wanted to know about my family, my children, my background. We probably spent the first half hour about that before we ever talked about the game or basketball or the kind of things I did in that at all. He wanted to know you as an individual. . . .
"He always told me the two most important things to him are loyalty and talent, but loyalty above talent. And I think that's how he lived his life."
Because of that, longtime friends and employees said he forged strong relationships with many of the people who worked for him. Wizards executives, according to Chief Financial Officer Peter Biche, developed a phrase -- "What would Mr. Pollin do?" -- that helped guide decisions, even when Pollin wasn't available to consult.
The loyalty, though, sometimes knew no bounds. Unseld, who referred to Pollin on Tuesday as "a real, real good friend," moved into the Bullets' front office in 1981, after his retirement as a player, then coached the team from 1987 to '94. Even after Unseld went 202-345 in a generally miserable tenure as coach, Pollin made Unseld the general manager in 1996.
"I have no doubt that he kept me longer in positions than he should have," Unseld said, "and longer than I wanted him to. He was loyal. And he understood the whole picture."
It was not just loyalty, though, that distinguished Pollin, both in Washington and the NBA. His competitiveness, friends and colleagues said, could be underestimated. Pollin loved his teams, and as Williams said: "If we won a game, you knew it was going to be a good day in the office. If we lost a game, it was going to be a bad day. That's just the way it was."
Tuesday morning, Williams said Pollin spoke about coming out to see the Wizards play the Philadelphia 76ers, coached by his former coach, Eddie Jordan. As an owner, Pollin had to approve the decision to fire Jordan early last season, a difficult move for a man who had strong personal feelings for Jordan. But the Wizards weren't winning and, as Unseld said, "He wanted to win.
"But he wanted to win differently than somebody like me," Unseld continued. "I wanted to win because it made me look good and I could renegotiate contracts. He wanted to win because he was a competitor, and for what it did to other people. It made other people swell their chest and take pride in where they were and who they were."