The Era of Their Ways
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page D1
Before we welcome the new, we should bow to the old. They brought more than a quarter century of good times to us. Now, they're going or gone.
Thirty years ago, Washington was a joke city in the world of sports. We were as small time as you could be and still call yourself a major sports city. The Senators were on the verge of leaving town again. The Redskins hadn't been to a title game in decades. Washington had no NBA or NHL franchises. And none of Washington's college teams was a perennial national powerhouse.
Then, in the 1970s, all that changed.
The late Jack Kent Cooke took control of the Redskins from Edward Bennett Williams and, eventually, won three Super Bowls. The Redskins became one of the glamour franchises in the nation's hottest sport.
At Georgetown, John Thompson built a dynasty that won an NCAA title and was runner-up twice. In the 1980s, just as the Sweet 16 and the Final Four were becoming central terms in our sports jargon, Big John was putting Georgetown at the center of the drama.
In 1973, Abe Pollin brought the Bullets here from Baltimore. A basketball-crazy town finally had a serious team to call its own. Those of us who grew up rooting for ridiculous out-of-town strangers (one season, I picked Clyde Lovellette of the St. Louis Hawks as my hero) finally had a team of our own. Within a few years, the Bullets had won an NBA title (1978) and lost in another Finals (1979).
By 1974, thanks again to Pollin, the Washington Capitals joined the NHL. That made a full house, so to speak. The town that began the '70s as the butt of laughter ended it as a full-fledged sports city, mentioned in the same breath with Boston and Chicago.
Cooke, Thompson and Pollin made it happen.
Now, in just the first few months of 1999, Cooke's son John has been outbid and eliminated from consideration as the Redskins' next owner. Thompson suddenly quit as Georgetown coach in mid-season. Yesterday, Pollin hit the area with a comparable shock when he sold the Caps, plus a chunk of the Wizards and MCI Center, to Ted Leonsis for $200 million. Leonsis also has the right of first refusal to the rest of the empire.
You can't start a new century with a much clearer slate than that. Or a more complete sense of suddenly losing your past and a bit of your orientation. By 2000, Daniel Snyder and Ted Leonsis might own all three of Washington's major pro sports franchises, as well as its major downtown arena and suburban stadium. Georgetown may never truly replace Thompson.
For roughly a quarter of a century, the face of sports in the Washington area barely changed. Or, at least, the key faces at the top did not. Now, if Snyder, Leonsis and Craig Esherick walked down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue arm-in-arm with a brass band playing behind them, would even 1 percent of the people on the street have any clue who they are?
Because the Redskins, Wizards, Caps and Hoyas were all disappointments this season, it's easy to welcome the new blood. Some fans will welcome the day when Pollin decides to step aside entirely to tend to his extensive charity work. After all, except for the Caps' trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, his franchises have not been in any final run at the championship for 15 years.
We shouldn't be too quick to think that our new men at the top will necessarily surpass the old. Four trips to the Super Bowl and three wins, three NCAA Final Fours and one win, two NBA Finals and one win and one Stanley Cup final may not sound like enormous production for a town for a 25-year span. But it's not bad. Plenty of cities have had much less.
Also, the people who created those teams were distinctive and driven. Cooke's ambition, and cruelty when crossed, were legendary. No one suffered fools less gladly, or spoke out more forcefully on controversial issues, than Thompson. And Pollin made it to the top in a tough industry construction. He wore a hard hat in his day and knew his way around a crane. He was an NBA owner before the league had an iota of trendy pizzazz. You had to be a true fan then to want to spend your fortune on Gus Johnson and Jack Marin. When my dad and I went to Bullets games in Baltimore, you still had your pick of seats at tip-off.
The new men who'll probably eventually run the Redskins, Wizards and Caps come from different backgrounds. Their financial successes, while enormous, have come with great suddenness, aided by a bull stock market that creates not only millionaires but billionaires in a matter of dizzying days. Leonsis's partner, Jonathan Ledecky, said yesterday, "In 1995, I was unemployed. Two years later, I owned a Fortune 500 company."
Cooke and Pollin made their money the old-fashioned way. They survived and thrived in a far more bare-knuckles world than the one that produced Snyder, Leonsis and Ledecky. The latter seem not only new to money, but new to power and the uses of it. Their claim to a right to ownership is that they've been lifelong fans. Snyder talks about wearing his Redskins belt to school. Yesterday, Leonsis said, "Seeing Snyder buying the Redskins, I said, 'I can do that.' "
The economics of sports is getting brutally difficult for an individual owner, Pollin pointed out yesterday. That $200 million infusion would "preserve" the Wizards, Caps and the MCI Center for the Washington area during this tough period when it's easy for losing sports franchises to burn up a lot of capital in a very short time. He pointed out that he didn't want his teams to endure the chaos that has surrounded the Redskins.
"I'm in perfect health," he said. "But I'm also 75." So, he's setting up the line of succession. That means Leonsis with Ledecky, who has bid for teams in other sports, including baseball, in the background.
To those who are relatively new to this town, they may remember only the Redskins of the past six years or the Wizards/Bullets who've tormented Pollin for the past two decades or the Hoyas who've become a second-tier power, at best, in the '90s. For them, it may be hard to understand what the names Cooke, Thompson and Pollin mean in sports in this town.
For many of us, however, that's no impediment. No names, across this whole century, are written larger than those three in Washington sports. If we add "Griffith" to that trio, then we may have the whole lot. Washington hasn't had many championship games to contemplate or victory parades to celebrate sports heroes in its history. The men who've given most of them to us are suddenly going or gone.
So, a nod to Pollin, who is preparing his exodus with such grace. All of them may be harder to replace than we think.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company