A triumphant ending: Wizards fondly remember Pollin before 108-107 win over 76ers

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 Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The images came across the gigantic, high-definition scoreboard at Verizon Center, several photographs from the distant and not-so distant past, capturing some of Abe Pollin's favorite basketball memories. There was the classic picture of Pollin embracing Wes Unseld, his head pressed against Unseld's chest, after the Washington Bullets won the 1978 NBA championship, followed next by another of Pollin with his arms wrapped around current Wizard Antawn Jamison, after the Wizards clinched a playoff berth in 2005.

Pollin was responsible for the convergence of people in and around the arena he built with money from his own pocket, for bringing basketball to the District and for revitalizing a once-blighted part of the city.

Before the Wizards pulled out a 108-107 over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, the team took a moment of silence to recognize and remember Pollin, the patriarch of the franchise, who died at his home in Bethesda earlier in the afternoon.

Then, Jamison went out and honored Pollin's memory the only way he knew how -- by scoring a season-high 32 points with 14 rebounds and helping the Wizards snap a two-game losing streak before 14,485. Nick Young, starting in place of injured shooting guard Mike Miller (strained right calf), scored 20 points, mixing pull-up jumpers with whirling layups and receiving loud applause when we went to the bench late in the third quarter.

Jamison said the hardest part was knowing that after the win, he wasn't going to hear Pollin telling him: "Good job, man. I believed in you."

From the moment he scored 34 points in his debut with the franchise in 2004, Jamison had assumed a special place in Pollin's heart.

"He always said, 'you remind me of Wes.' And we all know the bond he had with Wes Unseld," Jamison said about Unseld, who spent four decades with the organization as player, coach and general manager. "To me, I thought it was the utmost respect and how much he believed in me, my professionalism and just me as a player."

Jamison and his teammates were informed of Pollin's death as they drove to the arena in preparation of the game, so they barely had time to grieve. Although they were aware of Pollin's deteriorating health because of a rare neurological disease, the news still came as a shock, especially as they were preparing to meet former coach Eddie Jordan on the anniversary of his firing last season.

Gilbert Arenas said before the game that the first person he called was his father because Pollin "was my father away from California. So it hurts. It's sad that it happened today, but the good news is, everyone is here. Eddie's back. All the people who started the winning are back."

In his first season with the 76ers, Jordan recalled how Pollin offered him the job after a 10-minute conversation. "He hired me to come back and coach a team I was a big fan of, my home town team," he said. "I shook his hand and he said: 'You know, I don't live by contracts. I go by handshakes.' I walked out and said to myself: 'Gee, did I just take the job? What happened there?' "

The Wizards had their greatest success the past 30 years under Jordan, who led the franchise to four consecutive playoff appearances in his five-plus years with the organization. But Pollin, who bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1964 for $1.1 million, always said that he wanted to win another championship before he died. That day never came. "As long as I'm here, that's what I'm shooting for," Arenas said. "Through my injuries, through everything that's been going on, he's the only one who has been on my side -- him and the organization. It's been a pleasure, being his son, his kid."

Arenas scored 17 points with eight assists and defended 76ers guard Louis Williams when his final shot rolled around the rim as time expired. Afterward, Jordan and Saunders believed divine intervention was involved. "Mr. P probably contested that last shot as well as anybody," Saunders said with a laugh. Jordan said of the final shot: "Maybe Abe's spirit knocked that out."

"I love Mr. Pollin, but I think good defense stopped the Williams shot," said Brendan Haywood, the longest tenured Wizard in his ninth season with the organization. "I think like everybody else, I'm sad, disappointed. He's probably in a better place."

Team President Ernie Grunfeld, who joined the organization in June 2003, conveyed a somber tone before the game. "He's probably the most loyal man I've ever known in my life," Grunfeld said. "Loved to win. Liked nothing better than to have his players around him."

Said Jamison: "Guys done so much, not only for this city but making this world a better place. It's tough. Sometimes you take things for granted, but it helps you put things in perspective and lets you know that this is only a game. It's a game he loved so much. He's truly going to be missed. But you know, every game we play from now on, he's going to be watching."

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