The night the Bullets flew home with the National Basketball Association championship in June 1978, the pilot of their chartered jet summoned owner Abe Pollin to the cockpit. Thousands of people are going crazy at Dulles, he said. They're blocking traffic, wreaking havoc.
"He wanted my permission to divert the flight," Pollin said. "I said, 'Hell, no. This city has waited 36 years for a championship, and I've waited 15. We're going to Dulles.' "
When the Bullets retired Wes Unseld's number 3 1/2 years later, Pollin was booed and heckled as he spoke on the floor of the arena he built. "I was one, surprised; two, disappointed; and three, understanding," he said.
"They hurt him that night," said Chip Reed, former director of marketing at Capital Centre. "I would have been embarrassed to be there."
Without him, Washington could count its major league franchises on its ring finger. "He was like the great messiah in Washington," said Bullet guard Kevin Grevey. "Now, all of a sudden, things are at the boiling point. Not just because of the steady decline of the Capitals and the recent decline of the Bullets. He seems to be getting it from all sides."
For a while, relations with the media were strained. Pollin was incommunicado for eight months. His wife Irene said she told him, "I think you owe that -- (availability to the media) -- to the public. You have a public trust. People buy tickets and subscriptions to things. They feel they need to know what's going on."
Pollin broke his silence on Nov. 11 at a press conference naming the new coach of the Capitals. He got some things off his chest. He said that he had rejected some offers for the teams and the Capital Centre, and that he would consider "a proposition backed by the right numbers and the right people."
To many people that meant, as former Bullet Mitch Kupchak puts it, "He's thinking of it."
Others say there is no question that he wants to sell.
But his wife says, "He doesn't know himself, so how could they know?"
The teams "are not his toys," Kupchak says, "they're his life."
Pollin says: "The teams are not for sale. What I said then is what I say now. If somebody, the right party, brings the right kind of deal here, it will be considered . . . There are some people who are talking to us (now), but nothing that I would say is imminent."
"I have had some thoughts about whether I should change," he says. But that's nothing new; he's done it before. "I've been going through the thought process for a few years. It isn't something that just happened this month."
It began before his heart surgery in early 1980, prompted, he says, by "the passing of time."
If he sells, it will be for a number of reasons, personal and financial. "If one of my sons, or both my sons, were interested in it, obviously that would be a consideration," Pollin says. But his sons aren't interested.
He says the thrill is still there. If there is any restlessness, his wife says, "it is with struggling with the same problem over and over and over again." If there is a part of him that feels, as some of his friends do -- "what does he need this for? He's done it already" -- there is also the part that responds to a challenge.
Right now, his teams are a challenge to him if not always to other teams. "He's tired of it until there is some adversity," said Bob Ferry, the Bullets' general manager. "When Mitch (Kupchak) signed with the Lakers, I was down in the dumps. Abe called and said, 'We're going to turn a negative into a positive. We're going to show we can build a competitive team, and we're going to do it our way.' Suddenly, I saw the Abe that built the Capital Centre. It was like he was reborn again as a competitor."
When Pollin was 8 years old, he would borrow a quarter from his mother and sit in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium. "It was very hot out there," he says. "I looked over at the (owners') box and said, 'Someday, I'd like to sit over there. In the shade. I'd like to be closer to the action.' "
And closer to the players. Five days after his back surgery, Mitch Kupchak was in bed, feeling down, and waiting for another hospital meal. "Abe Pollin walked in carrying a little white bag with two hot pastrami sandwiches and a couple of beers," Kupchak said. "I don't know how he knew I loved hot pastrami, and I sure did need a beer. He killed an hour and a half talking to me."
Now, Grevey says, "He is starting to take a more aloof-type role with the team . . . You unconsciously look over at his box seats to see if he and Irene are there. He's there less and less. There are obvious reasons. His health. And when you're losing, you can point a finger or you can stay away."
Pollin is a private man, particularly in regard to his finances. He says he still owns "a couple of buildings" other than Capital Centre, including The Irene, an apartment complex in Chevy Chase, which is assessed by Montgomery County at $22,604,100. He is considering putting an office building on property he owns near Indiana Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets.
Capital Centre is built on land leased from the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, which receives 1 percent of the Centre's annual gross receipts. According to an accounting report submitted to the commission, the Centre grossed $20,802,094 during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1981 ($13,110,258 from admissions). Informed sources estimate that Capital Centre netted between $2 1/2 million and $3 million last year.
Pollin declined comment.
The lease on Capital Centre specifies that Pollin cannot sell the Centre without the permission of the Parks and Planning Commission. According to Thomas Countee, executive director of the commission, no such request has been made.
The lease also stipulates that at the end of 40 years (after the initial 20-year lease and two potential 10-year extensions have expired), the building automatically becomes the property of the commission. Pollin can sell the lease-hold on the building only for the duration of the lease, which his attorney, Peter O'Malley, says could affect its market value.
The current assessed market value of the Centre, according to the Prince George's County Department of Assessment, is $18,563,620, a conservative figure that will be revised upward in December.
The terms of the permanent financing agreement on the building, a $20 million bond from the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America, specify that the franchises cannot be moved from Capital Centre. That means, as Pollin explained, that the teams cannot be moved without defaulting on the loan.
Those who believe Pollin wants to get out of the sports business are not convinced that he wants to sell the arena. He is proud of it.
Pollin says Capital Centre has "outdone all the projections about the number of events, the kind of events, the profits and numbers of people we would get here."
The Centre also has a reputation for being very tough in negotiations with managers of concerts and other events, says Reed, the Centre's former marketing director.
Mike Trainer, Sugar Ray Leonard's lawyer, says he found it strange that he could get better deals out of town than he could at the Centre. "Their attitude is that the Capital Centre is the only place in the area," Trainer said. "They negotiate from a position that they are a leg up, that you're not going to make as much money anywhere else."
Pollin says he does not like losing, and he does not like losing money. He has called the Capitals the major failure of his business career. "The 'why' is very simple," he said. "When I got into this business, I'd never seen a hockey game. That's no secret. I got the franchise in order to be able to build this building. I've since grown to like hockey very much."
He was a novice. He hired Milt Schmidt to be general manager. "Milt was a fine gentleman," Pollin said, "but unfortunately, you don't build franchises when you bypass draft choices like Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gilles (all of the Islanders). So the 'why' is that management-wise, we did some very dumb things."
Now, he says, "I know a lot more about the people in the league and the players in the league. I am much more involved with the decisions."
Basketball is a different matter. "He may have been in the sports business, the NBA, too long," says Lang, Grevey's agent. "He remembers when players made $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 a year. He remembers when the locker room attitude was the same as exists in high school or college athletics. He remembers the NBA before it became big business and before the players became professionals . . .
"Abe Pollin's idea of salary structure is much different from the rest of the clubs in the league. Either he is unable to gauge the marketplace correctly or he is unwilling to compete within it," Lang says.
Pollin replies emphatically, "If he thinks the game has passed me by, he doesn't know what he's talking about."
Just because "it's different," Pollin said, "doesn't mean I can't deal with it."
Pollin is not likely to give anyone a 25-year contract, at $1 million a year. He believes that "just going out and buying players will not bring a winning team, no matter how many millions (you spend)."
But, he says, "Whatever it takes to do (the job) in the marketplace, we're prepared to do (it), just like everybody else . . . Whatever's reasonable, whatever has to be done, can and will be done."
"He is trying to be realistic," said Red Auerbach, general manager of the Celtics and one of the toughest salary negotiators in the league. "He doesn't pay that bad. He pays pretty damn good."
According to Larry Fleisher, the head of the NBA Players Association, last year the Bullets were in the top half of the league in average salary; now they are near the bottom.
Fleisher is the agent who negotiated Kupchak's deal with the Lakers (reportedly for a seven-year, $400,000-a-year playing contract and a seven-year, $325,000-a-year service contract). Pollin says, "I just felt, under no circumstances was Mitch worth the kind of money that he was offered by Los Angeles, and nobody else in the league felt it, either."
Both Kupchak and Grevey say they were surprised that the Bullets made no attempt to sign them before the end of last season; both say they could have been signed. Grevey, who wanted to stay in Washington, said, "If I was a part of the Bullet family, I felt like an unwanted son. They never called to say, 'We want to negotiate.' Bob Ferry told my agent, 'We think Kevin should get what he got last year.' So we went ahead and got an offer."
The Bullets ended up matching the offer Grevey got from Indiana, reportedly $350,000 a year for four years, plus incentives. "They took a gamble and lost Mitch," Grevey said. "They ended up signing me for a little over what they were willing to offer." Pollin declined to discuss either negotiation.
Dr. Jerry Buss -- the renegade owner of the Lakers whose profligate ways make Pollin uneasy -- says the problem is "the gates have passed Abe by." How can he compete with me, Buss asks, "how can he keep Kupchak, when he's grossing $2 1/2 million to $3 million (for basketball) and I'm grossing $7 million?"
Pollin says Buss' estimation of his gross is too low, but he does not dispute the fact that the Washington market is difficult. "Most everybody in this town has come from somewhere else," he said. "Many of their loyalties are back home where they came from. It takes a long time for a sports franchise in this area to achieve the kind of support that is available in most other cities. I think we're getting there. I don't think we've gotten what we hoped."
The problem in Washington, Buss said, is that "everybody expects free tickets . . . They owe Abe a huge debt of gratitude. They ought to have an Abe Pollin Day at the Capital Centre and fill it up just once."
Pollin says he already feels appreciated. Still, he says, perhaps remembering how an 8-year-old boy felt sitting in the bleachers in Griffith Stadium, "If I were one of the other guys, just sitting on the sidelines, and Joe Smith had done what I had done, I'd come up to him and say, 'Thank you.' "