The Steele Drum

November 24, 2009 7:16 PM

D.C. to Abe Pollin: Thank You

Thumbnail image for wes and abe 2.jpgIt's an extremely sad day for D.C. overall and its sports fans in particular. Abe Pollin died this afternoon. The fact that so many people in the area feel this so deeply tells you how set apart Pollin is from not only the average major sports team owner, but from almost any owner you can name.


Think about it: how much would you really mourn, besides what you normally would for the end of a person's life, if your team's owner passed away?


Even merely listing what he meant to D.C. does him a grave disservice. Pollin owned the Bullets literally my entire life (he bought them when they were in Baltimore in 1964). He was the one who built the Capital Centre, with his money and not the public's, and moved the team there from Baltimore. He gave D.C. its first championship of my lifetime and the first since the 1940s, when the Bullets won it all in 1978. He's the one who brought the Capitals to Washington and was the owner during its laughable expansion years and in the years it created so many great playoff moments in the 1980s. He was the one who later built the MCI Center (eventually Verizon Center), putting both teams in downtown D.C., finally, where they belonged - and while doing it with his own money, again, he magically created a thriving area surrounding the building the same way Camden Yards revived the harbor in Baltimore.


And he might have been the most generous human being of my lifetime. He leaves this earth a rich man, but he gave back over and over and over again with hands-on charitable work and insanely huge donations. His money, time and commitment fed people, clothed people, schooled people and housed people who otherwise might not have had any of those. In fact, down the street from where we lived for several years in Southeast D.C. was a public housing complex named for a daughter who had died young. Everybody in that area, everybody who went to St. Thomas More and all the other schools around there, knew about Linda Pollin, and it's a sure bet that a lot of the people who lived there were better off than other places in Southeast they might have resided.


The only times anyone ever had anything bad to say about him was when the Bullets or Caps didn't win, which happened a lot. He was sentimental and loyal, sometimes (very occasionally, in the realm of basketball operations) to a fault. But no one could ever say he didn't care about winning, or care about the city and keeping the teams in town; you know a lot of fans can't say that. He and Michael Jordan butted heads twice, once when they were adversaries during the NBA lockout in 1998-99, once when Pollin fired Jordan after having turned the franchise over to him, so boldly, years later. It's hard to fault Pollin on either move, in the moment or in hindsight. Especially when Pollin then shook up the way the Wizards ran things immediately afterward, by hiring, among others, head coach Eddie Jordan - a D.C. native, who helped break the long playoff drought.


There were All-Star games at Cap Centre and at then-MCI, and walking into the downtown arena in 2001 reminded me of all the years of going to Cap Centre, and how much I had hoped during those years that one day the team would actually be Washington's. Even now, I get nostalgic when I visit the shopping area on the site where Cap Centre once stood, even though it was out of the way, hard to get to, too far from Metro and, in later years, a tad obsolete. But once upon a time, the arena with the Pringles chip-shaped roof and the groundbreaking "TeleScreen'' - imagine that, a video screen above the court! - was the place to be.


Abe Pollin also had the stones to go against the grain and stand up against the forces of both conformity and insensitivity - when he changed the name of the team from "Bullets'' to "Wizards.'' It was back when the murder rate caused many to dub D.C. "Dodge City.'' It also was when longtime friend and former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. No more association with weapons, gunfire, violence and death, Pollin said, no matter how innocuous the nickname's origins. The world kept revolving, jerseys kept selling, and when the team started winning in its new building, no one cared what the nickname was.


If only a certain other racist-nicknamed D.C. team had that kind of vision. Pollin made Washington proud.


I'll never forget June 7, 1978, the night the Bullets beat Seattle in Game 7 to win the NBA championship. I'll remember the photo on the front of the Washington Post the next morning, of Wes Unseld hugging Pollin in the locker room. I'll remember watching the championship parade, and when I was lucky enough to see my other favorite teams win championships later - the Redskins three times, Georgetown once, even Maryland basketball - I always put the Bullets in a special place because they were the first.


Pollin's presence is stamped all over those memories, as it should be for everybody who rooted for a team - or simply existed - in D.C. the last half-century or so.


I'll miss him. There will never be another like him. He really did my hometown proud. Hope your favorite team's owner can, will, does do the same for you and your town.

(Photo: The Washington Post)


A Member Of