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D.C. sports icon, Wizards owner Pollin dies

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Abe Pollin, longtime owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team and one of the area's leading philanthropists, died on Tuesday. He was 85.

Mr. Pollin's company, Washington Sports & Entertainment, announced his death but provided no details. Mr. Pollin, the company's chairman, had been confined to a wheelchair in recent years because of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that impairs movement and balance. He also underwent heart bypass surgery in 2005 and suffered a broken pelvis in 2007.

Mr. Pollin remained mentally sharp, but his brain disease forced him to give up his active lifestyle and rely on a cart to ride the halls of the Verizon Center. He and his wife, Irene, established a $1 million research fund in 2008 at the Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy in hopes of finding a cure.

Over his years in the District, Mr. Pollin won a National Basketball Association championship, took the city's hockey team to its only Stanley Cup final, built two arenas, helped revitalize part of downtown, hired and fired the world's most famous basketball player and performed innumerable acts of charity.

Shortly after Mr. Pollin's death was announced, NBA Commissioner David Stern said, "With Abe Pollin's passing, the NBA family has lost its most revered member, whose stewardship of the Wizards franchise, together with his wife, Irene, has been a study in unparalleled dedication to the city of Washington. During his illness he fought with a determination and valor that will remain an inspiration to all."

During a pregame moment of silence at a somber Verizon Center on Tuesday night, before the Wizards' 108-107 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, images of Mr. Pollin from throughout the years flashed on the Jumbotron. One of the images showed Mr. Pollin hugging center Wes Unseld, just moments after winning their NBA championship in 1978.

Mr. Unseld, who later coached the basketball team and remained with the organization for years, said Mr. Pollin will forever be remembered as much more than just an owner.

"I just lost a really, really good friend," said Mr. Unseld, who attended last night's game. "I think it's more than any of you will understand or I could explain. It's going to be a big void in sports and this community as well. The type of person he was, Mr. Pollin was a tremendous competitor.

"I wanted to win because it made me look good, and I could renegotiate contracts. He wanted to win because he was a competitor and for what it gave to other people and gave them a sense of pride. He was different, and he followed that every day for the 40 years I knew him."

After being inducted into the Sports Executives Hall of Fame at George Washington University, his alma mater, in March 2009, Mr. Pollin expressed his wish to remain with the Wizards, at the time ranked last in the Eastern Conference, until they reached the top again.

"We're going to continue working until I quit," he said. "And I'm not going to quit until I win a championship."

Mr. Pollin said his illness, which confined him to a wheelchair, only increased his desire to raise a championship banner at the Verizon Center.

"Obviously, I'm ill and I never expected to be in a wheelchair," he said. "I've contracted a very rare disease, but it's not going to keep me from winning a championship. I'm going to do whatever I can to win a championship for this town, for me, for the fans."

That task now falls to Mr. Pollin's successor with the Wizards.

Under a plan devised nearly a decade ago, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is expected to take over majority ownership of the franchise, as well as the Verizon Center and the area's Ticketmaster franchise.

Mr. Pollin owned the Capitals until he sold the team to Mr. Leonsis in 1999. He also sold the Washington Mystics of the Women's National Basketball Association to Leonsis in 2005. As part of those sale agreements, Mr. Leonsis secured the right to purchase the remaining businesses of Washington Sports & Entertainment if and when Mr. Pollin passed away or decided to sell the team.

Details on how the transfer of ownership would take place are still unclear, but the purchase likely would require several hundred million dollars from Mr. Leonsis and his partners.

The Wizards alone have been valued at more than $300 million, and taking control of ownership of Verizon Center might require Mr. Leonsis to assume debt incurred by Mr. Pollin when he financed the arena's construction.

Mr. Leonsis and his partners, known as Lincoln Holdings LLC, already own 44 percent of Washington Sports & Entertainment.

"Now is not the time to discuss that subject," Mr. Leonsis said in a statement released by the Capitals Tuesday night. "Our focus now should be on mourning a great man who has done so much for our city."

Over more than half a century, Mr. Pollin was a vital figure on the District's sports scene.

Mr. Pollin and two partners bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1964 and moved the franchise to Washington nine years later. He and the Bullets brought the city a championship in 1978.

He became the first owner of the National Hockey League's Capitals when the league awarded Washington an expansion franchise in 1973. The club went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, the franchise's only appearance in the NHL's championship series.

In addition, Mr. Pollin used private funds to build arenas in which his teams could play. He opened Capital Centre in Landover in 1973 and then MCI Center, now the Verizon Center, in downtown Washington in 1997. The Wizards, Capitals, Washington Mystics of the WNBA and the Georgetown University men's basketball team all play at Verizon.

An architect by trade, Mr. Pollin said he wished to revitalize the downtown area of his adopted city with the construction of his new arena. The building at Gallery Place is the hub of what now is a vibrant and bustling part of the city.

Mr. Pollin said he considered the construction of the arena and the revitalization of the area that followed to be his greatest achievement.

"I had two goals when I decided to build this building," he once said. "The first was that if I was building in downtown Washington, the nation's capital, it had to be the best building of its kind in the country. The second was to be the catalyst that turned the city around."

D.C. Council member Marion Barry served as mayor at the time Mr. Pollin was bringing the arena into being.

"He was a giant of a man," Mr. Barry said. "He wasn't just a businessman. He was a giver. He was all those things we all try to be like."

Mr. Pollin's basketball franchise fell on hard times, with only a few exceptions, from the late 1980s through the following decade.

But he scored a major coup for his perennially downtrodden club in 2000 when he persuaded Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest and most popular player in basketball history, to join the franchise as president and a minority stockholder.

Mr. Jordan spent 3 seasons in Washington — the last two on the court after he decided to end his retirement as a player. But Mr. Jordan's domineering personality clashed with that of Mr. Pollin's, and the two parted company after a stormy 20-minute meeting in May 2003.

Mr. Pollin later explained his decision in an interview with the Associated Press, saying, "It was not a healthy atmosphere to produce a happy organization or a winning team. I knew that there would be some negative stuff thrown at me, but when I made my decision, I stuck to my decision. I wasn't going to change. I always do what I think is best for the franchise."

Despite his flagging health in recent years, Mr. Pollin's interest in his basketball team and other activities never flagged.

When star guard Gilbert Arenas agreed to a six-year, $111 million contract during the summer of 2008, Mr. Pollin said jokingly, "We're giving you a lot of money. Now all you have to do is give us a championship."

That title has yet to materialize. Though recognized as one of the league's most influential owners as well as its longest-tenured, Mr. Pollin had little luck seeing his team gain titles.

Washington's only championship came in 1978, when the Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games behind the superstar trio of Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge. The Bullets also reached the NBA Finals in 1971, 1975 and 1979, but lost each time.

In 1996, Mr. Pollin conducted a fan contest to rename the club, saying "Bullets" had negative connotations because of the city's high crime and murder statistics.

In December 2007, in honor of Mr. Pollin's 84th birthday and the 10th anniversary of Verizon Center, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty proclaimed Abe Pollin Day, and he renamed F Street between Sixth and Seventh streets Northwest, near the arena, Abe Pollin Way.

Mr. Pollin was involved in numerous charitable and civic activities. Among other posts, he was honorable chairman of the Salvation Army's Leadership Committee for Centers of Hope and co-chairman of the Community Capital Campaign for N Street Village in the District. He also was co-sponsor of the I Have a Dream Foundation and has personally guaranteed a college education for more than 50 students.

Additionally, Mr. Pollin was given the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award for his efforts in revitalizing downtown Washington, the Distinguished Service Award by the U.S. Army, the Robert F. Kennedy-Martin Luther King Jr. Award by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the United Cerebral Palsy Achievement Award, the Jewish Leadership Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the United States Sports Academy.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the Ward 2 Democrat who represents the area of the city that is home to Verizon Center and who worked closely through the years with Mr. Pollin, said the team owner and philanthropist was "an example for everyone else."

"Abe Pollin was a great man who just loved this city," he said.

Irene Pollin, a former psychiatric social worker and lecturer at Harvard University, also has received numerous honors. The couple werehad been married 64 years, and Mrs. Pollin is listed as co-owner of the Wizards and the Verizon Center.

The Pollins knew their share of tragedy in their long marriage. A daughter and a son died of heart disease, and Mr. Pollin honored his daughter's memory by building the Linda Pollin Memorial Housing Project in Southeast.

Speaking of his charitable works, Mr. Pollin said, "Those of us who are fortunate enough to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end are very lucky, because the more you give, the more you get back. I believe the people who are in a position to give, it's incumbent on us to help."

Mr. Pollin credited his upbringing with instilling such beliefs, adding, "My parents were immigrants who came here from Russia with nothing. My father taught himself to read and write [English] and worked his way up as a plumbing and heating contractor to the point where he became the largest contractor in Washington. He became a philanthropist and one of the leaders of the Jewish community. He and my mother were good role models."

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Pollin moved to the District with his family when he was 8 and later attended George Washington University. At the time of his death, he lived in Bethesda.

During his tenure as a sports executive, Mr. Pollin was noted for his loyalty to employees. A particular favorite was Mr. Unseld, an All-NBA center whom Mr. Pollin referred to as "my son." However, Mr. Pollin drew some criticism for retaining him as first his coach and later general manager during a string of losing seasons in the 1980s and 1990s.

The NBA commissioner attended the March induction ceremony into the Sports Executives Hall of Fame at George Washington that honored the legacy Mr. Pollin built in the District over the decades.

"He is," Mr. Stern said, "just utterly, utterly extraordinary."

Mr. Pollin is survived by his wife; sons Robert and James; and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

• Tim Lemke, Mike Jones and David Lipscomb contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.