Pollin was a cut above

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Every three weeks, with few exceptions in four decades, the barber's most faithful customer would show up and wait for his chair to open.

"He first came in the shop in, I believe, 1969 or 1970," Jose Ayala said. "So youthful looking, so full of life. Until maybe the last year, this is what I remember about Mr. Pollin."

For almost 40 years, two men from disparate backgrounds and generations bonded in that chair. The Latin-American immigrant, snipping the top and sides of the millionaire sports owner's head.

He used scissors first. Then he buzzed the side and back with clippers. Jose finished by palming a large dollop of shaving cream from the hot-shave machine, spreading it on the back of Mr. Pollin's neck, carefully using a straight razor to finish up.

Once, about 15 years ago on an extremely busy Saturday, Mr. Pollin couldn't stand to see his barber's shop so chaotic. So he got up, went to the back, got a broom and began sweeping mounds of shorn hair off the floor. "I said, 'Mr. Pollin, it's okay, you don't have to do that.' Finally he gave me the broom."

"I did not charge him maybe the last, I would say, the last four or five years," Jose said, sitting in a customer stool at Spiro's Barber Shop in Kensington early Tuesday morning.

"Such a nice man. He tried to give me money, but I wouldn't take it. It was my way of saying thank you for the wonderful things he has done for me."

Jose walks over behind his barber stool and reaches for two copied, color photographs. The first photo is of Abe Pollin, whose 85 years were touchingly remembered Tuesday night at Verizon Center, holding an infant several months old at the Capital Centre, circa 1990. The second photo was taken later -- same man, a little older, and same child, now a strapping, smiling 14-year-old in a tie, both clutching a basketball together.

Jose's eyes begin to well.

"Mr. Pollin," he begins, "is why we have a child."

Jose and his wife, Daisy, had tried to have a child of their own for many years. But after two miscarriages, the couple decided to adopt a child from Caracas, Venezuela. Through an adoption agency, they met their future son while he was still a week old. But paperwork and bureaucracy prevented them from returning to the United States with the baby.

Soon after they returned to Maryland, Mr. Pollin showed up for his usual trim. Jose had told him what happened, "and Mr. Pollin said, 'Listen, you are going to adopt this child and I will help you.' " Jose was given the telephone numbers of lawyers at the Arent Fox firm used by Mr. Pollin, who spearheaded the adoption process. "Don't worry, I will take care of you," he said. "The main thing is you have your son."

Mr. Pollin's barber and his wife never spent another dime of their own money on legal fees, paperwork or any other expense incurred in the adoption of Francisco Javier Ayala, the toddler in the sports owner's arms in the photo, who today is 19 years old, a student and lacrosse player at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

"You know, those things, you can never say thank you enough," Jose said. "He is the reason why we have our son; it's just that plain."

Jose said Mr. Pollin spoke very little over the years of the two children the owner and his wife, Irene, lost earlier in life, including 16-year-old daughter Linda to a heart operation in 1963. But he believes the pain of Mr. Pollin outliving two of his own offspring may have been part of the reason he was determined to make sure his barber and Jose's wife had a healthy child of their own to raise, nurture and love.

"He always asked me how my son was doing at school," Jose said. "He always gave me a message to tell him to, especially when he played football at St. John's High School. I would tell Mr. Pollin how upset Javier was when he lost a game, and Mr. Pollin would say, 'He has to lose in order to win. Because when you lose, you learn from your mistakes. And if he does that, he will win eventually.' "

It has been two weeks since the patriarch of much more than his immediate family died, two weeks since a humanitarian and philanthropist moonlighting as the owner of an NBA franchise left a legacy that so transcended championships or arenas. And yarns never told keep coming off the spool, each one more jaw-dropping than any of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe's jackknife spins in the lane.

One that never gets old concerned Mr. Pollin once visiting Seat Pleasant Elementary in Prince George's County, promising to pay for the college tuition of all 55 kids -- including the future lawyer who spoke at his memorial service Tuesday night.

The anecdotes were good and often funny -- NBA Commissioner David Stern reminisced about being called "a kid" at 66 years old. Informed of rock bands that used to play at his arenas, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath among them, Mr. Pollin would get this incredulous look before he asked, "Who?"

There was also his son, Robert, reading from his mother's letter: "He was such a unique person. No one like him before, no one like him after." And relating the story of his father's last hospital visit about a month ago, in which Mr. Pollin, in his last days, waited to talk to a nurse who had accidentally given him the wrong medication. "Dad said: 'Amy, I forgive you. And I'm sorry for yelling at you.' "

But the one about Jose Ayala, his wife, Daisy, and their son, Javier, has to be up there, because it illustrates the generosity and common-man bond of the son of a Russian immigrant -- a rich man who understood early that money made life easier but it didn't necessarily equate to enrichment or happiness.

Jose came from his native Quito, Ecuador, in 1966, hoping to join his brother and make a new life in America. "I actually wanted to be a journalist," he said. But steady, immediate employment came from Bradley Barber Shop, at the corner of Bradley and Arlington in Bethesda.

About a year ago, when Mr. Pollin's illness worsened, he stopped coming in for his haircut. And Jose did the only thing he could think of to help Mr. Pollin look good and feel good. He began going to him -- packing up his scissors, clippers and shaving cream -- every three weeks.

"When I was going to his house to cut his hair, he would tell the nurses, 'This is Jose. He is my barber. He has been cutting my hair for many years. But more than that, he's my friend.' "

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