Irene Pollin’s new self-published memoir examines in detail both her personal life with husband Abe Pollin, and their shared lives as civic leaders in Washington. The book, which took six years to produce, examines many of the biggest moments in Washington sports history: the arrival of the Capitals, the NBA title won by the Bullets, the team’s subsequent trip to China, the opening of Verizon Center, the name change to the Wizards, and so on.
There are interesting details sprinkled throughout. Pollin writes that her husband seriously considered selling the Wizards to a group that wanted to move the franchise to Miami in the late ’60s, that Jack Kent Cooke was a powerful ally in helping the Pollins land an NHL franchise, and that Daniel Snyder had been interested in buying the Wizards before he acquired the Redskins.
One of the more notable passages comes near the end of the book — and of Abe’s life — when the Pollins began a short-lived but unforgettable partnership with Michael Jordan. That passage is reprinted here, with permission. It starts after Jordan had already taken control of the team’s basketball operations, amid great optimism.
While my health fairs were expanding all over the country, the Wizards did not improve under Michael Jordan. It was proving to be frustrating and embarrassing for him and us, the owners, given all the grandiose predictions, like the team would be at least at the .500 mark within a year or two. Sports writers were beginning to go after him for not delivering as promised, then for not “being on the job.”
They were reporting that he was “phoning in” his responsibilities, spending only about ten days of every month in D.C. They said Nike commercials, football games, gambling in the Bahamas and playing golf were taking precedence over the Wizards. Michael’s response was that he was about “winning, success, work ethic, giving everything I have.” Finally, responding to public pressure, he said he would come back and play himself. This was a grand gesture, but would it work?
Abe and Ted Leonsis found this idea appealing. They knew the tremendous fan and media support he had. It would certainly make things very exciting. It was agreed that Michael would return to uniform for a year or two. It was a quick fix. We knew that Michael would fill the stands and create frenzy among fans, which could only be good for the team. And indeed he did.
By 38, players are considered over the hill. But Michael Jordan over the hill was still an amazing spectacle to watch. Although plagued by injuries, he still led the team in points scored, and made history as the first 40-year old to tally 43 points in an NBA game. However, as a player, he wasn’t good for the team in other ways. When the team failed to improve, he drove the players hard, creating dissension. The coach he hired alienated many of the players, benching them for long periods of time. Young players were coming to Abe to complain. What at first glance had appeared to be an inspiring solution slowly began to disintegrate.
At the end of the season, Michael began admitting he’d made mistakes, but felt that he had grown as a manager and was now committed to coming back the following year and improving the team. He met with Abe to renegotiate his contract. He wanted to return as president of basketball operations, which would give him say on final draft choices, hirings and firings, and the formation of the roster. This would give him more control, but given his history — failing to make the playoffs, friction between him and some of the players and the coach he hired — there was a lot of skepticism among the owners. His new hires had raised questions about his abilities as a talent evaluator, and there were the questions of how much time he was spending on the job.
After many carefully thought-out meetings with senior staff and lawyers, Abe agreed to meet with Michael in his office. Knowing this would be a difficult meeting, his advisers suggested he tell Michael that he had “decided to go in a different direction.” They felt, after reviewing his performance, they had no choice. It was not personal. They all liked and admired Michael; it was purely business.
This was not what Michael expected. He was shocked. What followed was a heated discussion of what had and had not been promised. But after Abe repeated his decision “to go in a different direction,” Michael lost it. He became very angry and began shouting. At that point, Abe walked out of the room as Michael called him several unflattering names. Michael stormed out of the room, went down to the parking garage, jumped into his Mercedes convertible with Illinois license plates, took the top down, and drove directly back to Chicago.
Abe came home extremely shaken. In fact, I had never seen him so upset over team business. He never expected such a reaction. He’d always been a good negotiator. People always responded to him positively in those situations because he was “cool” and fair. This had never happened to him. It probably was a first for Michael as well. Nobody had probably said no to him in a long time.
During the following week, while we were taking a few days in Rehoboth, Abe was still visibly upset. As one of Michael Jordan’s biggest fans, I had a difficult time coming to terms with this situation. Life in professional sports can be extremely harsh at times; by now I understood this.