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Thom Loverro: For D.C. sports, a true loss

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fans in the District have been bemoaning the state of their sports teams, depressed by this epidemic of losing.

But when word came Tuesday that Abe Pollin had died, the D.C. sports community felt true loss.

Pollin, 85, passed away after a long, hard fight against a rare brain disorder that impaired his movement and balance.

He was a pioneer of D.C. sports. He brought the NBA and NHL to the city. He built two sports arenas - the Capital Centre in Landover and Verizon Center, the downtown arena that has become such an important part of the city's identity.

There were great seasons, and there were many frustrating ones. But win or lose, you always knew Pollin's heart was with the city and its fans.

He spoke several times in his final years about his dream of bringing another NBA title to the District. Pollin knew how great it was around here when the Bullets won the NBA championship in 1978, and he wanted to bring that feeling to a whole new generation of fans to enjoy in the new arena.

He didn't get that chance.

Pollin sometimes was criticized for the so-called "mom and pop" way he ran the franchise. He sometimes was criticized for his devotion to his employees - he was loyal to a fault, they said.

If that is so, his was a fault to be valued in sports today, when loyalties are too often measured by the bottom line.

The bottom line about Abe Pollin was that he was ours. He was part of the District.

He bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1964, then moved them to the D.C. area in the arena he built in suburban Maryland in 1973. He got an expansion NHL franchise - the Washington Capitals - to play there the following season.

Within a year, the nation's capital went from a city that had recently lost its baseball team and had only the Redskins to a big-time sports town.

Abe Pollin put the District back on the sports map.

Pollin grew up here, went to school at George Washington, built his construction company here and created places where cherished memories were made.

Because the Wizards have struggled for a generation, the greatest time in D.C. sports usually is considered the Super Bowl era of the Redskins, who appeared in four title games and won three championships from 1982 to 1991.

But the glory days of the Bullets - the 1978 NBA championship and two other trips to the finals in 1975 and 1979 - were nearly as electric and exciting a time for D.C. fans. This may be a Redskins town, but at its heart, it also is a basketball town.

Pollin was determined to the end to bring back those good days.

When he was inducted into the Sports Executives Hall of Fame at George Washington in March, Pollin declared, "We're going to continue working until I quit. ... And I'm not going to quit until I win a championship."

He cared about the District. That's why it was easy to choose sides in the fight between Michael Jordan and Pollin. Pollin had invested so much in the city. Jordan swooped in, pretended to be a team president, then used the club as a platform for his self-indulgent return.

Abe Pollin had built something here. He deserved our loyalty.

Pollin showed his heart when, in 1996, he decided to change the name of his team from the Bullets - with the undeniable violent symbolism - to the Wizards.

And that heart always was on display when Pollin opened his pocketbook for the numerous educational and other charitable causes he supported. A generation of children grew up in this city touched by the generosity of Abe Pollin.

Now he is gone. That is true loss.