The Last Don
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page D1
The date was April 10, 1997. The place was the Trinity Episcopal church in Upperville, Va. The occasion was the funeral of Jack Kent Cooke.
It was standing room only. Every seat in the church was taken, and the rest of the invited mourners stood against the stone walls. Near the back of the church Abe Pollin sat unobtrusively next to his wife, Irene. After the service concluded, Jack's friends and family filed down the center aisle of the great stone church. John Kent Cooke was the last to go. He walked purposefully, staring straight ahead. Only once did he shift his gaze. As he approached Pollin, John smiled and reached out to pat Abe's arm and thank him for coming.
I thought this was something straight out of "The Godfather," this meeting of the two dons of Washington sports at a funeral. There was nobody else in their league. Both were building brand new stadiums. Both had made major financial and emotional commitments to this area.
Stunningly, a mere two years later, the dons are disappearing.
John Cooke is out because his father's will left him handcuffed. He couldn't raise enough money to keep the team in his family or keep his father's name on the door.
Abe is phasing out, in part because he didn't want his family to go through what John Cooke did. He wanted to provide a more orderly exit strategy, and in his own words "preserve MCI Center, the Capitals and the Wizards for this community."
And so he has sold the Capitals in full, and the Wizards in part to this man, Ted Leonsis who made his money recently on the Internet and happily said you could pick him out because he'd be "the fat guy with the cigar in the owner's box yelling and screaming." Someday, Pollin said, leaving the door open as to when, sooner or later, Leonsis would have the right first of refusal on the whole glittering package: the Wizards and the downtown arena.
This is the public act of a private man coming to grips with his own mortality. His teams and his arena will not be auctioned off to meet the taxes. They will stay in Washington, the city he loves. These teams and this arena are what his public life has been about.
Pollin is the only owner the Capitals have had. He started them in 1974. He had the Bullets even before that. He bought the team with two partners for $1.1 million in 1964 and got the team all to himself in 1968. Think about that: the whole team for $1.1 million. Juwan Howard costs that much every eight games!
There are very few owners like Pollin in sports anymore. Many teams are owned by faceless corporations, or by men who are astonishingly rich, such as Paul Allen in Portland, Ore., or Micky Arison in Miami. Abe's the last of the Mom & Pop stores, the last of the breed. He's a small-market guy in a big-market town. This family feel gives Pollin a charm and his teams a comfy feeling. But it has hindered his ability to compete with the big boys. This is 1999, not 1969. All there are now are big boys. Recently there's been a sense that Abe was overmatched, that he meant well, but he was overly cautious because it was his money he was playing with, and he didn't have enough of it.
There are many people in town who will welcome this move because they think Pollin is out of touch with what it takes to make a team a winner. They deride his "family" approach which is interesting because Leonsis said it was Abe's feeling of "family" that attracted him. It's clear Pollin ran his teams on the basis of emotion and personal relationships more than a sense of business.
Over the last 20 years, for example, all the head coaches he has hired either have played for the Bullets or previously coached for the Bullets, except Jim Lynam who was hired by the one general manager who hadn't played for the Bullets.
Abe's trusted GM Wes Unseld, who is like a son to him, played and coached for the Bullets. His team president, Susan O'Malley, is the daughter of his former lawyer and partner. It really was family.
Abe loved his players so much he had them over to his house for dinner and took them on trips. If they made mistakes and offered any apology at all, he always forgave them. Abe never tired of the joy the close relationship gave him. As time went on he got softer, not tougher. He had no zest for firing people. He isn't a Roto Geek, like the guy up the road in Baltimore.
He agonized over losing, and he thought the way to get better was to try harder. That's an old-fashioned notion. The way to get better in sports is to get richer. The Caps got better yesterday. And by bringing in Leonsis as a partner in the Wizards, so did they.
Abe Pollin is too easily hurt. More than once he complained to me that things I'd written weren't fair. After Juwan Howard announced he was going to Miami, I wrote: "Stop building the new arena now. Fill in the hole with dirt." It was hyperbole, of course. But Abe said it was a terrible thing to write because it would put too many people out of work. Abe couldn't understand why the fans or the press would turn on him. His reasoning was simple: I love this city, and I brought sports here. You should love me.
But Abe was troubled by the modern way of sports. Having gotten these teams long ago, when a million dollars bought a whole team, he couldn't fathom how players could demand so much in salary, or how tickets could cost so much. He was aghast that his players refused to attend autograph sessions or make videos for season ticket holders he couldn't believe to get them to do that small courtesy he had to write it into their contracts.
In many ways Abe is unsophisticated in the ways of pampered athletes, vicious agents and ranting callers. Until recently he didn't even know there was an all-sports radio station in town. But he knew enough to build his new arena on Seventh and G, and he cared enough to take the money out of his own pockets.
He knew enough to be the driving force behind the remarkable downtown renaissance around that building. Look at that area now. Look at the restaurants and the commerce feel the pulse. Maybe his hockey team and his basketball team were failures this season, but he gave that part of the city life and hope. And ultimately that's more important than any championship banner.
Ted Leonsis owns the Capitals now, and in time he may well own the Wizards and the arena too. He has big plans and big ideas so many of the Internet millionaires do. It's a brave new world in Washington sports now.
But maybe someday Leonsis will reach back and restore the rightful name of Bullets to the basketball team. And find a small unobtrusive spot inside the arena, whatever it's called by then, to quietly place Abe Pollin's good name.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company