washingtonpost.com
Wizards owner helped transform D.C.
Son of immigrants rose to top of sports, charity and business worlds

By Peter Perl
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

He arrived in Washington more than 75 years ago, the gangly son of a Russian metal worker named Morris Pollinovsky who came to America a poor man speaking no English. Through decades of hard work and a seemingly unstoppable will, Abe Pollin rose to the top of the worlds of business, philanthropy and professional sports. In the process, he transformed his adopted home town by bringing professional basketball and hockey franchises here and spending $220 million to build a massive sports and entertainment arena that has dramatically changed the face of downtown Washington.

Mr. Pollin, 85, died Tuesday of the rare neurological disease corticobasal degeneration. He was among the last of the old-school pro sports owners, running the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards and earlier the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals as a family business, shaped by his strong personality and his intense loyalties. His teams lost more than they won, and fans often criticized his personnel moves or his failure to spend more money, but Mr. Pollin invariably remained set in his ways.

Mr. Pollin, through his indomitable drive and fierce devotion to his adopted home town, left his imprint on the city as no other sports owner or businessman has done. In addition to building thousands of units of housing for a range of incomes, he was the pillar of countless charitable and civic efforts, culminating in his building MCI Center (now Verizon Center) in 1997 and triggering a stunning renaissance of Gallery Place and surrounding neighborhoods.

Former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams said the city benefited greatly from Mr. Pollin's largesse, including small projects such as endowing a Boys and Girls Club. "He was a wonderful guy, and, unlike some, he was just very plain-spoken and never one to do a lot of self-promotion" about his charitable work, Williams said.

Mr. Pollin amassed a considerable fortune as a housing developer during the 1960s, constructing offices and apartment buildings throughout the Washington area that he often named for family members: His first major project was Robert Towers, near the Pentagon, named for his first son, and his final project, a 500-unit luxury complex in Chevy Chase, was the Irene, named for his wife.

"Abe Pollin reflects an ownership style that was forged in a different era," NBA Commissioner David Stern, a longtime friend, once said of the league's senior owner.

His personal life was marred by tragedy when he lost two children to congenital heart disease, a 13-month-old son and a 16-year-old-daughter. He was so stricken by his daughter Linda's death in 1963 that he gave up the construction business and took a year off in what he later described as a deep depression.

His grief also contributed to several separations from his wife, although they ultimately reconciled. "When you lose a child, it's the worst punishment that a person can have," Mr. Pollin said in a 1991 Washington Post profile. "Part of your heart, your gut, your soul, part of you dies, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of my daughter."

Despite the adulation that Washington bestows on the rich and influential, Mr. Pollin sometimes seemed to those around him to be a solitary, even melancholy, man.

He fought through his pain in part by building the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing Project in Southeast Washington, with three- and four-bedroom apartments to accommodate large families. His personal loss also propelled Mr. Pollin, a self-professed sports nut, to throw himself into the high-risk venture of buying a struggling pro basketball team, the Baltimore Bullets, in 1964 for the then-huge sum of $1.1 million. Mr. Pollin changed the name and moved the Washington Bullets to Prince George's County in 1973. He also built the Capital Centre in Landover, since demolished, to house the team, along with his new NHL hockey franchise.

The high point of Mr. Pollin's sports career came when his beloved Bullets won the NBA championship in 1978. But for two decades after that, the Bullets (whose name Mr. Pollin changed to the Wizards in 1997) were perennial losers. The Capitals did not fare much better, although they reached the Stanley Cup finals once, in 1998, before Mr. Pollin sold the team in 1999 to AOL executive Ted Leonsis.

Strong-willed and sometimes cantankerous, Mr. Pollin adamantly refused to compromise his principles in the sports world, even if it meant losing. He got rid of all-star basketball players such as Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace because he did not like their erratic lifestyles and work habits, and he suffered through a public relations nightmare in 2003 when he summarily fired Michael Jordan, then the most famous athlete on the planet. Jordan, who made a highly publicized comeback for the Wizards as a basketball executive and then as a player, had brought national attention and increased revenue to a mediocre franchise. But Mr. Pollin saw Jordan as a selfish and disruptive influence.

After hiring a new coach and team president to replace Jordan, Mr. Pollin defiantly spoke to his critics in the third person, declaring, "Those of you in the media who have said Mr. Pollin was over the hill and incompetent, it proves that he still knows what he's doing."

The Wizards made the playoffs four straight seasons after Jordan left but, typical of their struggles under Pollin, got past the first round only once and collapsed last season, winning only 19 games.

Mr. Pollin was well known for his philanthropy, which touched global efforts such as UNICEF, while never forgetting local causes such as the I Have a Dream Foundation. He championed improving the lives of children, considering it an obligation of those who could afford to do so, and his contributions over the years were believed to be in the multiple millions.

In December 1984, Mr. Pollin read an op-ed column in The Post about 40,000 children dying daily from malnutrition in Africa. He called the writer, inquiring whether the number was a misprint. Mr. Pollin was assured it was accurate and was given a phone number for UNICEF's top U.S. official. Mr. Pollin organized a trip to northeastern Uganda to observe the pestilence first-hand and later spearheaded UNICEF relief drives for Africans, and then for Kurds in Northern Iraq, and for women and children to survive winter in Afghanistan.

"I don't know of others who have the global perspective he has," said Charles "Chip" Lyons, then president of UNICEF USA. "He's as much hard-charging for children in Uganda and Afghanistan as he is for kids in the District. He just gets that in a way that most people don't."

Humble origins

Mr. Pollin was born Dec. 3, 1923, in Philadelphia, where the family moved in 1914 after entering the United States at Ellis Island, where the name was changed from Pollinovsky by immigration officials. His father, Morris, began commuting to Washington for jobs as an independent contractor during the Depression and moved his family here in 1932. Morris Pollin started a construction business, which would eventually build more than 2,000 houses and numerous apartment buildings in and around Washington.

Like many young boys of that era, Abe Pollin's passion was baseball. He quickly switched allegiance from the Philadelphia Athletics to the Washington Senators. As a grade-school kid, when the Senators were playing at Griffith Stadium, he'd get a quarter from his mother, Jennie, for a bleacher seat out in the sun, and he later recalled envying the people who got to sit in the shade, close to the action. When the Senators were on the road, he ran to a drugstore{scheck} and listened to a radio re-creation of the games.

Within three seasons, he twice observed baseball history from his perch in the bleachers: the Senators' last appearance in the World Series, in 1933, and Babe Ruth's final game with the New York Yankees a year later. He also attended Washington Redskins games at the old ballpark in 1937, the year the team moved here from Boston. He was an athletic kid but somewhat fragile. He broke fingers and busted ribs, and his mother kept taking him to the doctor because her "Abie Baby" would not gain weight.

He grew to be lanky (6 feet) and skinny (about 135 pounds) and considered himself a fairly good athlete. He played touch football, basketball and Ping-Pong, winning the table tennis championship of the Jewish Community Center. When he attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in Northwest, pals urged him to try out for the basketball team. But he passed up the audition at the last minute.

"I didn't want to put myself in the position of getting cut. . . . I chickened out," Mr. Pollin recalled decades later. "And to this day . . . I try not to back away from challenges. I try not to sit on the sidelines of life."

Abe and his older brother, Jack, joined their father and started Morris Pollin & Sons, contractors and builders. Earlier, Mr. Pollin worked summers for his dad, hauling bathtubs on his back to prove to his co-workers that he was more than the boss's son. A back injury he suffered during the heavy lifting rendered him 4-F when he later tried to enlist during World War II.

After his graduation in 1941, Mr. Pollin worked for his father and awaited his enrollment that fall at the University of Maryland. That summer, he met Irene Kerchek, the niece of his uncle's wife, who was visiting from St. Louis. He was 18, she was 17, and they had a whirlwind summer romance of movie-going and sight-seeing in a convertible he borrowed from his brother. Mr. Pollin promised to visit her during Christmas break, but Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, so seats on trains became scarce because of the war effort. Mr. Pollin kept promising to visit. "I thought, 'Is he kidding?' " she recalled. But he delivered, sitting on his suitcase on an all-night train ride.

He persuaded her to return with him to Washington and to show her patriotism by working in the war effort; her family moved here a year later. They married May 27, 1945, a few days before Mr. Pollin graduated with a government degree from George Washington University, to which he had transferred a year earlier, taking advantage of night classes that enabled him to work during the day.

Mr. Pollin emulated his father, who was known as an astute businessman, a calculated risk taker and a generous man and who had earned the nickname Charity in Washington's Jewish community. Surmising that returning GIs would create demand for housing, Morris Pollin had purchased considerable land in anticipation of the boom. But building supplies were scarce. Abe Pollin resolved this problem resourcefully.

He awakened at 4 a.m. many days to scout railroad yards to determine what materials -- from toilets to bricks to two-by-fours -- were en route to local wholesalers. He would then visit the owner and offer to buy part of the shipment. The owners were impressed by his ingenuity and often made the deal. Mr. Pollin became known for faithfully honoring the handshake agreements he reached, even if they cost him money. The Pollins were among the first builders to complete homes under the G.I. Bill after the war ended, and they sold the first 2,000 within a day.

Mr. Pollin used some of the first racially integrated construction crews in the region in the 1950s. "I know of no biases that Abe Pollin has except the bias for action," said David W. Rutstein, a former chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Mr. Pollin yearned to establish his own identity and take his own risks since his father had put up all the money to start the company. He broke free of his father in 1958, secretly arranging a loan and assembling a group of investors to develop the Robert Towers. "I was scared to death. I was dealing with other people's money," Mr. Pollin recalled. "Yet, even though the project was a huge financial success and the investors offered me more money to start other buildings, I never syndicated again. I couldn't handle the thought of losing someone else's money. I had to do everything on my own."

Becoming a team owner

By the 1960s, Mr. Pollin was a wealthy man, and he was seeking to purchase a professional sports team. Mr. Pollin and two partners wanted to bid on the Baltimore Bullets, but team owner David Trager, who was in Chicago, was reluctant to talk, questioning Mr. Pollin's seriousness about buying a drowning franchise that won a mere 25 games during the 1962-63 season. Mr. Pollin persisted. He boarded an airplane and met Trager and his team of lawyers at a Chicago{scheck} restaurant. They negotiated in three restaurants for three hours each and reached a deal. The partners paid $1.1 million, a half-million dollars more than any previous NBA sale.

Mr. Pollin correctly justified the purchase price by telling reporters at the time that his was not a short-term venture and that the team would appreciate over time. (Forbes valued it at $318 million in 2005.)

He further amplified his intentions on his next career after opening the Irene in 1966. "When I finished it, I decided that I wasn't going to build anymore because I'd accomplished what I'd set out to," Mr. Pollin said in 1991. "The only thing I'd accomplish by more building would be to make more money, and it's never been my object to be the richest Jew in the cemetery. Besides, the business just wasn't that much fun anymore. I wanted to do something else."

By 1968, the Bullets were losing money, and the partners faced mounting debt. But Mr. Pollin decided to buy out his partners for $2.5 million and press on. Despite stars such as Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld, and an appearance in the NBA Finals after the 1970-71 season, the team was drawing only a few thousand fans a game. Mr. Pollin knew that to stop the drain of money, the Bullets needed to move. Mr. Pollin always preferred to be in Washington, but it lacked a major sports arena. He explored sites in Montgomery and Fairfax counties and received overtures from Columbia.

With options seemingly running out, Mr. Pollin decided to build an arena in Prince George's, where a former business partner had a lease on publicly owned property in Landover. Mr. Pollin enlisted the help of the county's key political power broker, Peter F. O'Malley, a lawyer who helped him win approval of the massive project.

In order to get the financing he needed to build, Mr. Pollin applied for an NHL expansion franchise that was scheduled to start play in 1974. With an assist from former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Los Angeles Kings and was chairman of the NHL's expansion committee, Mr. Pollin got his team, the Washington Capitals, in June 1972.

Another person Mr. Pollin enlisted in his pursuit of a hockey team was Irvin Feld, the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who knew many of the NHL owners. Feld said that in exchange for his help, Mr. Pollin promised to give him 24.5 percent of the team.

Mr. Pollin denied making this deal but later offered Feld 3 percent. Feld filed suit, and the parties eventually reached an out-of-court settlement. Meantime, work got underway on Capital Centre and what was usually a two-year endeavor was completed in 15 months, a record at the time. With his father in attendance, Mr. Pollin opened the $16 million Capital Centre on Dec. 2, 1973, with the Washington Bullets beating the Seattle SuperSonics. The arena's firsts included luxury suites and large-screen TVs as well as seats concentrated along the baselines.

As the Capitals struggled in the early years, the Bullets began to come together on the court, adding Elvin Hayes before the 1972-73 season. The team reached the NBA Finals in 1975, when it lost to the Golden State Warriors.{scheck} But three years later,{scheck} under a new coach, Dick Motta, the Bullets defeated the SuperSonics in a tense seven-game{scheck} series -- Washington's first major professional sports championship since the Redskins had won an NFL title in 1942.

The Bullets' success only added to Mr. Pollin's high profile in the capital. Proud of his reputation as a man of his word who liked to help those less fortunate than him, Mr. Pollin turned more of his attention to philanthropy. In 1999, along with several international humanitarian organizations, he began funding research into the long-term effects of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on Kurds in Halabja, a town in northern Iraq. In 2002, Mr. Pollin and his wife established the Pollin Prize, a $200,000 annual award for pediatric research. The first recipients were four scientists who were rewarded for their pioneering research work on oral rehydration therapy, an inexpensive means to combat diarrhea caused by malnutrition.

With so many interests, Mr. Pollin also learned the hard way not to spread himself too thin. He was a founding director of County Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rockville, which collapsed during the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s. Mr. Pollin rarely attended board meetings. In 1983, after County Federal became insolvent, federal bank regulators sued officers, directors and employees for $21 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, charging gross negligence and other fiduciary improprieties.

Mr. Pollin and eight other outside directors agreed to a $1.32 million settlement, without any admission of liability or negligence, before the case went to the jury. Mr. Pollin said he ignored his duties. "I should've either resigned or gone to the meetings," Mr. Pollin said afterward. "But that was my mistake. I did neither, and I paid for it."

Mr. Pollin was also sued by his former Bullets partner, Arnold Heft in 1985, alleging mismanagement of funds. The suit accused Mr. Pollin of diverting Capital Centre profits to bolster his faltering sports franchises. Mr. Pollin said that although he didn't give Heft proper notification, he was only borrowing money and intended to repay Capital Centre in full.

The judge ordered Mr. Pollin to return the money to Capital Centre and to pay Heft's attorney fees, but dismissed allegations of impropriety.

Although Mr. Pollin was admired for his kind-heartedness to employees, he was also known for playing hardball in business. In 1982, with the Bullets losing and the Capitals missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season, Mr. Pollin threatened to move or fold the hockey team unless various conditions were met, including the reduction on rent on the Capital Centre and a tax break from the county. Despite public opposition, he got his way, as the County Council approved the tax break with only one dissenter.

Mr. Pollin's fierce sense of mission and risk-taking was most evident in his construction of the Verizon Center, which he opened after several years of wrangling with District government. Mr. Pollin again recruited O'Malley, along with numerous business allies, to lobby city officials to invest more than $150 million in public resources in exchange for his moving the Wizards and Capitals to the downtown site at Gallery Place. When the financially strapped city balked, Mr. Pollin decided to build the arena himself, although the government still paid tens of millions of dollars in public improvements.

As the 20,674-seat arena was set to open, Mr. Pollin, then 74, told The Post: "I walk through that building (and) I get tears in my eyes. . . . It's unbelievable. I've got everything I've ever done in my life on the line. I've pledged everything. My advisers think I'm nuts. But I wanted to do something special for my town."

In 1999, Mr. Pollin reluctantly sold the Capitals to Leonsis, later saying that he nearly called off the deal several times because "I gave birth to this franchise. I nurtured this franchise" and did not want to sell. But Mr. Pollin sold the Caps, along with a 44 percent interest in his closely held sports company, Washington Sports and Entertainment Limited Partnership, which controls the Wizards and the arena. Leonsis had the right to buy the company if Mr. Pollin ever sold, but the owner repeatedly said that would never happen while Mr. Pollin was still alive.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Pollin led several efforts to aid the victims and families of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. He put his company name to one of them, an educational fund benefiting the children who lost a parent or guardian in the attack. Abe and Irene Pollin made the first donation of $100,000. When Jordan, whom Mr. Pollin hired in 2000 to be the Wizards' president of basketball operations, left the front office in the fall of 2001 to begin his final comeback as a player, he matched it as part of his pledge to donate his $1 million salary to the relief efforts.

It was one of the few times the basketball legend and Mr. Pollin were in unison in 3 1/2 years in business together.

Final years with Wizards

On May 7, 2003, barely three weeks after his last game for the Wizards, Jordan walked into Mr. Pollin's office expecting to discuss his return to his job as head of basketball operations. Instead, he was fired by Mr. Pollin in a bitter encounter that ended with Jordan angrily storming from Mr. Pollin's office. Jordan labeled his boss's handling of the dismissal as "callous."

Mr. Pollin announced his decision in an e-mail and did not speak in depth on the matter for more than five months. Finally, in an interview with the Associated Press, he said he felt there was nothing to discuss with Jordan.

"I had made my decision . . . and that was it," Mr. Pollin said. "I felt by sticking to my decision, it would have less embarrassment for him because if I had made him lay out some of his plans, I would say, 'I'm not accepting them.' I thought I would hurt him worse. So I tried to be as gentle as I could with Michael because I have great respect for him."

What Mr. Pollin did not say was that he believed Jordan -- who had been sharply critical of many Wizards players -- had become a divisive figure. He worried about his ability to oversee the team if he returned to the front office.

As a sports impresario, loyalty to Mr. Pollin mattered more than ability, whether it be from a clerk, player or executive. When Jordan was dismissed, the Wizards had just completed their fifth straight year without making the playoffs. The team, which played to sellouts during Jordan's two years as a player, saw a dramatic drop in attendance with his departure.

But Mr. Pollin -- who is survived by his wife, of Bethesda; sons Robert Pollin of Amherst, Mass., and James Pollin of Bethesda; a brother; two granddaughters; and a great-granddaughter -- left an impact on the city that stretched far beyond sports ownership.

In a story he told The Post in 1991, Mr. Pollin was seated by himself in a Washington restaurant. A man came up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Are you Abe Pollin?"

Mr. Pollin looked up, anticipating a complaint about one of his teams. "Yes, I am," he replied.

"You don't know me, but you changed my life," the man said, "You built that Linda Pollin project, and I moved in there, and that's the first decent place we ever had to live. That changed my life."

Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company