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.
And he called Abe Pollin.
"Don't forget: Abe was 'The Guy' then like Jerry Jones in football now," Magic said. "What Red Auerbach was to basketball operations, Abe Pollin was to the business of basketball. All the big decisions in the league were run past Abe Pollin -- the collective bargaining agreement, all kinds of negotiations. I wanted to be a businessman, and I said to myself, 'I gotta meet this Mr. Pollin.' "
So before a Lakers game in Washington, Magic called and introduced himself to Pollin.
"I asked him," Magic said, "if he would have lunch with me, and he did. I told him I wanted to be more than a player. And he told me, 'Look, first you should be the best ballplayer you can be. And after that, realize that when you start a career in business you have to put in the same amount of hard work that you put into basketball.' "
"It wasn't a long lunch," Magic said. "He spent 15 minutes telling me how much he loved Wes Unseld. That was his guy, his favorite person and his favorite player. Loved him. But the funny thing was, whenever I came to D.C. after that he would call me. I'd get holiday cards from him and Mrs. Pollin. He called me one day when he was raising some money for the Kennedy Center and said he wanted me to be involved. And I came out. He told me, 'I'm coming to get you for dinner."
Magic, as only he can, re-lived the conversation over the telephone, how excited he was that a senior owner in the NBA had taken him under his wing, how Pollin told him they would wind up doing business together one day.
"To take in a kid, who didn't play for his team, and take me under his wing like that ... He took great pride in helping me become a businessman. He was my first real business mentor, the first businessman I reached out to in that way, long before Michael Ovitz or Peter Gruber or Howard Schultz."
Those Magic Johnson Theaters in Prince George's County? Abe Pollin helped Magic secure that deal. "And when he came to the opening of the theater," Magic said, "I was blown away, choked up." The relationship was now a full-blown mentorship. Pollin would expose Johnson to pending deals, to hirings and negotiations. Magic recalled Pollin telling him he was about to make a young woman, Susan O'Malley, the highest-ranking female in team sports.
And then there was the matter of a new arena in downtown Washington. "Oh my goodness, he was so excited about that becoming a reality," Magic said. "He told me the only thing he didn't really like about Capital Centre was that it wasn't in the city, wasn't in town. The new area became his dream, his goal."
As much as Pollin changed the landscape of D.C. by building the arena on 7th St. NW, it was Michael Jordan's presence at the beginning of the new century that created a nightly buzz that D.C. simply hasn't had before or since. I wonder how things might have turned out differently if Jordan and Pollin had forged the kind of relationship that Magic and Pollin had. The recent history of the franchise would be so totally different.
Anyway, Magic has gone on to have as great an impact in business as he had in his Hall of Fame basketball career. It's been 27 years, give or take a few months, since he cold called Abe Pollin and invited him to lunch. But the news of Pollin's death hit him hard yesterday afternoon as he sat in his Los Angeles office.
"I cared about this man and he cared about me," Magic said. "He meant so much to the NBA and so much to Washington, D.C. I just wish Gilbert [Arenas] and those guys could have gotten to know him the way I did, not just as the boss, as the guy who signed the checks."
Of course, Wes Unseld knew Pollin better than anybody in the vast basketball community. Unseld was the person we all wanted to hear from Tuesday night in the wake of Pollin's death. Oh, Wes has wonderful stories, tons of them, stories from the 1978 Championship season, stories from his time as the Bullets coach, as GM, stories from helping get the new arena built, stories about Abe showing up at his wedding, showing up in Kentucky at Wes's father's funeral.
But I have a new favorite now, a simple one that explained better than any I'd heard the bond of friendship that certainly had a paternal element.
Unseld understood why Wizards team officials were asking him to go to China last May. The trip, essentially a combination of basketball goodwill and reminiscence, was to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Washington Bullets' trip to China. But Unseld, 63, has had two knees and an ankle replaced. A 13-hour flight to China was out of the question.
"I got a call from the front office," Unseld recalled Tuesday night, "and I said, ''No.'."
But Unseld got another call the next day, from Abe Pollin, the owner of the franchise and one of his dearest friends the last 40 years.
"He called me the next day," Unseld said, "and I said, 'Okay.' It's not indebtedness; it's just the things you do for a friend."