He names buildings after his kids, his wife. The Robert, The James, The Irene. "Embarrassingly sentimental," his wife Irene says.
When Mitch Kupchak left to join the Lakers, "we hugged," said Abe Pollin, "we cried."
Pollin will be 58 on Dec. 3. He had quadruple bypass surgery almost two years ago. He misses the salt on his pretzels.
He is private -- pathologically private, one associate says. Cautious. Conservative. And a bit thin-skinned.
He is a toughie and a soft touch. He is loyal, honest and true to himself. His ears stick out like a boy scout who's just had a haircut.
The walls of his Capital Centre office are covered with plaques, grown-up merit badges that attest to his generosity and community spirit. "He has a need to be known as a good guy," his wife says. "And he is a good guy."
Pollin owns the Bullets, the Capitals and Capital Centre. For eight months this year, he was incommunicado. George Steinbrenner, he's not. Ask him the biggest difference between them and he sputters. The gap is too wide to articulate.
Don't call him a mogul. "Mogul is a bad word," he said. "It has the connotation of a big guy with a fat cigar and a big belly. It doesn't fit me at all."
He is rich and powerful and seemingly uncomfortable with any acknowledgment of his situation. He cuts a modest figure. "He can't shoot, pass or dribble," said former Bullet star Wes Unseld. "He would have made a good manager of a high school team. He could pick up the towels."
If you can't lick'em, buy'em. "Be part of'em," Pollin insists.
People who work with and for Pollin say it is difficult to get close to him. He is available, accessible, but largely unknowable, they say. "Basically," said Max McNab, former general manager of the Capitals, "he is a very private person caught in a business that is not private."
"'Private' -- that's a good word," says Irene Pollin, who is as vivacious as her husband is reserved. Why? She smiles at the question. "I'm not his analyst," she says. "I'm his wife."
(She is, in fact, a psychiatric social worker and the director of a medical crisis counseling center.)
Pollin is disappointed to hear that people feel that he is difficult to get close to. "I like to know people," he says, "and I like people to know me." But that's not easy. Friends and associates are protective. They preface statements about him by saying, "I shouldn't tell you this, but . . . " or "I can't, it's personal."
His father told me the story many times: how he came over in steerage with his mother and some of his brothers and sisters; how World War I had just started and the vessel was stopped on the high seas. "They stood still not knowing whether they would go back to where they came from," Pollin said. "After three days, the boat was allowed to continue. He came to New York, Ellis Island, and one of the immigration officers asked his name. He was 16 and couldn't speak any English, and he said the name was Pollinovsky. And the guy said, 'I can't say that, your name now is Pollin.'"
In 1947, his father took him to a meeting on K Street. There were guards outside and 30 or 40 people inside raising money to buy the Exodus, a boat that took Jewish refugees to Palestine. Thirty-one years later, Pollin, who is deeply committed to Israel, took his team to the Promised Land after the team took him to the championship.
He took the players to the Wailing Wall, where they all wore yarmulkes, to the holocaust museum and to the Martin Luther King Jr. Forest, where they all planted trees.
"He's so pure in some of his thinking," said Bob Ferry, Bullet general manager. "He probably never had the conscious thought, 'I'm taking a predominantly black, Southern Baptist team to Israel.' He took people."
"I wanted them to see Israel," Pollin said. "And I wanted to see them seeing Israel through my eyes."
For some owners, sports is an extension of their ego; Pollin's teams are an extension of his family. You can scoff, as some do, about the "Bullet family," but there is an undeniable and essentially sad truth to it.
In 1952, Kenneth Pollin, one the Pollin's four children, died four months after undergoing heart surgery. He was 13 months old. In 1963, Linda Pollin, the eldest child, died of congenital heart disease two weeks after surgery. She was 16.
After Linda's death, her father did two things. He built the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing Project in Southeast Washington, with three and four-bedroom apartments to accommodate familes with children, and he bought into the Baltimore Bullits. "He was very depressed at the time," Irene Pollin says. "We both were. I think he saw it as a way of bringing himself out of his depression. I think he thought it would help the family."
Pollin says, "You never get over it. Not one day goes by that you get over it, because a part of you dies."
When he had his surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, very few people at Capital Centre knew. "I was at a George Washington basketball game and this photographer came up to me and said, "How's Abe?'" Ferry recalled. "I said, 'Fine, he's on vacation.' The guy said, 'No, he's not. He's in Cleveland for open-heart surgery.' I later found out one of the biggest reasons was because he didn't want his mother to know."
Two children dead after heart surgery, and now it was his turn to have heart surgery. You bet he thought about it. But it wasn't that he was overly frightened -- if his surgeon was "good enough for King Khalid" of Saudi Arabia, "he was good enough for me," the son of an immigrant.
"When you've lost two children after heart surgery and then you have it and make it, it leads to some questions . . . The question I keep asking myself is why I made it and they didn't. That doesn't seem fair to me.
"Have I changed? I think I see life's priorities differently somewhat."
"One side of successful people is that they drive themselves awfully hard," said Robert Pierpoint, a CBS correspondent and an old friend. "I think Abe does that. Something has to suffer. Maybe it's your body."
Heart surgery suggests that; so does his bad back. As a teen-ager, he worked for his father during summers. Once, for three days, he carried bathtubs that were much too heavy for him rather than admit that the boss' son couldn't do it.
"He was strong," Pollin said, pointing to a picture of his father on his office wall. "Very physically powerful."
And a powerful influence on his son. "I think there was a sort of competition" between them, Irene Pollin says.
Pollin is a competitor. He didn't quit the building business until "there wasn't anything else I had left to prove." And when "everybody said this thing (Capital Centre) couldn't get done, I had to prove that it was going to get done and on the day I said it was going to get done."
He put himself and $18 million on the line. Peter O'Malley, one of Pollin's lawyers, said, "He has that special quality that when we were little we thought belonged to America -- the desire to achieve, the free-enterprise, go-get-it, I-can-do-it spirit."
A minority partner in the Capitals agreed to talk, but only if his name were not used. "Abe Pollin," the man said, "is the most unbelievably fair, honorable man I've ever met. At the beginning of last year, Abe went to all the partners and said we had to come up with more money to keep the Caps going. He wrote a letter that said, 'I asked you all in. I thought we'd make a lot of money, and have a terrific thing. But it's really been nothing but an awful experience, and I'm really feeling awful about it. But we've got to come up with more money if we're going to keep it going.'
"I guess we had lost $1 million (in 1979). We all went down to the bank and got a letter of credit. He never called it. He has to have lost another $1 million (in 1980)."
For that you want anonymity? "He's made it clear he dosen't want people saying things about him, pro or con. And I don't want to get on his bad side," the partner said.
His bad side? "I'd say he has difficulty taking criticism," says Arnold Heft, a former partner in the Bullets and a minority partner in Capital Centre.
He takes things personally and does things personally. K.C. Jones, the former Bullet coach, remembers finding Pollin on the Capital Centre floor one night sweeping up. "Down there with the janitors," he said.
Pollin also "personalizes dealings too much," says Scott Lang, an agent who has negotiated contracts with the Bullets for years. "What he has a tendency to do is put issues in categories," Lang says. "There is no gray area. It's either right or wrong. During contract negotiations and crisis situations that can do a lot of damage to player-management relations."
Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association, said, "I don't think you'll find a club owner in the league -- aside from negotiations -- that the players like more than him. That's probably because what is a negative in negotiations -- the personalizing of everyting -- becomes a positive in personal relationships, a very close feeling."
It's as if the attitude is, "we're part of a family, we've all been together and helped each other," Fleisher said. The team seems to feel that "it should be the obligation of the player to go along with the family concept. If he becomes a free agent, he should recognize the years he has been part of the team, forget his rights in negotiation, his ability to make more money. He should be obligated to play for the Bullets."
Pollin's life is a sentimental journey -- from son of an immigrant plumber to millionaire builder (whose contribution to the landscape includes the first rooftop swimming pool) to sports entrepreneur. It began in 1914, nine years before his birth, when his parents left their home in a small town in Russia to come to America and see whether the streets were paved with gold.
Pollin's father -- now dead -- who became the biggest heating and plumbing contractor in town, taught him it is a duty to give if you can, what you can. Hymie Perlo, the director of community relations for the Capital Centre, says Pollin gives away $200,000 in free admissions each year, including 700-1000 tickets to 31 Bullet home games.
When Marc Splaver, the former Bullets publicist, died of leukemia, Pollin flew the entire organization to his funeral, then announced his intention to help build "the Marc Splaver Center" at American University, Splaver's alma mater. But the plans fell through. "I was going to be the main fund-raiser. I spent a lot of my own money on preliminary designs," he said. Then he went into the hospital for surgery. When he came out, things had changed. "They (university administrators) were concerned that if I failed (to raise the money), it would be negative for the future. I was not about to fail. They came back and said they might name the center after somebody else. I got upset and withdrew. I feel very badly about it. I made a commitment to his parents."
L. Victor Atchison, American University's vice president in charge of development, said there was some confusion about who would have the major fund-raising responsibility, Pollin or the university, and the university became "concerned whether they should commit themselves to the project.
Pollin is a sucker for children. Several years ago, Unseld told Pollin that he and his wife were opening a day-care center in Baltimore. They had bought a building, but needed to have it renovated. One day, Unseld said, a man arrived at the site with dump trucks and earth-moving equipment and said, "Abe sent me."
Pollin's engineer finished the job in a month and a half. "Never got a bill," Unseld said.