By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009
For the first time, the Washington Wizards arrived for a morning practice and Abe Pollin was not the owner of the team. Emotions still ran deep less than 24 hours after the franchise lost its patriarch and backbone, the man whose indomitable passion and love for his team kept him in constant belief that a second NBA championship was within his grasp.
Pollin didn't live to embrace another trophy, but before he died Tuesday, little more than a week before his 86th birthday, he left a lasting impression on his city and the people he touched, especially his players. After practice on Wednesday, Caron Butler said that Pollin's death from a rare neurological disorder could serve as a rallying point and help the team put aside petty locker room spats.
"Yeah, definitely. With the talent that we have and the expectations, we feel like we're definitely capable of doing that," he said. "Obviously we've gotten off to a slow start, weathering adversity that we've been going through on and off the court. It's going to start with the three of us, myself, Gilbert [Arenas], Antawn [Jamison] as captains and leaders of this ballclub to stay together, stay positive and not detour for any distractions and lead this team. That's the right thing to do. And Mr. Pollin wouldn't have wanted it any other way."
The day before Pollin's death, Arenas singled out Butler as a player who wasn't on the same page as the rest of the team. Butler immediately reached out to Arenas to address the problem, and both players claim that the situation has been settled. After practice on Wednesday, Butler was rebounding jumpers and joking with Arenas and Earl Boykins.
"I'm a man before I'm anything. And I'm an adult. So when gestures or anything are made, I don't turn to the media or anything like that. I go directly to the source, and that's what I did," Butler said. "Gilbert's my little brother. We've been through a lot together and if we have any problems, we discuss it. We have not had any problems.
"Some things get twisted, get put out there, but we're a family. I have a problem with my brother, I deal with him in-house. I put him in a headlock, my mama say, 'Enough!' and we move on. There's no problems here. We're cool. The elder brother Antawn oversaw everything. He said, 'Y'all are cool.' And so we're moving forward. That's water under the bridge and we're going to dedicate this season to Mr. Pollin."
The Wizards will wear a black stripe on their jerseys to honor Pollin when they play in Miami on Friday, while the team works on a more fitting way to commemorate the league's longest-tenured owner. Pollin's funeral will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the team announced, with a public memorial service set for Dec. 8 at Verizon Center.
Arenas said feuding with teammates seemed trite at this point, but he took a much more playful approach to ending his problems with Butler. "I think I've been having beefs with everybody around here," he said. "I told Earl, me and him beefing next week, you know. I don't like people smaller than me, so me and Earl about to beef."
Jazz owner Larry Miller and Pistons owner Bill Davidson died last season, with Utah winning nine consecutive games and Detroit losing six of seven immediately after their respective deaths. Pollin was already credited with helping the Wizards snap their two-game losing streak with a 108-107 victory over Philadelphia. Coach Flip Saunders and 76ers Coach Eddie Jordan said Pollin's spirit was responsible for knocking out 76ers guard Louis Williams's potential game-winning three-pointer.
"I felt that he held on, he tried to hold on as long as he can to see us succeed," said Arenas, who first met Pollin when he joined the Wizards in 2003. "We're gonna have to jell together and become the dream he wanted."
Saunders joined the organization in April but said he immediately connected with Pollin. He said he didn't believe that Pollin's death would help galvanize his team but said that he thought it would help put this challenging month in perspective. "The thing he told me, before he passed away, he wanted to win a championship," Saunders said. "That's something that's always in your mind. The sadness that I have is, with him passing away, is how we've been playing. But he'll be looking at us from above, and he'll be helping monitor our progress."
Butler said Pollin immediately made him feel like a part of the Wizards family, signing him to a five-year extension before he played a regular season game for the organization. After spending time with Wes Unseld this summer in China, Butler said he gained a better understanding of the franchise's history -- and Pollin's competitive drive.
"He cared about this franchise and us winning and moving forward, everybody knows that's what he would've wanted -- for us to continue to build and have success," Butler said. "This was his baby. He built it from the ground up. He wanted another championship. He put us together. He loved all of us -- myself, Gil and Antawn -- like sons and he kept us together and he wanted us to be together for a reason, and that's to bring something special to Washington."