Pollin Delivers Another Gift
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000; Page D1
We can't begin to guess the ultimate outcome of Michael Jordan's time in Washington yet. That may take years to unfold and should be a fabulous adventure.
However, we've now got the final verdict on Abe Pollin.
Regardless of what the future holds, he's given everything an owner possibly could to his hometown. He's brought us franchises in the NBA, the NHL and WNBA. He's built US Airways Arena and MCI Center. He's taken Washington teams to an NBA title and a Stanley Cup final. He's ensured that local ownership, led by Ted Leonsis, will replace him eventually and keep his franchises in town.
Now, Pollin has brought us the biggest breath of fresh Air that any franchise or city could imagine. Landing Michael Jordan is his most remarkable achievement. Pollin's personality and reputation were crucial to Jordan's comfort level. Nobody sticks by his people like Abe. You'll notice Jordan isn't in Chicago running the Bulls for Jerry Reinsdorf, the anti-Pollin.
Jordan graciously said the Bulls had "decided to go another direction." In other words, not in his direction. "I haven't told Jerry," he said, with his trademark sly edge, sticking in the blade without leaving blood. "But I'm pretty sure he can read."
"This really clicked," said Ted Leonsis of the blend of personalities among the Wizards' three major partners. "Michael had the choice to go anywhere. He chose to come here."
Since Pollin controls the Wizards, and may continue to sign off on major moves for some time, Jordan's first and most important "personnel decision" was about Pollin. Do I want to work with, but also for, this guy? You can say Jordan chose Washington. It would be closer to the mark to say he chose Leonsis and Pollin.
Pollin said a lot of nice things about Jordan yesterday. He was "the best of the best . . . the athlete of the century . . . the best winner in the world . . . and the guy who refuses to lose." But Pollin saved the best for last. Or, at least the best as Pollin sees it. Jordan came to the Pollins' house the other night for dinner with Abe and Irene.
"What a class guy he is," Pollin said. "A straight, honest, decent human being. He's somebody I consider it an honor to call a friend."
Five years ago, some fans in town questioned what Pollin's legacy would be. MCI Center was still an under-funded dream and the Bullets were a depressing team playing in an outdated suburban arena. Would Pollin, under financial pressure and public criticism, sell one or both of his teams? Would the NBA and NHL even leave town? Would Pollin, so philanthropic, end up being remembered primarily for mediocre teams that played in a hard-to-reach arena in the suburbs?
All pertinent questions seem to have been answered. Everything has worked out better than anyone, including the owner himself, ever imagined. Pollin finished MCI Center himself, without any help from anybody. Then he found Leonsis. The attraction? A history of public-spirited charity work.
Now, it's Pollin who, apparently with ease, has overlooked both his public labor-management spat with Jordan last year and his decade-long battle with Jordan's agent David Falk, who has spoken in the past with thinly veiled contempt about Pollin's operation.
Asked about an infamous quibble the two got into during the NBA lockout in the 1998-99 season, Pollin said, "Let me tell them." "No, no," said Jordan. And both raced to get in the first kiss-and-make-up words.
"It would have been a helluva fight," said Jordan.
"We both were bloody," said Pollin.
"He was representing the owners and I was representing the players," said Jordan. "We understood it to be that and nothing more."
"Michael's last words were, 'Abe, I respect you,' and mine were, 'Michael, I respect you,'‚" Pollin said. "We haven't talked about it since."
Jordan only respects people who can stand up to him, aren't intimidated and can hold their own under fire. So, guess who lashed back at Jordan when he said it was laughable for players to think they could "trust" owners? Abe Pollin. And, when half the NBA wants him to come back and run their team, guess who he signs on with? Abe Pollin. Probably coincidence.
On the subject of Falk, Jordan gave Pollin a 30-second glimpse of heaven.
"David works for me, not me working for him. Let's get some arrows straight. . . . I will be making my own decisions, not David Falk making my decisions for me," said Jordan. "He certainly can be a pain in the ass. . . . But he's a great pain in the ass to have on your side."
For those who haven't noticed, Jordan just changed sides. He's management now. Very much management. Next time Abe wants to speak up at a labor negotiation, Jordan may be right beside him, saying, "You tell 'em, Abe. Ungrateful, overpaid kids."
While Pollin gets kudos for bagging Jordan, that doesn't mean Jordan will succeed. In business, there are a couple of famous sayings. When a great executive meets a bad business, it's usually the reputation of the bad business that remains intact. Put more succinctly: "Turnarounds usually don't."
The Wizards are the ultimate NBA turn-around situation. In a sense, Jordan can't lose. The Wizards' record has been bad for many years, but, believe it or not, their reputation is even worse.
"Underachievers," said Jordan. "Everybody is pretty much expendable. . . . If everyone is looking over their head to see if their neck is going to get chopped off . . . then maybe you do your job."
The new Jordan rules may inspire the Wizards. Or incinerate them. Either way, there's nothing to lose. Jordan only knows one method: total in-your-face fight-or-flee competition. Jordan even says he'll suit up at practice to give the Wizards his own personal EKG: a heart exam for everybody.
"You need to put on the uniform and look in somebody's eyes to know if he's scared," Jordan said.
Who cares about season tickets for Wizards games? How much are tickets to Wizards practice? Just to keep the sides fair, here's a suggestion: Until Michael gets 'em whipped into shape, play one on five.
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