After 46 years, the Pollin family will likely sell the Wizards during the offseason

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010; D03

About 30 people, many of them longtime friends and associates of the late patriarch of the Washington Wizards, gathered at his familiar luxury suite on Wednesday at Verizon Center. Abe Pollin had hosted dignitaries and luminaries in that space from the time the arena opened in 1997 until a rare brain disorder made his appearances less frequent. He died on Nov. 24 at age 85.

The Wizards were playing the Indiana Pacers in a seemingly meaningless regular season finale for two teams headed to the NBA draft lottery. But it also likely served as the final time that Pollin's wife of 64 years, Irene, and his sons, Robert and Jim, would occupy this suite as the primary owners of the franchise.

As most of the guests descended upon the dessert tray at halftime of the Wizards' 98-97 win, Robert Pollin was asked if it felt strange that these gatherings -- for the franchise, and in a place that his father built -- may not happen again.

"Try not to think about it," he said behind an uncomfortable grin.

After the third quarter, Irene Pollin grabbed a microphone and nervously read a prepared statement to fans, telling them that the family has experienced some "very, very difficult days" while the team has had a "very, very tough year."

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is attempting to purchase the Wizards and Verizon Center from the Pollin family, which has endured a challenging stretch, given the loss of Abe Pollin and the disappointing 26-56 campaign by the team.

"The troubles with the team were painful, but I would never compare them to the loss of my father and the suffering he went through before that loss," said Robert Pollin, an economist and a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts who made frequent trips back to Washington to visit his father, a once-virile man who was unable to feed himself in his final months. "That's separate from the Wizards and the Verizon Center in its own right. It's also integrated, obviously because the Wizards and the Verizon Center were a big part of my father's life, part of our lives."

Abe Pollin built the $220 million arena in Chinatown with private financing. Needing a cash infusion, Pollin decided to sell the Washington Capitals and a stake that has risen to 44 percent in Washington Sports and Entertainment -- which owns the Wizards, the arena and Ticketmaster -- to Leonsis and his Lincoln Holdings partners in May 1999. When the two entered the agreement, Pollin anointed Leonsis, the former AOL vice chairman, as his heir.

"The way that he could sell the Caps was to make this agreement that upon his death, Ted would have certain rights," Robert Pollin said. "Our side, in my opinion, is certainly honoring Ted's rights in spirit and to the letter. I don't think of it as the team is for sale. We are certainly fulfilling everything that my father and Ted and his partners agreed to. And where it ends up, you never know in a negotiation until a negotiation is over."

Robert Pollin, 59, declined to discuss the specifics of the negotiations, which have been ongoing for the past few months. Although several details need to be worked out, an agreement will likely leave the Pollin family without a role in a franchise that Abe Pollin purchased for $1.1 million in 1964.

Abe Pollin's desire to win his first championship since 1978 led him to commit to a $78 million payroll this season and shell out another $18 million over four years to sign Coach Flip Saunders. Pollin thought his team would be a dark-horse contender with Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood returning from injuries, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamsion already in place, and the team adding Randy Foye and Mike Miller in a trade and Fabricio Oberto in free agency.

After Washington defeated Dallas in the season opener, Robert Pollin said he called his father to celebrate, telling him: "There it is. We've got our contender."

It didn't take long before that opinion changed. "Things started to not look so good. So even when my father was around, there was a lot of frustration and concern, but we certainly thought we could turn it around," Robert Pollin said. "But when my father died, my focus obviously changed a lot. Amid all that, then to have the incident with Gilbert, which essentially wrecked the season right there."

Robert Pollin was in Europe on business when he heard about Gilbert Arenas's dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton, which led to guns being displayed in the locker room. With Abe Pollin's passion against gun violence leading him to change the nickname of the franchise from Bullets to Wizards in 1997, the family was upset and embarrassed by the incident, sending out a scathing statement admonishing Arenas and Crittenton for their behavior.

The incident sparked speculation that the Wizards would look into terminating what was left of the six-year, $111 million contract that Arenas signed in the summer of 2008. Robert Pollin said that it was an option that the family seriously looked into.

"Of course you consider, because it's in the player contract. Moral turpitude is grounds toward voiding a contract, but we were very reluctant to do that," he said. "We haven't done it. It's passed. Were we to pursue that path ¿ which we did not do ¿ we would've done it with a really heavy heart. So, I was very happy that that was not something that we didn't have to think about doing."

Robert Pollin said that he was relieved that Arenas was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house, two years of probation and 400 hours of community service and fined $5,000. Because he lives in Massachusetts, Pollin admitted he did not know Arenas particularly well but always liked him, as did his father.

"This is not a violent person. This is a person who maybe is immature and makes bad decisions at times, but Gilbert also does a lot of great things," Robert Pollin said. "And he certainly has been as asset to the Wizards, other than this problem and the injuries. Had he not been a fantastic asset, we never would've signed him to the contract.

"It's the very thing that everybody likes about him that got him into trouble, I guess. He is this really playful person and he apparently doesn't know how to control it," he said. "And at this point, it's not coddling a celebrity ¿ everybody deserves another chance. I think it's great that Gilbert will be coming back. He's paying his debt. He is being punished. He did bad things. But now it's time to move on."

The Pollin family is likely moving on in another way, with Irene continuing her work with Sister to Sister, a foundation to promote women's heart health; Jim running a local travel business; and Robert also serving as co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at U-Mass.

"Let's say it does end up that we don't own the team anymore by next season. It's a tremendous loss," Robert Pollin said. "My father bought the team when I was 13. He didn't buy it as business investment. He bought it for fun. He was a radical sports fan. And I am today. It's an integral part of my life and my relationship with my father. So if there is a big change and we aren't, that will be a difficult step, and we all take difficult steps. Certainly, it won't be as difficult as the loss of my father.

"Obviously, this season has been a big disappointment. But I will always be a big Wizards fan," he said, recalling some of his favorite memories, including seeing Gus Johnson break a backboard as a member of the Baltimore Bullets. "I will always be an NBA fan, even if my family doesn't own the team."

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