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  Pollin's Empire Goes Searching for Better Days

By By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 1994; Page D01

Consider the recent events in Landover:

Abe Pollin's Washington Bullets, languishing in last place in the National Basketball Association's Atlantic Division with a 15-31 record, scored a franchise low seven points in the fourth quarter Sunday in a 22-point loss at home to Golden State. The team is considering a name change.

Pollin's Washington Capitals, trying to right themselves after changing coaches two weeks ago, want to keep their streak of 11 straight National Hockey League playoff appearances alive and rejuvenate slumping attendance and interest.

Pollin's 18,000-seat USAir Arena was a state-of-the-art gem when it opened in 1973, but now it's merely a functional venue to watch a sporting event. So two months after a much-heralded 20th anniversary celebration of the arena, building officials, led by Pollin, now say they want a new home.

While the NBA and NHL are in the midst of a popularity boom, and cities from Cleveland to Portland are building plush sports palaces, Pollin's arena is stuck in the 1970s and his teams have become identified with questionable trades, bad luck, inconsistent crowds and an absence of superstars.

"We need a new image," said one executive in Pollin's organization who asked not to be identified. "Maybe moving to a new arena could help. Everyone wants to get out of USAir Arena. We want a fresh start."

So what's to become of the Bullets, Capitals and USAir Arena?

Pollin has declined interview requests in the past two months as he considers whether to renovate USAir Arena or move the Bullets and Capitals to a yet-to-be-built facility — perhaps in the District of Columbia, where a new downtown convention center is on the drawing boards; perhaps in Laurel, where Jack Kent Cooke wants to move his Redskins; or perhaps in Baltimore, next to the thriving fan mecca that is Oriole Park at Camden Yards. And he wants government help (either from the state of Maryland or the District) to get it done.

"We want to take a look at all of our options," said Pollin's top aide, Jerry Sachs, who is president of USAir Arena (built by Pollin himself 20 years ago). "We want to develop a matrix of pluses and minuses and lay them side by side to see where in our best interests we should be."

Bullets President Susan O'Malley said her club may change its name, colors and lo improve the image of a franchise that in recent years has held its own at the gate despite poor won-lost records, but been among the lowest in merchandise sales in the NBA.

"I'm a proponent of having a contest to let fans pick a new name," O'Malley said. "It's being discussed."

Even if Pollin decides not to ditch the "Bullets" — a name associated with success in the 1960s and '70s but futility in the '80s and '90s — their red, white and blue colors probably will be history by the end of next season, O'Malley said.

"Our colors aren't hot," she said, explaining why the Bullets finished last in the NBA in arena merchandise sales the past two seasons. "And we're not winning. Basically the teams that do well are either winning or have cool colors."

There's little hot — or, for that matter, cool — about the sports empire controlled by Pollin, a Washington area builder, entrepreneur and self-described eternal optimist who turned 70 in December. The hard facts:

The Bullets are headed for their sixth straight losing season under Coach Wes Unseld, and from 1990 to 1993 they won a paltry 77 games; only the woeful Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves did worse in the 27-team NBA. O'Malley said a rename-the-Bullets contest "would create excitement and media attention" for the club that ranked 27th, 25th, 26th and 20th in NBA paid attendance over the past four seasons.

John Nash, the club's general manager, said the team needs a quality center and point guard to become competitive. But in a recent interview Nash said front office mistakes also have figured in the club's poor performance.

"Some of the mistakes I've made were not aggressively pursuing opportunities {to acquire players} that might have helped us," Nash said. Which players? What mistakes? "I can't say without implicating other people and making them look bad," Nash said. While the Capitals have posted one of the NHL's best regular season records over the past decade, the club has reached the conference finals only once and developed a reputation for folding during the playoffs. This season's Capitals, after a slow start, have won five of seven games since Jim Schoenfeld replaced Terry Murray as coach two weeks ago. They have the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference (eight teams makes the playoffs from each of the two conferences).

"There has been a loss of confidence, a loss of belief among the players," David Poile, the club's general manager, said after replacing Murray with Schoenfeld, the former Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils coach. But Poile's job also may be on the line; he's in the last year of his contract.

Like Nash, Capitals President Dick Patrick speaks of front office blunders, saying the club erred in trading right wing Dino Ciccarelli in 1992 and in not matching the St. Louis Blues' offer for defenseman Scott Stevens in 1990. "From a marketing standpoint, those were major mistakes," Patrick said. "It made some fans think we're not committed to winning." As for USAir Arena (known until last summer as Capital Centre), only last fall Pollin's organization was touting it as state-of-the-art and "one of the premier arenas around." Not so anymore.

In a recent interview Sachs spent 15 minutes describing the arena's flaws. Meanwhile, team executives, some speaking on the condition they not be named, said a new arena would bolster the image of Pollin's two franchises.

"A number of locations could work but what could be better than having an arena in downtown Washington right on top of a Metro station?" one team executive said. "That would be wonderful."

"I would look at a new building as a positive," Poile said. "Generally speaking, anything you do in your life that goes from old to new is usually refreshing and comes with renewed enthusiasm and vigor and opportunity, if you will. It not only turns you on, and your team, but it turns on the area."

Patrick, a part-owner of the Capitals, said a downtown Washington location "would be like doing an expansion situation with a new team. There would be a lot of excitement. You'd see a spurt in ticket sales." In the summer of 1992, Patrick had expressed interest in a Northern Virginia site, but Pollin was quick to express his loyalty to Capital Centre.

Ultimately, team executives agree, the Bullets and Capitals will have to do more than change colors, names or arenas to succeed in a market where potential ticket buyers — many transplanted from other areas of the country or, indeed, the world — are slow to embrace Washington institutions.

"You know, winning does help," O'Malley, seated courtside, said before a recent Bullets game. "But this is a fickle market. I always say: This is Washington. If you lose, you leave town, right? Lose one election and you're gone.

"Washington is a very transient area. There are not really any emotional ties to our teams like there are in Boston to the Celtics. People can live here 20 years and still not consider Washington their home."

Bullets Firing Blanks
Since the promotionally minded O'Malley took over the Bullets' business operations in 1988, average attendance has increased 22 percent — from 10,570 in 1987-88 to 13,641 last season. Still, last season's ticket sales lagged far behind the NBA average of 16,060 per game.

If winning is an antidote, the Bullets have done little to help themselves: They ranked 19th in games won among 23 NBA teams that competed from 1980 through last season.

"We've got to win more games; everybody recognizes that," said Unseld, whose contract expires at the end of this season. "That's the easiest way to get our attendance up."

In December, Pollin issued a statement that Unseld would be the coach at least through the current season.

Unseld knows something about winning: In 1978, as a burly, 6-foot-7 future Basketball Hall of Fame center, he helped the Bullets win their only NBA title. But his coaching record has been less distinguished: He was 178-287 from 1987 through last season, a .383 winning percentage that many NBA owners wouldn't tolerate.

Unseld answered with conviction the other night when asked what the Bullets must do to return to their winning ways of the '70s, when only the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks compiled more NBA victories.

"We've got to, of course, get that individual player that could help you win," he said. "But you're not going to find that individual just right off the bat. And that individual has to be complemented by other players."

Nash was more specific: He said while the Bullets have a strong, young nucleus in guards Rex Chapman and Calbert Cheaney and forwards Tom Gugliotta and Don MacLean, they need immediate help at center and point guard.

Seven-foot center Kevin Duckworth, acquired in a trade last June for longtime Bullets forward Harvey Grant, "has not played at the level that we had hoped," Nash said. And veteran point guard Michael Adams is not suited to the half-court, set-up offense that Unseld introduced this season, Nash added.

But the "real killer," Nash continued, has been the slow recovery of 6-foot-10, 225-pound forward-center Pervis Ellison, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees after last season. Ellison has had minimal impact this season.

"It's easy to say — and I hear this from fans a lot — 'You guys need a big man in the middle,' " Nash said. "Well, so does Sacramento. So does Dallas. They're not acquirable by snapping your fingers."

Nash chuckled. "Now if you want to trade Tom Gugliotta and a future first{-round draft pick} and try to get maybe an average center, I think the fans would string me up if I did something like that."

While the Bullets hope to fill some needs in this year's draft, Nash warns this may not be a stellar crop. In any case, the club will need better luck in the lottery that determines the draft's first 11 positions.

The Orlando Magic beat long shot odds in the '92 and '93 lotteries by landing the No. 1 pick both times — their ticket to selecting Shaquille O'Neal, now the league's biggest attraction, and, after a trade, 6-7 guard Anfernee Hardaway of Memphis State.

The Bullets had to settle both times for the No. 6 pick, which they used to draft North Carolina State's Gugliotta in '92 and Indiana's Cheaney in '93.

Recalling the talent-rich 1992 draft, Nash said: "As much as I love Tom Gugliotta I would trade him in a second for Shaquille or {Charlotte Hornets center} Alonzo Mourning, who were the first two picks. We'd be a playoff team, no question."

"And there's no explanation for it other than luck."

Capitals Level Off
While the Bullets have been in decline since 1980, the Capitals have been on the rise, at least until recently. But whatever strides they have made during the season — they won 43 games last year — have come undone during the playoffs.

During the first eight years of their existence, from 1974 to 1982, the Capitals lost more than $20 million, according to Pollin, and averaged only 20 victories a season; "the major failure of my business career," Pollin called it.

By the mid-80s Pollin's "major failure" had become a major success and one of the NHL's top teams. "The Capitals will be number one," Pollin predicted before the 1988-89 season — one in which they posted a franchise-record 23 sellouts but were quickly eliminated from the playoffs.

The Capitals were on a roll in 1989-90 when they averaged a club-record 17,251 fans per game and reached the Eastern Conference finals. But they were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in four consecutive games. "And then we got some real bad breaks," Poile recalled. "Starting with the Georgetown situation."

The situation, in June 1990, involved a 17-year-old girl who accused four Capitals, including Ciccarelli and Stevens, of sexually assaulting her in a limousine outside a Georgetown bar.

A D.C. Superior Court grand jury decided not to indict the four men. But the incident received widespread media attention. "The press and the fans were relentless, and our attendance has gone down every year since," one executive in Pollin's organization said. "The press buried us; they've never given us a break. You see the Redskins involved in different incidents, and the press just turns their cheek. It isn't fair."

Poile cites another reason for the drop in ticket sales. "It's expectations," he said. "Not going as far in the playoffs as the fans think we should be going."

So what's wrong with those expectations?

"I'm a little defensive on this," Poile said, shortly before he fired Murray, "but we have really had good success, albeit mostly in the regular season. In terms of winning the Stanley Cup, we have 26 teams in the league and at the end of the year there's 25 that have failed, if you will. The Boston Bruins are thought of as one of the most successful teams in the NHL and they haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1972."

Defensemen "Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate are viewed as stars and exciting players around the league," Patrick said. "But in Washington I think we take them a little bit for granted.

"But to have a top, real exciting goal scorer, sure, that would add excitement and help our team. We're not trying to avoid stars. We're eighth or ninth in the league now in payroll. We're paying a lot for players. But we don't have that one $3 million guy."

Entering the season, the Capitals had compiled a 461-332-94 record during Poile's tenure as general manager. But the team lost its first six games this season and could never get on a roll under Murray. The team has done well under Schoenfeld and crowds are improving, with the average attendance for 25 games at 14,393, in the middle of the NHL pack.

But with season tickets sales at 6,000 — one of the lowest totals in pro sports — Patrick said he would welcome an arena that has direct access to public transportation, which USAir Arena does not.

On the Move?
Pollin has hired Legg Mason Inc., a Baltimore-based investment and consulting company, to explore the feasibility of moving his teams to a new, publicly financed arena. If he decides to stay at USAir Arena, a major renovation will be needed, said Sachs, who also is president of Pollin's holding company, Centre Group Limited Partnership.

"As each new arena has come on stream around the country, we've salivated a little bit," Sachs said. "The business of arena design and technology has really exploded in the last 15 years. So to not have all of these accoutrements is something we have a desire to change."

The cover of the Bullets' 1993-94 media guide trumpets the 20th anniversary of USAir Arena with the slogan "A Past Worth Remembering. A Future Worth Celebrating." But in a recent interview Sachs spoke at length about the arena's deficiencies.

"There's the size of the concourse and the ease with which people can move around," he began. "...The capacity of the restrooms. ... Eating facilities. We can't accommodate everybody that wants to have a hotdog and a Coke in the manner that they deserve."

Sachs was just warming up: "The variety of food that can be served, different types of food, served in a little different atmosphere. ... Air conditioning ... ice-making equipment ... structural things ... lights and sound, we're undersized for that. ...

"And our sky suites, I'd like to see them much, much lower," Sachs said. "... We'd like to see the arena brighter. New lighting is certainly needed."

The proposed name change for the Bullets may be a signal that Pollin wants to brighten the team's image. O'Malley said the club will decide by spring whether to change its name, colors and logo for the 1995-96 season.

"I'm a proponent of changing the name but Wes Unseld isn't," she said. "Wes has that traditional approach: We've always been the Bullets. He'd like to go back to the orange and black colors that the club used when we played in Baltimore" from 1963 to 1973.

O'Malley said a new name also may appease critics who say "Bullets" is inappropriate in a region that has a higher-than-average crime rate. "It would be a gesture, a symbol," she said of a name change.

But for now, the Bullets are still the Bullets, they're losing and they're facing a daunting task in trying to lure fans to their 1970s-era arena.

One Bullets advertising campaign, unveiled on Metrobus sign boards early this season, has a picture of guard Rex Chapman with the words SEE A GROWN MAN FLY.

It's a head-turning sign. But in recent weeks Chapman has been seen only in street clothes at Bullets games as he recovers from a dislocated ankle. In what may be a sign of the times in Landover, Chapman is limping, not flying.

BULLETS TIMELINE:
Pollin buys team in 1964 for $1.1 million.

1964-69: 322 wins, 217 losses.

Data: Bullets make it to playoffs all but 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons.

1970s: 471-305.

Data: Bullets playoffs each season, finals four times, win 1978 title.

1980s: 389-431.

Data: Bullets make playoffs six times, advancing past conference first-round play once (1981).

1990s: 92-200.

Data: Third-worst record in the NBA during the '90s. Ranked 27th, 25th, 26th and 20th in NBA in attendance over past four seasons. Last in national sales of team merchandise.

CAPITALS TIMELINE:
Pollin awarded NHL expansion franchise in 1972 for 1974 season.

1974-79: 163 wins, 258 losses, 58 ties.

Data: Did not make the playoffs. 1974 team had NHL's worst single-season record ever (8-67-5).

1980s: 388-309-103.

Data: Made the playoffs 1983-89 seasons, but only made it past the first round twice (1989-90).

1990s: 172-97-22.

Data: Made it to the playoffs each season and reached the conference finals once (1989-90).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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