Abe Pollin built Verizon Center, mentored Magic Johnson

Washington, D.C., locals react to the death of Abe Pollin, 85, and remember the ways he transformed the city in the areas of sports, business, and philanthropy.
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In the mid-1990s, nearly 30 years after the riots tore through Washington, D.C., parts of downtown looked as if the violence had happened only recently.

Buildings, somehow, were still burned out and empty. Shops and restaurants were scarce in certain parts. It was a fright, to tell you the truth -- until 1997, when a downtown arena, home to the Wizards and Capitals, opened and changed the city. Abe Pollin built it with his own money, his own financing, and in short order changed the quality of life in the Nation's Capital.

Surely, it's his lasting monument to the city, an even greater civic contribution than winning an NBA championship in 1978, reaching the NBA Finals four times in the 1970s or even moving NBA basketball from Baltimore to Washington in the first place. Certainly, it was appropriate that folks gathered in that very arena to watch professional basketball, Pollin's great competitive love, just hours after he died.

Eddie Jordan, a Washingtonian whom Pollin hired on a handshake to coach the Wizards, recalled just a few hours after his death, "I used to take that street [7th Street NW] to go up to Howard University ... It revitalized the city. It raised the quality of life for Washingtonians."

Jordan, who was fired from his job with the Wizards a year ago to the day (Nov. 24), recalled that the city of Baltimore was going to "give Abe a great package" to build a downtown arena near the Inner Harbor in the late 1990s. Pollin, who had already used his own money to build the Capital Centre in 1974, could have taken the Baltimore deal and passed on coming up with more than $200 million to build an arena on what at the time was a mostly desolate 7th Street NW.

But Pollin, though he defended dingy Capital Centre like it was his own child, slowly fell in love with the idea of changing the eastern half of downtown D.C. for the better and took the dive. Magic Johnson last night recalled a conversation during which Pollin told him, "Washingtonians deserve a beautiful downtown" and that a new arena would surely help in that regard.

Not surprisingly, Pollin was praised widely in the wake of the news that he had died, at 85, and deservedly so, especially when the conversation turned to his civic and charitable contributions. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned in this space that Pollin and I clashed on a couple of issues, some of it the everyday stuff that happens when a columnist is critical of a local owner. But some of it was a little more confrontational, like a pointed disagreement over the firing of Michael Jordan and, years earlier, the building of the new downtown arena. Pollin actually took out a huge ad in The Washington Post the day after I wrote a column saying that the basketball franchise would only remain viable if he got out of Capital Centre and moved downtown. Pollin paid thousands of dollars for ads in The Post and The Washington Times, ripping me and calling Capital Centre "state-of-the-art," which by then it certainly was not.

Anyway, it wasn't more than 18 months later when somebody from Pollin's office called me to come and cover the groundbreaking for a new arena downtown. I came ... and brought with me a copy of the ad in The Post. When handed a yellow hard hat, I handed Pollin the ad and asked him to sign it, which he did with a smile, after grabbing me around the neck and kissing me on the cheek. All was forgotten. I was easy. After I suffered a heart attack nearly two years ago, there was a warm phone call and a floral arrangement at the door from Abe and Irene Pollin.

Like any rich man who spent his life negotiating deals and trying to move forward with his projects, Pollin made some enemies during his life, but far fewer it always seemed to me than 90 percent of the men who own professional sports franchises. While some of the richest men in the world refuse to spend their own monies to build an arena, Pollin spent his to build two, which I would remind myself whenever Pollin refused to spend elsewhere.

The other thing that speaks loudly in Pollin's favor is friendships that didn't really benefit Pollin in any tangible way. Several years ago, Magic Johnson asked me to emcee a "Hoops For the Homeless" benefit that sought to raise money for homeless people in D.C. Freddie Mac, among others, was involved. Magic was going to spend a day trying to raise money and Pollin, he said, had made the arena available. Turned out, approximately $1 million was raised -- and Magic didn't live in D.C., and didn't have any official ties to the city.

There had to have been a story of how Pollin and Magic got together, and there was, one which I asked Magic to re-tell me last night.

Magic was three years into his career, maybe four, and had reached the point where it was time to develop serious pursuits other than playing basketball.

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