The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘My friend was shot’: How an assassin’s bullets in Israel changed an NBA team’s name in D.C.

Abe Pollin sports the cap of his newly renamed NBA team: the Washington Wizards. He changed the name from the Bullets as part of an anti-violence campaign. (Larry Morris/The Washington Post)

The crowd was still singing as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin walked offstage at a Tel Aviv peace rally. His motorcade was parked around the corner, through a throng of supporters waving flags bearing the Star of David, hailing the first progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace in a generation.

The songs continued. Rabin shook supporters’ hands. Then three shots rang out from the gun of a Jewish ultranationalist. Two bullets struck Rabin in the arm and back. He died in surgery later that night.

Within hours of the attack, news reached Abe Pollin, a Washington developer, owner of Washington’s National Basketball Association and National Hockey League teams, and Rabin’s close friend.

Israeli Prime Minister Rabin is killed

Not even a week after the prime minister’s death on Nov. 4, 1995, and four days after his funeral, Pollin declared his basketball team would no longer bear the name “Bullets,” the moniker the team had had for 32 years. Washington had endured a rash of drug- and gang-fueled gun violence in the early 1990s that made it one of the most deadly cities in the country. Now, to Pollin, the shooting epidemic looked worldwide.

“My friend was shot in the back by bullets,” he said, announcing his decision. “The name ‘Bullets’ is no longer appropriate for a sports team.”

The team he renamed the Wizards is now owned by Ted Leonsis and faces the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

As the country grapples with mass shootings at schools and churches and country music concerts, businesses of all stripes — retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, airlines such as Delta, car rental agencies such as Enterprise — continue to navigate what guns mean to their brand.

For Pollin, who died in 2009, the answer was clear. He purchased the Bullets in 1964 after he and his wife, Irene, endured a year of personal tragedy. Their daughter, Linda, died at age 16 after surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.

Three months later, Irene’s father died of a heart attack the day before his grandson’s bar mitzvah. Irene’s sister was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had to be hospitalized. Her mother died of a heart attack eight months after her father.

To cope, Abe Pollin bought the Baltimore Bullets, whose motto, “faster than a speeding bullet,” mirrored the team’s style of play. He moved them to Washington nine years later.

“The team was a distraction,” Irene Pollin said in a 2016 Washington Post profile. “It was a great distraction.”

By the 1990s, the Bullets were among the NBA’s most stable franchises, albeit one of the least successful. Washington had gone eight years without a winning season leading up to 1995.

Before Rabin’s assassination, front-office executives said the team would probably get a new logo and uniforms before moving into the new arena, a ploy to goose lagging merchandise sales.

But even by May 1995, at the end of a season in which the Bullets lost 61 of 82 games, Pollin mused the team might get a new nickname over the summer, too.

“We haven’t made a final decision,” he told The Post’s Richard Justice. “In the old days, our motto was ‘Faster than a speeding Bullet.’ That’s how we were envisioned in Baltimore. Today the connotation is a little different. It’s connected with so many horrible things that people do with guns and bullets. I don’t know. We’re considering it. We’ll make a decision this summer.”

Not everyone bought the sentiment behind the proposal.

“Most people wouldn’t be caught dead — excuse the expression — in Bullets paraphernalia,” wrote Washington Times columnist Tom Knott.

“Personally, I think the association between the name of the local basketball team and horrible things that people do with guns is a reach. Me? I’d keep the name Bullets. But I can understand Pollin’s growing uneasiness,” Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote. “And if there’s ever a time to change it, now would be that time, what with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard aboard and new uniforms and a new downtown arena in the works.”

But Pollin hadn’t decided, or at least hadn’t announced, plans for a name change before Rabin was shot dead. He flew to Jerusalem for the funeral, along with dozens of heads of state.

President Bill Clinton delivered the eulogy. “Shalom chaver” — in English, “Goodbye friend” — Clinton said to Rabin.

Investigators recovered lyrics to the song “Shir LaShalom” or “Song for Peace,” which the crowd at the rally sang as Rabin left the stage, in the prime minister’s pocket stained with his blood.

“Don’t say the day will come/ Bring the day about,” the final verse begins, translated from Hebrew to English. “And in all the city squares/ Cheer for peace!”

Pollin returned to Washington and almost immediately declared the team would drop the “Bullets” nickname.

“If I save one life, make a change in one life,” he said, “it’ll be worth it.”

Read more Retropolis:

‘That stain of bloodshed’: After King’s assassination, RFK calmed an angry crowd with an unforgettable speech

‘As crazy as it was’: Reporters recall the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan feeding frenzy

The world’s first Olympic ice queen became a Hollywood star — and a Hitler admirer

A woman atop the CIA was once unthinkable. But female spies have always been remarkable.