Wes Unseld struggled to recall whether Abe Pollin ever officially fired him as coach of the Washington Bullets. He could only remember a conversation in which the two men broke down in tears and swore to remain close.
That was Pollin’s way of doing things according to friends, relatives and fans who spoke fondly of the Wizards owner, who died Nov. 24 at age 85. Hundreds gathered Tuesday at Verizon Center to recall Pollin’s legacy as an owner, family man and philanthropist.
“Are we to be sad at this occasion? I think not. Because this man lived what I think was a great life,” Unseld said.
Attorney Tiffany Alston spoke of the day Pollin entered her fifth-grade classroom in Seat Pleasant and promised the group of students he would pay for their college education if they graduated from high school.
“All of us have gone on to do well because of his investment in us,” Alston said. “He told us all we had to do is work hard and follow our dreams and we could be whatever we want to be. … It has truly changed our lives.”
Pollin’s son, Robert, spoke on behalf of the family.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the expressions of love and sympathy we’ve received,” Robert Pollin said. “My father cared deeply about all of you. He talked about you all of the time.”
Pollin bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1964 and moved them to Landover in 1973 after building the Capital Centre. He moved the team to the District in 1997, changing the team name from Bullets to Wizards and citing his concerns about being associated with gun violence.
Pollin was also the owner of the Washington Capitals and Washington Mystics until 1999.
To many city officials, he is best known as the builder of Verizon Center, now hailed as a catalyst for the redevelopment of a once-neglected part of downtown.
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty on Tuesday read a proclamation thanking Pollin for his contributions to the city. D.C. Council member Vincent Gray announced that the city’s high school basketball title game, played in Verizon Center, will be renamed in his honor.
“It’s appropriate that this service is being held in the house that Abe built,” Gray said. “He was larger than life with a heart as big as this arena. … Thank you for being such a great man and visionary. This city will never forget you.”
His philanthropic spirit continued Tuesday as Fenty announced the start of construction on 125 new homes to be set aside as workforce housing for D.C. residents. The $35 million project will be funded with funds from Abe Pollin’s grantor trust and Enterprise Homes and named in honor of two of Pollin’s children, Linda Joy and Kenneth Jay, who died at a young age.
Gary Handleman, Verizon Center’s president of facilities, noted that 131 workers have been with the Wizards’ organization for more than 20 years. Another 22 have been there for more than 30, a testament to Pollin’s compassionate management style.