The mood at Verizon Center turned suddenly somber Tuesday, the death of Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin cause for unity and focus for a team that had been missing both in recent days.
So instead of using the night’s game as an opportunity to show up former coach Eddie Jordan and the Philadelphia 76ers, Wizards star guard Gilbert Arenas said he believed the night should serve as a reunion to honor the NBA’s longest-tenured owner.
“[Pollin] was loyal to his team. He loved basketball. He was never going to sell the team. And it’s just sad it had to happen today,” Arenas said. “But the good news is everyone’s here. Eddie’s back. All the people who started the winning, we’re all here together.”
Indeed, a return to winning did start with Pollin, Jordan, Arenas and Ernie Grunfeld. After Michael Jordan’s reclamation project as part-owner and then player ended up being a huge flop, Pollin dismissed him following the 2002-03 season and set out to rescue the franchise he had owned since 1964.
First he hired Eddie Jordan as his coach.
It was an unconventional move; most teams hire a general manager and then let him pick the coach. But Pollin selected Jordan, a D.C. native, and then two weeks later chose Ernie Grunfeld as team president.
“He meant a lot to me,” Jordan said. “He hired me to come back and coach a team that I was a big fan of. It was my hometown team. It was a 10-minute interview, and I shook his hand, and he said, ‘I don’t live by contracts; I live by handshakes.’ I shook his hand and walked out and then all of a sudden thought… ‘Did I take the job, or what happened there?’ ”
Jordan, who coached the Wizards for five full seasons and guided them to four straight playoff appearances, credited Pollin’s enthusiasm and knowledge of basketball as a source for the team’s success.
“He was understanding. He was passionate about his team, about his players,” Jordan said. “He wanted to win, and he understood the game.
“He wanted a championship in a very passionate way. He was intent on winning another championship, and that’s what he always used to say: ‘I want to win a championship.’ … Sometimes it takes some steps, and you can’t just do it overnight, and he did the necessary steps to win.”
Pollin’s drive to win a second championship never waned - even in his later years, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a rare brain disease.
When the Wizards hired Flip Saunders following a disastrous 2008-09 campaign, Pollin declared: “Obviously, you’ve seen me in a wheelchair, but I want you to know that in spite of the wheelchair, maybe because of the wheelchair… I have more guts to win a championship again. That’s what we are going to do, and that’s why we brought a winner here.”
In the summer of 2008, that desire pushed Pollin to plop down $161 million to retain Arenas and forward Antawn Jamison.
Brendan Haywood, the longest tenured Wizards player, chose to remember Pollin from an earlier time.
“He’s probably in a better place,” Haywood said. “It was tough for me to see him because when I came [to the Wizards], Mr. Pollin was walking around, driving himself to work. He used to do laps around the arena for exercise. So to see him the last couple years, I knew that wasn’t who he was. I just remember him in the best of times and just wish his family the best.”
Though blindsided by the loss of a man whom many described as a father figure, the Wizards honored Pollin with a 108-107 victory.
“It’s always tough to see someone go away that has blessed you and was there for you and did so much for this organization and this community,” center Andray Blatche said before the game. “It’s a very tough loss for us, so obviously we want to come out here tonight and get a win for him and dedicate the rest of this season to him. Hopefully we turn it around and get things going right.”