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.
Several times over the years, Washington Post columnists penned critical pieces of Pollin, whose response was to present his side of an issue by buying a full-page ad in the newspaper. The cost: $20,000, when a simple call to a reporter would have gotten his side into the paper for free. But Pollin was miffed and he wasn't talking to The Post, although a call to his wife, Irene, sometimes could break the ice.
The Internet? Forget it. Pollin grew up reading the late Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich, taking the newspaper with him to Griffith Stadium in the 1930s to watch the Senators by himself after school. That Povich did not write about the Bullets/Wizards or Capitals mattered little to Pollin, who said, "Shirley Povich taught me to read; he was the greatest."
Radio? Once in a conversation about Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, whose radio show on WTEM had become the most popular sports show in town, Pollin asked, "Tony has a radio show?" Kornheiser had been on the air for five years when Pollin asked the question.
Television? Pollin could not watch his team play on television. "It makes me too nervous," he said. Friends would call him with updates.
His players? He loved his players. Shared their triumphs and felt their pain in defeat. "He agonized over every loss," columnist Charles Krauthammer said.
Sometimes his enthusiasm surpassed that of his players. Such as the times he took teams to Israel and China. During the team's visit to the Great Wall, Elvin Hayes stayed on the bus. "Elvin, it's the Great Wall, get off the bus," Pollin told his star forward. "Boss," Hayes said, "I've seen walls before."
"Abe and I had a special relationship," Wes Unseld told the congregation Friday. "When we lost, and I was a player, he'd call and ask, 'Wes, what's wrong with my team?' When I was his coach, he'd call and ask, 'Wes, what's wrong with my team?' When I was GM, he'd call and ask, 'Wes, what's wrong with my team?' When we won, he'd love to go into the locker room and pat the players on the cheek. One of our players once called me about that and said if he ever did that again, he would punch him. I called the player back and said, 'Go ahead and punch him, but you'll never get up again.'
"I love the man," Unseld said.
For nearly four decades Unseld would begin every training camp with a shooting contest against Pollin. "I beat him every year," Pollin said.
Pollin made it to Richmond for the Wizards' first practice this fall. He didn't get to any games, although he was supposed to go Tuesday -- the day he died. The lights have been off in his suite all season, although one would think he'd want them on now.
George Solomon is the former Sports editor of The Washington Post.