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.
“I know my boss, my mentor and friend is looking down on us, wishing us the best for ourselves and our families,” said Handleman, who worked for Pollin for 35 years.
Pollin also was fiercely loyal to the NBA, according to league commissioner David Stern.
“If you asked Abe to do anything for the league, he would do it,” Stern said. “He could never say no. … It was fun to watch.”
Pollin spent the final years of his life bound to a wheelchair, his body wracked by a debilitating palsy that affected his movement and speech. But his mind and spirit remained strong, friends said. Rabbi Bruce Lustig compared Pollin’s experience to that of artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who was crippled by arthritis but continued to paint.
“The pain passes, but the beauty remains,” Lustig said, quoting Renoir.
Many players and employees told personal stories.
“He treated everyone with dignity and respect, no matter what situation in life we were in,” said Kenny Burns, who worked as an arena staff member since 1973 under Pollin.
Hall of Fame Bullets player Earl Monroe recalled the time Pollin placed a cheesesteak in his locker before a game, knowing Monroe had played well the night before after eating one. Monroe said he recently thought of calling Pollin but said he felt uncomfortable going through a family or staff member.
“I felt strange not being able to call directly… then I heard about his passing,” Monroe said. “For all of us, we should keep in our minds the things we want to do because we may never get to do them again.”