Pollin kept city in heart till end
At Wizards owner's funeral, a grieving D.C. expresses its gratitude

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

After almost three days of public grief and mourning it seemed as though every story had been told about Abe Pollin in a city that has loved him in death as he loved it in life.

He was called a generous, humble, loyal, caring, devoted and kind man who adopted Washington with a passion and a purpose that left an indelible mark on the places and people he touched. On Friday, amid the sadness, close friends and family members said Pollin, who died Tuesday, was far more than a popular basketball team owner who made a fortune in real estate.

"He's a man who accomplished so much in his life, I dare not recount it," his rabbi, Bruce Lustig, told about 1,000 mourners at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest Washington. Details emerged at his sendoff that did not make it into the obituaries, columns and TV interviews over the past several days.

At parties, he dumped cocktails into potted plants when he realized he couldn't keep pace with the drinkers. He had a passion for fresh vegetables, hunting produce stands on the back roads to Rehoboth, Del., for the perfect vine-ripened tomato. As a boy, he took along a salt shaker and ate those tomatoes on the spot. He loved root beer.

He loved Sinatra for his voice and because you could hear every word.

He cried when he listened to Tchaikovsky -- every time.

He tackled a five-star meal and a good Popsicle with the same joy.

He was a table tennis champion in his youth and a sports fanatic for life.

When he was 9, his otherwise protective mother let him head out alone to Griffith Stadium to watch the Washington Senators play baseball.

When he was 11, Pollin went solo to the 1935 prize fight between Joe Louis and Max Baer, rooting for Baer to win in the belief that he, too, was Jewish. Told otherwise only a few years ago, Pollin rushed to Wikipedia to confirm his error.

And he loved the hapless basketball team that he bought as the Baltimore Bullets in 1964, later moving it to Washington and, after the 1995 assassination of his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, renaming it the Wizards.

He became a father figure to Wes Unseld, the team's first-round draft pick in 1968, who was the keystone to the team's lone NBA championship 10 years later. Unseld, who spoke at Friday's service, went on to become the team's coach and general manager.

"When I was a player, he would call me and say, 'Wes, what's wrong with my team?' " Unseld recalled. "As a player, I didn't know what to tell him. Then, when I was the coach, he would call me and ask the same thing. I told him, 'I don't know, maybe it's your coach?'

"When I became the general manager, he used to call me. Same thing," Unseld said. "I began to try to avoid taking those calls."

The final hours of Pollin's life reflected his devotion to his city, his team and his family.

Aware that decades of revitalization he championed in downtown Washington had priced many ordinary people out of the housing market, Pollin talked enthusiastically with his son Robert about the groundbreaking next week for an affordable housing development.

Although he had been thoroughly debilitated by a rare neurological disease, corticobasal degeneration, that stole his senses but left his mind sharp, he made Robert promise to join him at the groundbreaking. As Robert Pollin had lunch Tuesday with his parents, they made plans that night to go to the Wizards game at Verizon Center. The elder Pollin had built the arena largely at his own expense in an era when team owners commonly demand public funds for new arenas.

Using a wheelchair and unable to see, it would be his first time this season at courtside.

Before lunch ended, a dozen yellow roses arrived for Irene Pollin, his wife of 64 years.

The card said, "Happy Thanksgiving, Love, Abe."

As she was saying thank you, Lustig said, her husband suddenly lost the ability to speak. The doctors said later that the disease had stopped his heart.

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