- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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

Pollin’s company, Washington Sports & Entertainment, announced his death but provided no details. Pollin had been confined to a wheelchair in recent months because of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that impairs movement and balance.

After being inducted into the Sports Executives Hall of Fame at George Washington University, his alma mater, in March 2009, Pollin addressed the issues of his health and the Wizards, who at the time ranked last in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference.

“We’re going to continue working until I quit,” he said. “And I’m not going to quit until I win a championship.”

Pollin said at the time that his illness, which confined him to a wheelchair, only increased his desire to raise a championship banner at 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.”

During that ceremony, NBA commissioner David Stern paid homage to Pollin, saying, “he is just utterly, utterly extraordinary.”

Pollin then displayed his enduring sense of humor by saying when he first met Stern “the kid was so young that he had to bring a big cigar just to make sure he [looked] old enough to be a lawyer.”

George Washington president Steven Knapp offered this tribute: “Many years ago, Abe Pollin envisioned Washington, D.C., as an international sports town with a full complement of teams and events. The realization of that vision is no more present than in his legacy of accomplishments.”

Despite his health, Pollin’s interest in his basketball team and other activities never flagged, however. When star guard Gilbert Arenas agreed to a six-year, $111 million contract last year, Pollin said jokingly, “We’re giving you a lot of money. Now all you have to do is give us a championship.”

Though recognized as one of the league’s most influential owners, as well as its longest-tenured, Pollin had little luck seeing his team (formerly known as the Bullets) gain titles. Washington’s only NBA championship came in 1978, when the Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games behind the superstar trio of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge.

The Bullets also reached the NBA Finals in 1971, 1975 and 1979 but lost each time. Pollin conducted a fan contest to rename the club in 1996, saying “Bullets” had negative connotations because of the city’s high crime and murder statistics.

Despite the team’s relative lack of success on the court, its worth continued to escalate. A franchise that Pollin bought for $1.1 million in 1964 was estimated to be worth $300 million 43 years later.

Pollin also owned the NHL’s Washington Capitals from 1973, when the team joined the NHL, until he sold a majority interest to Ted Leonsis in 1999. The team has never won the Stanley Cup.

An architect by trade, Pollin designed and built two sports arenas decades apart in the Washington area. Capital Centre, later USAir Arena, in Landover opened as a home for the Bullets and Capitals in 1973. Saying he wished to revitalize the downtown area of his adopted city, Pollin then constructed MCI Center, now Verizon Center, in Northwest, which opened in December 1997 with those two teams, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the Georgetown University men’s basketball team as tenants.

“I had two goals when I decided to build this building,” Pollin 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.”

In December 2007, in honor of Pollin’s 84th birthday and the 10th anniversary of Verizon Center, District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty proclaimed Abe Pollin Day and renamed F Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets NW, near the arena, Abe Pollin Way.

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, 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.

Pollin’s wife Irene, a former psychiatric social worker and lecturer at Harvard University, also has received numerous honors. The couple had been married 65 years, and Mrs. Pollin is listed as co-owner of the Wizards and Verizon Center.

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

Speaking of his charitable works, 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.”

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

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

Pollin created considerable buzz when he lured Michael Jordan out of retirement to serve simultaneously as player and team president in 2001. The move ultimately proved a failure, and Pollin fired the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in 2003.

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