WHEN ABE POLLIN SEPARATED FROM HIS wife, Irene, in 1987 for the second time, he moved into a house near his lifelong friend Irv Jacobs. Women began asking Jacobs to introduce them to the multimillionaire philanthropist and owner of the Washington Bullets, Washington Capitals, Capital Centre and Ticketron. Finally, Jacobs got up the nerve to ask Pollin if he wanted to start dating.

"Me, date?" Pollin said. "I don't think so." But Pollin did start dating. He began seeing Irene, who was still living in the family's Chevy Chase home. He would drive over to her house -- their house -- and pick her up for dinner, movies, walks along the C&O Canal and long conversations about the loss of their only daughter, Linda, who died following heart surgery in 1963. It was during these talks that Irene Pollin discovered the secret her husband had kept to himself for nearly 25 years.

Pollin, who describes himself as a hands-on businessman, is obviously used to having things his way. He's the prototypical American entrepreneur who believes that if you want something badly enough, you can get it. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded. If you just think you can do something, you can. The results of such positive thinking are powerful. In 1964 he put a gaggle of lawyers at the other end of the room and personally negotiated the purchase of the Bullets; in 1972 he traversed the country and met with half of the owners in the National Hockey League to land a hockey franchise for Washington; he laid out the terms of the tax breaks and leases that in 1973 enabled him to build Capital Centre, the area's preeminent entertainment and sports facility, in Prince George's County; in 1985 he journeyed to northeastern Uganda to personally direct the use of $200,000 he had raised in Washington to feed 20,000 starving people; in 1990 it was Pollin who picked up the phone and nailed down the agreement that brought John Williams, the Bullets' most valuable and troubled young player, back to the team, and it was Pollin, again, who drew up the $5 million contract that will keep Bernard King, the team's resurgent star, in Washington for two more seasons.

Year after year he has been near the top of every Washington power list. But in his many years of living and working in the city, the deal-maker's toughest challenge has been coming to terms with the death of his daughter after heart surgery.

"It's very interesting," Irene Pollin says, referring to the long conversations with her husband. "I was really surprised. He had tremendous feelings of being pushed into it {the heart surgery}. See, I didn't feel that way. He felt that Linda and I maybe pushed him into it because both of us wanted to do it. Maybe he would have waited. But she had to have it. It was just a matter of when."

Asked if her husband blamed her at the time for their daughter's death, she says, "Well, Linda wasn't here, so he couldn't point at her."

Seated in his Capital Centre office, with pictures of his family, and particularly his grandchildren, all over the walls, Abe Pollin lowers his head. "I was convinced and talked into it by my daughter and my wife because she wanted it desperately . . . She wanted to be able to dance, and go to parties."

"When you lose a child, it's the worst punishment that a person can have," says Pollin, who also lost an infant son, J.J., in 1953. "Part of your heart, your gut, your soul, part of you dies, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of my daughter."

Perhaps this is why Abe Pollin -- despite all the fame and fawning that Washington bestows on the rich and influential -- seems such a lonely and haunted man.

IT'S GAME TIME. THE CAPITALS VERSUS the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs on the Saturday afternoon before Christmas. As Abe Pollin leaves the small executive dining room next to the Capital Club restaurant, walking with quick, purposeful strides toward his seat, a few fans do a double take, turning back to stare. But most walk by without noticing him.

Joining Pollin for this game are Parris Glendening, the Prince George's county executive, and his son; Albert Cohen, a developer who helped Pollin build Capital Centre, and Cohen's daughter from New Orleans; and Bob Zurfluh, Pollin's longtime public relations man, and his son.

The group starts out for the seats together. Despite the crowd around him, Pollin seems very distant, distracted. He moves ahead quickly, and when the children stop for popcorn and Cokes, he disappears. He seems to be running away from people and into the solitary focus of watching the game.

Pollin doesn't sit in an exclusive skybox, but in the regular seats among the everyday fans. He sits about 20 rows up, on the aisle, slightly to the left of center ice and across from the Capitals' bench. It's the only seat he's ever had for watching the Capitals. He has a similar seat for all Bullets games, and he never lets anyone else take it. Once, when President Jimmy Carter came to a basketball game to see the Atlanta Hawks, the Secret Service wanted to have the president -- who was to sit next to Pollin -- in the aisle seat for security reasons. Pollin told them there were 19,000 seats in Capital Centre and the president could have any seat except that one. "That's where I sit," he said.

Pollin's knee jerks up and down as he watches the Caps take on the Maple Leafs. The knee goes into rapid movement whenever the Caps are on offense and near the Leafs' goal. He watches the game in spurts of intense concentration when a goal seems near. Otherwise he sits back. As the game goes on, the Capitals miss several chances to score. "Goddamit," Pollin says, again and again, smacking his hand on the armrest.

During intermission, the Capitals' marketing director comes over and sits on the step next to Pollin's seat. This game is not a sellout, and attendance for the Capitals has been down slightly this season, but Pollin says that the economy is off and he is not worried. Later, a lawyer who is the friend of a friend comes over to introduce his little boy. Pollin offers to take the youngster to the Capitals' locker room after the game -- but only if the Capitals win. "If they lose, they don't want to see me and I don't want to see them," he says. Father and son smile.

By the middle of the third period it is obvious there will be no post-game visit. The Caps are down by three goals and it is looking worse. As the fans take early leave of their seats, some offer Pollin words of comfort: "Not the best today, Abe"; "They'll be all right"; "One of those days, eh?" Pollin just nods and gives a pained smile. For most of the last period he has nothing to say; there is nothing to cheer for. Pollin likes to cheer, and he likes to win. It makes him feel good; it's his escape. But not today. The game is over. He perfunctorily shakes hands with guests, and then, with those quick, purposeful strides, he is gone.

ABE POLLIN'S CAREER AS A SPORTS impresario began in 1962 when he received a call from a high school friend, Arnold Heft, who was a former NBA referee and a real estate investor. Heft was trying to buy the Cincinnati Royals basketball team and move them to Washington. Pollin loved the idea. When Heft called a meeting for potential investors, Pollin was the only one who came with a check in hand. Eventually the deal fell apart, but Pollin -- who remembers the hours he spent cheering the Washington Senators from 25-cent bleacher seats at Griffith Stadium as the happiest time of his life -- suddenly felt an emotional surge at the idea that he could own a sports franchise. He told Heft if any other opportunities to buy a basketball team came up to call him first because "I would love to get into sports."

When Heft called back, Abe was in the throes of depression over Linda's death. Heft told Pollin he was trying to buy the Baltimore Bullets. The team was losing money, but Heft was having no luck negotiating a deal with the owner, who lived in Chicago. Even in his despair Pollin felt the emotional surge again; it was a lift for him to think about owning a team. "He was way, way down," Heft recalls, "and we needed a third partner who could get in and make things happen. That was Abe." Pollin got David Trager, then the owner of the Bullets, on the line, but Trager didn't want to talk to him. Pollin recalls Trager asking him point-blank: "Are you some kind of nut?" Pollin replied: "No, I'm not a nut. I'm a serious builder and developer in Washington, and I like sports and I want to buy your team."

To prove he wasn't a nut, Pollin asked Trager if he would be impressed if Pollin jumped on a plane and met him in Chicago in three hours. Trager said yes, and Pollin -- with his two partners, Heft and attorney Earl Foreman -- flew to Chicago. Pollin and Trager, who was flanked by eight of his lawyers, met in a restaurant and talked for four hours. Trager suggested they visit another restaurant. They were in a third restaurant at 1 a.m. when Pollin negotiated the purchase of the Bullets for $1.1 million. Today, according to NBA sources, the team is worth as much as $100 million. Pollin's younger son, Jimmy, remembers the night his father returned from Chicago: "We were sitting around the dining room table, and he came running in with this bright look on his face and announced he had just bought the Bullets. My brother went crazy and started screaming. That really turned things around for him after my sister's death."

Pollin began traveling up the road to every Bullets home game in Baltimore, but he tried not to neglect Irene, who had slipped into a protracted depression. She took B-12 shots. She had to breathe into a bag to control her anxiety. She was heavily tranquilized. He took her along to the games, drove her to see her doctors, helped her go back to school, drove her to classes and held her hand when she had a big test. But nothing seemed to work, and the distance between them grew.

Year after unhappy year went by, until eventually there were two three-month separations -- one in 1986 and another in 1987. The couple reunited, however, and this year they will celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary. Abe Pollin won't talk in detail about the separations. His wife says: "Abe is less of a talker than I am. I think he would say that. I think things build up when you don't talk about them. Feelings get built up."

But how had Pollin hidden his feelings for nearly 25 years?

"Men handle things differently," Irene Pollin explains. "Men go to work . . ."

ABE POLLIN WAS NOT raised to deal openly with emotions. He grew up in a poor immigrant family with two brothers -- Jack and Harold -- and a hard-driving father who worked seven days a week to make a living.

In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Morris Polanofsky, a metal worker from Kiev, Russia, landed at Ellis Island, where his name was entered in the records as Morris Pollin. His brother, who had sent the money for the ship's fare, met him and took him to Philadelphia. Morris took a job on a construction site at $3 a week.

On December 3, 1923, the day Abe Pollin was born, his father quit his job and went into business for himself as an independent plumbing and heating contractor, working out of his house on Roosevelt Boulevard. Business was up and down. Morris Pollin began going south to Washington for contracting jobs. Abe saw his uncle more than he saw his dad; on weekends his uncle took him to see the Philadelphia Athletics play baseball. During the week, Abe played with the neighborhood kids on the grassy island that divided traffic on Roosevelt Boulevard. He loved baseball and would play touch football, but he was a fragile child. He broke fingers, he bashed his chin, he busted ribs, and his mother, Jennie, kept taking him to the doctor because he wouldn't gain weight. She worried constantly about the boy she called "Abie Baby."

In 1932, when Abe was 8, his father moved the family to Washington. They lived in a rented house at 2213 First St. NW, six blocks from Griffith Stadium. Here, unlike Philadelphia, the Depression had not put a complete damper on the construction industry; a shortage of housing for a growing federal work force meant there was ample work for Morris Pollin.

Abe spent his afternoons at the Senators' games. If the team was on the road, he would walk down to the Peoples drugstore next to the Warner Theatre on 13th Street NW and watch radio announcer Arch McDonald sit in a glass booth and render dramatic re-creations of the baseball games over radio, reading pitch-by-pitch accounts off his Western Union ticker.

As business improved for Morris Pollin, the family moved from the First Street row house to a semi-detached house on Quackenbos Street NW. Abe went from Gage Elementary to Whittier Elementary and then to Paul Junior High and Roosevelt High School. He was close to his mother and would work during the summers for his dad's plumbing business. But the skinny, 6-foot, 130-pound boy continued to love sports. He played touch football, basketball and, most of all, Ping-Pong. He was the table tennis champion at the Jewish Community Center. One athletic decision, however, still haunts him.

"I was a fairly good athlete," Pollin says, but "at the last minute I didn't go out for the {high school} basketball team. And the reason I didn't go out for the team is I didn't want to put myself in the position of getting cut, of not making the team. So what I did was I chickened out. And to this day -- you know, I tell this story to graduating classes and things like that -- I try not to back away from challenges. I try not to sit on the sidelines of life, which is what I was doing watching my friends play and not me."

After graduating from Roosevelt in 1941, Pollin wanted to go to Duke University. He visited the school and loved it, but his mother had other ideas. "She said, 'You're going to go to Maryland because Duke is too far from here. I don't want you going so far.' "

She wanted him to live at home, so she persuaded his father to give him a small Chevrolet. And she wanted him to be a pharmacist because she felt a pharmacist "would never starve." Abe wasn't really interested in pharmacy, but he signed up as a chemistry major until he nearly blew up the lab. "I still have the record for the highest breakage bill in the history of the University of Maryland," he says.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Pollin tried to enlist, but because of a ruptured disc he was classified 4-F. His back had given out while he was trying to carry one end of a giant cast-iron-and-porcelain bathtub, and he had had to be rushed to the hospital. After his older brother, Jack, came back from the war and Abe graduated from college -- he had transferred to George Washington University and gotten his degree in government because government classes allowed him to work during the day -- the two went into business with their father, creating Morris Pollin & Sons, contractors and builders. The firm built some of the first newly constructed private housing for returning GIs, 60 semi-detached houses on Clay Place NE. The company prospered, and every day the brothers ate lunch with their mom and dad.

In all, Morris Pollin & Sons built more than 2,000 homes and numerous apartment buildings, including the Rittenhouse on 16th Street and the Lynwood on Missouri Avenue in Northwest. And while business was booming, Abe Pollin's personal life was blossoming as well.

The summer before his freshman year at Maryland, he had met Irene Kerchek, the niece of his uncle's wife, who was visiting from St. Louis. Pollin took her out in his brother's convertible, he took her to the movies, he showed her the monuments. She noticed something extraordinary about him. "We went to see a very sad picture; I forget what it was about," Irene Pollin recalls, reflecting on one of their early dates. "And he started crying. And I had never seen a man cry before like that in a movie. A man, and I thought, 'Gee, that's really unusual.' I wasn't crying, but he was crying. So I guess he's always had a kind of sentimentality. He still has. It's a nice touch, I think."

She went back to St. Louis at summer's end with Abe's high school fraternity pin. "Every day I got another letter," she recalls. "I said, 'My God, this guy.' I was really impressed." She was even more impressed when Pollin sat on his suitcase on an all-night train ride from Washington to St. Louis to come visit her for Christmas.

"The war started in December, and he kept saying, 'I'm coming, I'm coming,' and I thought, 'Is he kidding?' " she remembers. "The next thing I know he is on his way." After his visit, Pollin got serious and began urging her to come east. She had talked about doing "something glamorous like becoming a WAVE or a WAC." Abe told her that in D.C. she would be at the center of the nation's war effort. Putting off college, she came to Washington and took a job as a secretary for the British Army Staff.

Her parents decided to move to Washington too and, with financial help from Abe's dad, opened a liquor and grocery store on Tenley Circle. The next year Irene went to Maryland with Abe, sharing lunchtime sandwiches their mothers made for them.

In May 1945, with the war almost over, they got married at the Hamilton Hotel, at 14th and K NW. Her father used his connections in the food business to get chickens for the wedding dinner. Then the couple went to New York and stayed at the St. Moritz. They spent their honeymoon watching Broadway plays. When they returned home, they lived rent-free in an apartment building his father had built on Kalorama Road, and they got free groceries from her dad. A year and a half later, their first child, Linda, was born.

WHEN LINDA WAS JUST A FEW DAYS old, Abe was told that his daughter had a severe congenital heart condition, but no one told Irene. "Abe and his family kind of kept it from me," she recalls.

In a few months, though, it was obvious that Linda had trouble breathing when she tried to crawl or played for very long. But there was no panic. "We thought it was mild," Irene says.

In 1950, their second child, Robert, was born in good health. It never occurred to the Pollins that any future children might have the same kind of heart problem Linda suffered from. "When you are young and ignorant, you kind of think that that's such a fluke," Irene says. "I mean, no way it's going to happen again, right?" But when Kenneth, who was nicknamed J.J., was born in 1952, the Pollins realized he too had a severe problem. He grew tired sucking a bottle, and he had to have an oxygen tent at home. At 6 months he had surgery; for the last three months of his life, Irene Pollin slept in his hospital room at Johns Hopkins.

"We just weren't there the night he died," she says. She and Abe had been away from Linda and Robert for a long time, she recalls, and their grandparents said, " 'Your kids are really missing you, and you should come home.' " She seems to be talking to herself, then looks up. "We had already been told he was going to die . . . We said, 'All right, we'll come home for one night.' And they called in the morning to say he had died that night."

In 1958, having been told not to have any more children, the Pollins adopted a son, Jimmy, as an infant. Meanwhile, they were told that their daughter, who had had one heart operation in 1951 at age 4, would need more surgery to increase the flow of oxygen to her heart. By 1962 her condition was so bad that she was getting sick repeatedly and having a hard time walking up the steps, even going from class to class in the bustling halls of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Linda wanted to have the surgery doctors were recommending and her mother wanted her to have it too, so she wouldn't constantly be sick. Irene Pollin says that she and Linda and Abe were aware that this was a serious operation. But as to the extent of the risk, she says, "We didn't want to know. We didn't ask." In addition, the doctors worried that if Linda kept getting sicker and weaker she might not be able to withstand the surgery.

"So that was our dilemma," Irene says. "But she was terrific. We made the decision, I mean, she was part of the decision."

Once, while in the car on a shopping trip for her 16th birthday, Linda asked her mother, "Am I like my brother?" Her mother responded: "No."

"She didn't say, 'Will I die?' " says Irene. "She said, 'Am I like my brother?' Because, you know, she was looking forward to the surgery. But I said no, and I was being truthful; her condition was not as serious as his."

During the operation, however, a doctor came out and told the Pollins that surgeons had inadvertently hit a nerve in their daughter's heart, Irene says. For two weeks, Abe and Irene slept in a hotel across from the hospital, knowing Linda would not recover. "We talked," says Irene. She sighs, fights back tears. "It wasn't too good . . . We would mostly talk holding hands. We tried not to talk about death. I mean, we, I remember Abe, we just felt she was going to get better . . . She adored Abe. He adored her."

Linda Pollin died at about 5 a.m. Her parents ran from the hotel to be by her side, but she was gone. "Again, we weren't there," says Irene. Her tone is full of irony and bitterness.

Linda was buried next to her brother in a Maryland cemetery.

Soon after Linda's death, Irene Pollin's father died, then her mother. According to Irene, it seemed "like every three months we were having a funeral." Struggling with depression, Irene went back to school at the University of Maryland. She says she took Valium so regularly that when she had a test she just sat there,floating. Eventually, however, she was able to get a bachelor's degree in social work.

For Abe, nothing had meaning. All he could feel was the absence of his children. Pollin recalls that he "didn't care to do anything. Just woke up in the morning and waited for lunch. Waited for dinner and went to sleep. Didn't sleep. And I did that for a long time."

Together Abe and Irene tried religion. Separately they tried psychiatrists. In 1964 Pollin began to build, at no profit, the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing Project -- a Southeast complex for large, poor families -- which included a swimming pool and recreation center. But even that saddened him because by putting his daughter's name on the project, he kept his pain alive. A worker would ask about the "Linda Pollin job," and Pollin would want to cry. Even worse, he recalls, the venture became a nightmare -- unhappy tenants, missed mortgage payments, professional embarrassment. His friends asked him if he knew what he was doing, if he wasn't just throwing money away.

In the middle of all this, Arnold Heft called back and asked Abe if he still wanted to buy a basketball team. WHEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO INVEST IN a franchise came along, Abe Pollin was in an excellent position to seize it. Over the years he'd built up a lucrative real estate business.

Just after the war, Morris Pollin had given Abe and his brother Jack each 40 percent of the family business, but in the late 1950s, Abe decided to try to make it on his own. Pollin says he never asked his father for advice when he made his break. "I never asked him for financing," he says. "I never asked him for anything." It didn't hurt, of course, that he was

known throughout the industry because he had worked with his father; and banks were willing to deal with him.

In his time, Pollin was one of the city's most successful developers. His specialty was elegant apartment houses, including Robert Towers in Arlington, named for his older son, and the James in North- west, named for his younger son. "It was the first apartment building in Washington that had a swimming pool on the roof, 10 stories up," he says.

In the early 1960s, Pollin erected an office building on Indiana Avenue NW. It was his biggest project yet. But in the middle of the venture Linda died, and Pollin's appetite for the development business was destroyed. He would finance and build only one more apartment building after her death: a 17-story, 525-unit luxury high-rise in Chevy Chase with his signature swimmming pool -- and a diving pool and a tennis court -- on the roof. It is named after Irene.

To lift his spirits, he turned his attention to his new toy: the Baltimore Bullets. Though Pollin delighted in owning a third of the team, the franchise, then led by the bruising all-star forward Gus Johnson, was losing money. Despite superstars like Johnson, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and 1969 Rookie of the Year Wes Unseld, the Bullets could draw only a few thousand fans per game, even in the playoffs. In 1968, Pollin and his partners had decided to sell the Bullets. But instead, Pollin bought out Heft and Foreman and took complete control of the team.

To stop the drain of money, Pollin decided that the team had to be moved. The natural destination was his home town, Washington, but there was one large obstacle: The city had no major sports arena. First, he considered Uline Arena, but it held only 6,000 people. Then he began negotiations with Marriott. The company was considering a plan to build an amusement park in Columbia, and Pollin wanted to put the team there as part of its Great American Theme Park. But Marriott could not get the zoning required, and Pollin began to shop around.

He looked in the District, where President Richard Nixon had given thought to building a federally financed sports arena named after Dwight Eisenhower. But Nixon's support for the project evaporated after he learned the center, planned for Chinatown, probably wouldn't be finished until he was out of office. The District government was considering building an arena at Union Station, but Pollin didn't like that idea -- he thought it would be too costly and difficult to build.

"If there had been a really good site in the city that met the criteria of the size and the land that I needed, the parking and the access and all the other things," Pollin explains, "I would very seriously have considered it." But there was no site in the city. And none of the suburban counties wanted to build an arena. So Pollin decided to build his own arena in Prince George's County, where his former partner, Heft, had a lease on some publicly owned property just off the Beltway in Landover. Heft sold the lease for a one-third interest in the arena. To get the financing he needed to build, Pollin decided to seek a hockey franchise so he could show his bankers that the seats would be full of paying customers 80 times a year -- 40 dates for hockey and 40 dates for basketball.

"I had never seen a hockey game in my life," says Pollin. "I talked to some people and they said, 'Hockey? Nobody here knows much about hockey -- we're in the South, Abe.' "

But Pollin was tenacious. He sent his accountant to New York with a $25,000 check to apply for one of the two expansion teams scheduled to begin play in 1974. Then Pollin began traveling the nation, courting every hockey owner who would vote on expansion. At the time, he knew only one owner, Jack Kent Cooke. Pollin had helped Cooke get a National Basketball Association franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, when Cooke was having trouble buying the team from former Washington Senators owner Bob Short. Cooke, who owned the L.A. Kings hockey team at the time, was chairman of the NHL expansion committee. When Pollin arrived in Montreal, where the expansion teams would be chosen, there was a message from Cooke: "Don't go to your room. Come to my suite immediately." Chairman Cooke told Pollin whom to see, whom to talk to, whom to court.

Even with Cooke's help, Pollin was facing a difficult test. In the hotel, he ran into Jimmy the Greek, who told him the odds were 600-1 against Washington getting a franchise. Pollin remembers telling him, "You're going to be sorry, because I'm going to get the franchise -- you just gave me added incentive." In June 1972 Pollin got his hockey team.

One of the people Pollin asked for help during his struggle was Irvin Feld, the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who did business in arenas around the nation and knew many of the owners of the hockey teams. Feld claimed that in exchange for his help Pollin promised to give him a sizable share of the hockey team. Pollin denied making the promise, and he and Feld were locked in bitter dispute until Feld's death in 1984.

Allen Bloom, an executive vice president of Ringling Bros. who attended the meetings between Pollin and Feld, says Pollin promised to give Feld 24.5 percent of the franchise. "He felt that was our incentive to go out and help him get a hockey team."

According to Bloom, Feld called five NHL franchise owners and asked them to support Pollin's bid for a team. When Pol- lin got the franchise, Feld's office was flooded with congratulatory calls. "But Abe never called," says Bloom. "Two weeks later, Irv called Abe and Abe said he was sorry for not calling but {he'd been} busy trying to put the building up and his brother was sick . . . We didn't hear from him again until the following spring. We weren't worried. As far as we knew, Abe had a reputable posture in the community and we trusted him."

After repeated calls from Feld, Pollin finally went to see him and, he says, offered him 3 percent of the Capitals. "Irv got very upset," Bloom recalls. "He said he'd been promised 24.5 percent. Abe said he did not. Irv said forget it."

Feld filed suit against Pollin; the parties reached an out-of-court settlement. To this day, Pollin maintains that he never made such an offer.

AT THE TIME OF THE SQUABBLE WITH Feld, Pollin had other things on his mind. He had won the hockey franchise -- which made financing a loan possible -- so he was ready to raise Capital Centre. And he had to get it done fast. With Irene holding the shovel, ground was broken to start construction on August 24, 1972. The plan was for the Bullets to play the 1972-73 season in Baltimore and then the first few home games of the 1973-74 season at the University of Maryland. Pollin assured everyone that Capital Centre would be completed by December 2, 1973.

Toward the end, Pollin's contractors worked around the clock -- three eight-hour shifts -- to make the deadline. When he felt the county was dragging its feet on the construction of a required sewage treatment plant, Pollin brought in his own crew. "And finally, Sunday, December 2, I'm at the treatment plant," Pollin says. "I've been there now three days and three nights. Dirty, filthy, no sleep. We get inspected . . . The guy says okay. Now I come over here {to Capital Centre} and we're still putting in the seats, sweeping, everybody's painting, putting in the Telscreen. One guy says, 'There's no way the Telscreen is going to work.' And I said, 'Goddamit, I want the Telscreen to work too . . . You keep working, because the governor is going to be here. I want that to work.' "

The four-sided, 12-by-16-foot Telscreen worked. And the seats were installed and his father sat next to him and the Bullets beat the Seattle Supersonics by two points at the buzzer.

ABE POLLIN WALKS INTO DUKE Zeibert's restaurant. It's his favorite. He is greeted by Duke, then asks radio and TV talk show host Larry King to appear at a charity event. King agrees.

Pollin's philanthropic deeds are well known. Since 1984 he has raised more than $1 million for UNICEF; in 1988 he established a $175,000 fund for the "I Have a Dream" program, which guarantees college scholarships to all members of that year's fifth grade class at Seat Pleasant Elementary School in Capitol Heights who graduate from high school; he raised $60,000 to help establish Crossway Community, a residence in Montgomery County for single parents who need a place to stay; he's been active in the Leukemia Society, the Heart Ball; the list goes on and on.

He takes a seat, and former Redskins player Brig Owens comes over to shake hands. Owens, like Pollin, is involved in the "I Have a Dream" program.

But another man looks over and then looks away. He is Bill Regardie, publisher of the business magazine Regardie's. Pollin is furious with Regardie because the magazine published an article by Edward Kiersh in its March 1990 issue that said Pollin has not always been a man of his word in the business world. As evidence, the article cited:

The charges from Irvin Feld.

Prince George's County Council member Sue Mills's claim that Pollin unfairly squeezed tax breaks out of the county in exchange for keeping the Capitals in Landover.

Pollin's efforts to keep the D.C. Convention Center from staging concerts or sporting events that might compete with Capital Centre: "This is nothing more than a money grab," said Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton after legislation that would have put limits on the type of events at the convention center was introduced -- and defeated -- in the Senate.

Pollin's involvement with County Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rockville, which became insolvent in 1983. Federal regulators charged the thrift with mismanagement of funds and falsifying financial reports. As one of the S&L's nine directors, Pollin pleaded guilty to one count of negligence and paid a portion of the $1.32 million fine.

Pollin's public feud with Heft, his partner in Capital Centre. Heft sued Pollin in 1985, claiming mismanagement of funds. The suit charged that Pollin diverted Cap Centre profits to bolster his faltering sports franchises. Pollin replied that although he didn't give Heft proper notification, he was only borrowing the money and intended to repay Cap Centre in full. The judge ordered Pollin to return the money to Capital Centre and to pay Heft's attorney fees, but dismissed allegations of impropriety.

A charge by the former chairman of the Shrine Circus in Baltimore that Pollin priced the charitable event out of the Baltimore Arena after his management company took control of the arena. Lee Fleurie of the Shriners was quoted as saying, "The children are the ones getting hurt here, but his was just a black-and-white business decision, as he made it very clear to us that the arena wasn't going to be a charitable institution."

Except for Feld's claims, Pollin doesn't deny the basic facts. But he is infuriated by what he sees as the article's unfair portrayal of him as a slippery, miserly and sometimes bumbling businessman.

Regarding the tax breaks, he argues that he did a good job of presenting his case -- that Capital Centre brings money into the county and is a magnet for development -- and the County Council approved the deal by majority vote. Regarding the D.C. Convention Center, Pollin contends that he never lobbied against it, but asked for "a level playing field" between an arena built with private money and a publicly supported facility that could financially undermine his private enterprise. On the matter of County Federal, Pollin says that while he was one of the founding directors, he had stopped attending its board meetings, but had not resigned from the board because fellow members "begged me not to." His only failing, Pollin says, was that he had not properly monitored the bank's management because "I didn't show up for the meetings." And as for the Shrine Circus criticism, Pollin says the Baltimore Arena was running at a deficit and had to become more cost-conscious. Under the new management, he says, the arena is doing better than ever financially.

Munching a Duke's pickle and purposely not looking at Regardie, who is one table away, Pollin says, "Mr. Regardie knew all about that article and what was in that article."

"Abe's problem," Regardie says later, "is that he has had unusually good treatment from the press over the years. No one ever took a hard look, no one ever questioned his methods of operation. He always bragged that his word is his bond, and it wasn't. He was upset {about the article} because he thought he had bought his rightful place in this community."

Some of Pollin's former employees also portray him as oblivious to the way he's perceived by others. "He likes people to think he is generous," says a former employee who had a falling out with Pollin and asked not to be named. "He likes to believe that everyone around him is deliriously happy, and he is an enormous conflict avoider. He goes on vacations constantly and is out of touch with his teams."

"He loves to be loved," says another former longtime employee, who also requested anonymity. "He's got 30 vice presidents for the Cap Centre when it could be run by two. But he wants them around because they are all of his old high school buddies." (Actually, Cap Centre has a dozen vice presidents. Only two of Pollin's high school chums are working at Cap Centre: Arnold Seigel operates the Telscreen and oversees the center's energy consumption; Hyman Perlo is a community relations executive. And Pollin says of the two former employees' criticism: "They don't know what they're talking about.")

Bob Ferry, the former Bullets general manager who worked for Pollin for nearly 20 years and who some say was eased out of his job by Pollin and coach Wes Unseld, says, "The big question to me is: The man owns two sports teams and says he is totally involved, but I always wondered -- if he didn't own the teams would he go watch them play? He's not a sports fan. He is a businessman interested in sports and anything else that can be done at the Capital Centre."

Bernard King, the Bullets star, defends his owner on this score. "Something a lot of people tend to miss is that he is a fan," King says. "They look to the business side of it. But Abe Pollin is a fan of basketball. And the enthusiasm of a fan comes out in him. And it comes out when he walks into the locker room and he grabs your hand and he gives you a bearhug. To let you know, as a fan, he's happy that we won this ballgame. And that's not just the owner, that's the fan Abe Pollin, and that's very personal."

What's more, King says, "He won a championship. Let's not forget that. I think that people tend to forget that very, very quickly. Not many teams in the NBA can say that they've won an NBA title." The Bullets won the title in 1978 with a memorable team led by Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge.

Pollin hates the widespread image of himself as a tightfisted businessman who is not a sports fan and is not willing to spend the money necessary to acquire the best players because he can still get a crowd -- and make a buck -- with mediocre teams. Many blame him for the high cost of parking; for the fact that Metro does not go to Capital Centre; for the fact that the arena is not in Washington.

Pollin swears that he's battled for a Metro stop near Capital Centre, and he says that his charges for parking are comparable to those at other NBA arenas.

Irene Pollin says she doesn't always like to go to games with her husband because fans will scream and even spit on him. "They tell him to his face that he's a cheapskate," she says.

Pollin calls the charge unfair. The only player he ever lost because of money, he says, is former Maryland basketball star Len Elmore, who got a bigger offer to play in the American Basketball Association. He did let onetime star Mitch Kupchak leave the team for a better offer from the Los Angeles Lakers, and there have been reports that he refused to trade for Ralph Sampson because he didn't think the former Virginia star was worth the multimillion-dollar contract Sampson had been given early in his career. But Kupchak broke his leg shortly after signing with the Lakers, effectively ending his career, and Pollin's judgment on Sampson proved correct.

According to Unseld, whose friendship with Pollin goes back a long way, Pollin has always been willing to pay for anyone Unseld wanted. "The problem is: There's a limited amount of talent," Unseld says.

Pollin's image was further muddied last spring when some of his hockey players were accused of raping a woman in a limousine outside a Georgetown bar. After an investigation, no charges were filed, but Pollin -- who took phone calls from the public to explain his position on not firing the players -- estimates that "a hundred or two at least, maybe more," canceled their season tickets.

When the incident occurred, Pollin spoke by phone with the players involved, as well as with people who were at the bar and wanted him to know what had happened. "The players made a bad mistake," says Pollin. "I was aware what happened, and after talking to the players I was prepared to forgive them, and I did forgive them. I was convinced there was no rape, absolutely."

"Without hearing the girl's side?" Pollin is asked.

"Without hearing the girl's side," he replies. "That's the way I went about it. I had enough information from people that I trusted and from some others . . . I had a pretty good idea of what happened, and I believed the players . . . I hire human beings who are athletes. Human beings first and athletes second. The kind of human beings they are is very important to me . . . I decided I would forgive them, and I did. And I stood by them."

FOR ABE POLLIN IN 1991, THERE'S AN irony in all the controversy. When he finally seems to be coming to terms with the loss of his children, he finds that the ventures he used to keep himself going all these years have earned him a reputation as a greedy man who runs mediocre teams.

To top it all off, Pollin -- a man who believes deeply in family, friends and loyalty -- finds that neither of his living children is interested in coming home to help him run the business. Robert, 40, recently took a look at some Capital Centre operations for the first time but is committed to his life as an economics professor at the University of Southern California. Jimmy, 33, has had almost nothing to do with the business, although recently he went to some NHL meetings. After several years of working as a porter for Amtrak and as a ticket agent for USAir, he is now back in school in New York, studying to be a journalist.

"I don't plan to leave him or the business hanging," says Robert Pollin. "I plan to stay in touch more, but I don't want to give up my professional work."

"We'll see how it goes," says Jimmy Pollin. "We're a close family, so I know what's going on . . . right now. Look, people pay their money and if they want to boo my dad or the teams, that's fine."

But it's not fine for Abe Pollin. Though he doesn't talk publicly about his personal losses, he can't understand why people don't see him as a man who has had to deal with so much pain, with so many people who doubted him, doubted that he could build a championship basketball team, build Capital Centre, get a hockey team and make it all work.

"If there is anything that would make me sell this team," Pollin says, talking about the Bullets, "it is the fans who boo us and root for the other teams. I can't get used to that. I hate it. That makes me want to just give it up."

But he consoles himself, bears down, finds ways to keep on going. And he likes to tell this story:

In late 1985, he went to Crisfield's seafood restaurant on Georgia Avenue for dinner. He was, as he often is, alone, seated by himself on one of the stools at the counter. A man walked up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Are you Abe Pollin?"

Pollin looked up, perhaps expecting a complaint about the Bullets or the Capitals. "Yes, I am," he replied.

"You don't know me," the man said, "but you changed my life."

Pollin recalls being puzzled.

"You built that Linda Pollin project, and I moved in there, and that's the first decent place we ever had to live," the man said. "That changed my life."

Abe Pollin pauses to let the anecdote sink in. It is a moving, uplifting, reassuring story in which the major loss in his life becomes a symbol of hope and reaffirmation. And the storyteller wants to savor the moment.