George Solomon: on the day Abe Pollin is laid to rest, friends remember his life of action

About 1,000 mourners gathered at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest Washington to remember the former Wizards owner.
By George Solomon
Saturday, November 28, 2009

One of the great irritants Abe Pollin endured as owner of the Wizards/Bullets would be whenever his team was playing one of the NBA glamour clubs featuring stars such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant and many fans in his arena were rooting for the visitors. It drove Pollin crazy.

But on a cold, dreary Friday, several thousand people filled most of the Washington Hebrew Congregation's synagogue on Macomb Street NW to pay their last respects to the most revered professional sports owner in Washington history. They were all there for Abe Pollin.

"His greatest asset was his courage in the face of illness," M. Bruce Lustig, Washington Hebrew's senior rabbi, said of Pollin, who died Tuesday at the age of 85 after a long and painful struggle with a neurological disease called corticobasal degeneration. It was a disease that sapped his ability to conduct normal daily tasks without help, often leaving him angry and frustrated.

On three occasions in the past year, he expressed those frustrations by vowing he would find a cure for the disease by raising money for research. "For the future," he said. "And for now, for me. I've never had anything hold me back and dominate me like this. So I'm very angry."

Angry because in a lifetime of success, tinged with the tragedy of losing two children, Pollin was a winner. He won as a builder, sports entrepreneur, arena developer and philanthropist. If skeptics said he couldn't build an arena in 16 months, he delivered the Capital Centre. If skeptics doubted downtown D.C. was the place to house the Wizards and Capitals, he provided Verizon Center and helped spur development of a stunningly revived, thriving neighborhood. If fans wondered if the Wizards could recover after Pollin fired Michael Jordan, he hired Ernie Grunfeld, who delivered four consecutive playoff appearances by the team.

But this time, with this disease, he could not win.

"Still, he appreciated every day of sunshine, with his dignity intact," his son Robert said.

To say Pollin was old school was an understatement. Nearly 40 years ago, Earl Monroe, a wonderful guard for the Baltimore Bullets, wanted more money than Pollin thought the franchise could afford. Monroe left for the New York Knicks, "probably costing us two championships," Pollin said. When Monroe went into the Hall of Fame, he went in as a Bullet -- not as a Knick -- with Pollin's blessing. "Time heals," Pollin said.

When Mitch Kupchak, who helped Pollin win his only NBA championship in 1978, had an opportunity to go to the Lakers shortly thereafter, Pollin said the Bullets could not afford him. Kupchak left. The same with Bobby Dandridge, who said in 1979, "The man won't pay me." Both players eventually made their peace with Pollin.

Once, during an NBA work stoppage, Pollin, the senior NBA owner, addressed the players and gave them a brief history of the NBA. To which Jordan, who was literally the face of the league, replied that if the man "can't afford the team, he ought to sell the team." Jordan wasn't the only person who felt that way. Other key figures, some members of the media and at least one high-profile agent, felt that way, too. They felt the game had passed Pollin by.

"It's my team," Pollin said. "I'll run it as I see fit."

When fans wondered why Washingtonian Red Auerbach, perhaps the greatest coach and general manager in the history of the NBA, never left Boston for Washington, you only had to know the man. Auerbach had total control of the Celtics, just like Pollin had total control of his team. End of story.

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