Washington owes Abe Pollin a lot. Soon, we may owe him even more--the very Air we breathe. But Abe Pollin owes Washington, too.
The Wizards' owner is acutely aware of the first proposition. These days, he seems to be focusing on the latter proposition, too. Just as this area has honored and supported him for years, including in the down times, he's considering our wishes now. The Wizards are his team. But they are not his team alone. They're our team, too. We want Mike. And, apparently, Abe does, too.
If, as now seems possible, the Wizards can get Michael Jordan to join the team as head of basketball operations, and eventually assume a role in ownership, too, then it would be a windfall for the city, the fans and the franchise. Yesterday, Jordan and Pollin continued to work toward a deal. An agreement in principle was reached, according to Post sources. Everybody in town should be on the same page on this one. Especially Pollin, who brought the team here 26 years ago and has led it every day since then. He's the key player.
The NBA has been pushing the involvement of Jordan for an ownership stake in several franchises. The league appears to be on the verge of getting its fondest wish--Jordan back in the game, even if he's not on the court. For Washington, Jordan's arrival here would qualify for some higher category than "fond wish." Perhaps "hoop fantasy." However, Jordan--who is welcome in virtually every boardroom on earth--isn't going to come to any town if he doesn't feel entirely wanted.
For this city, there's only one sensible position on getting Jordan here:
We should be so lucky.
Would Jordan be good in the job? Or would he flop? After all, he's not perfect. He couldn't hit a curveball. Come on, who cares? The Wizards haven't left a ripple in the NBA in 20 years. Where is the downside?
There is none.
Ever since Pollin sold the Capitals and a right-of-first-refusal on the Wizards to Ted Leonsis and Jonathan Ledecky for about $200 million last year, everyone has asked the same questions. When will Pollin step aside? When will the next generation take over? And will they do something dramatic--like, for instance, get Jordan to come aboard?
When you've accomplished as much, and been as generous, as Pollin, you don't appreciate people asking constantly, "When are you going to sell?" Nobody wants to feel like they are being elbowed toward the door. Nonetheless, Pollin has a responsibility to his fans as well as to himself; no one knows this more than Abe.
This town is well aware of its debt to Pollin. We owe him for bringing the NBA and the NHL to his home town long ago. We owe him for the US Airways Arena, which was state-of-the-art when it was new, and for MCI Center, which is gorgeous right now. We owe him for the Bullets' world title in 1978 and for the visits to the finals by the Bullets in 1975 and 1979 and by the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. We're also in his debt for his philanthropy and his good works in the community.
However, pro sports is a two-way street. Pollin paid a lot of NBA and NHL salaries for a lot of years. But where did that money come from? Much of it came from the fans' pockets, through Pollin's hands, to his players. Fans paid the freight for the free agents and the high draft picks, many of whom couldn't play a lick.
Pollin's net worth has increased since he laid the cornerstone of Capital Centre. He earned it. But, in one form or another, we're also part of that growth. Like Leonsis and Ledecky, we're his partners, too. This isn't just about Abe--his feelings, legacy and prerogatives.
Close as they seem to be, the Wizards might still not bag Jordan. It's not over until the bald guy signs on the dotted line. It's doubtful a person as proud, and image conscious, as Jordan would pick up that pen unless Pollin is perceived--publicly and privately in Jordan's own eyes--as being genuinely enthusiastic.
Pollin had a public spat with Jordan during a player-owner meeting during the 1999 labor dispute. They made up. But many remember. Jordan's agent, David Falk, has been the nemesis of Pollin and General Manager Wes Unseld in contract battles for years. Unseld is like family to Pollin. If Jordan became head of basketball operations, whether Pollin or Leonsis were owner, some of Pollin's favorite longtime employees might soon be in different jobs. Of course, maybe they ought to be.
No matter how you look at it, Pollin will have to be a big man to take the high road now. But he can do it. He's done wonderful things before. This area would be in his debt once more if, instead of being defensive, Pollin would roll out the welcome mat for, perhaps, the most popular athlete of the last century.
As Jordan and the Wizards try to turn that agreement in principle into an agreement in reality, Pollin should say, "What a great idea." Lots of issues would have to be solved, including the Pollin and Falk camps learning to live together in peace. Maybe now Pollin might want to leave sooner than he might prefer. But what's so bad about that if it's great for the franchise and the town that he's always loved? Hopefully, Pollin is as enthusiastic about a Jordan Era as Wizards fans, who have stuck with his teams for so long.
These days, Pollin has many conflicting considerations crowding his mind. The one that should take precedence, especially for a businessman of his principled reputation: The customer is always right.
What could be better than being the man who brought an NBA team, an NHL team, a WNBA team, an NBA title and two great arenas to Washington? One final act would fit nicely among those accomplishments: Being the man who saw the big picture and brought Michael Jordan to Washington.
CAPTION: Do you want Michael Jordan on your team? That one should be a slam dunk for the Wizards.
CAPTION: Abe Pollin has owned franchise since he bought Baltimore Bullets in 1964.