The Washington Wizards returned to practice Wednesday less than 24 hours after learning of the death of owner Abe Pollin and honoring him with a 108-107 victory Tuesday night over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Their focus was preparing for Friday’s game in Miami, where they’ll face a Heat team that already has beaten them twice this season and swept four games from them a year ago. But the memory of Pollin, whom the Wizards describe as a father figure, remained prevalent.
“It’s different. You’re used to seeing him come around every now and then, saying what’s up to everybody,” said third-year guard Nick Young, who scored 20 points Tuesday in his first significant playing time of the season. “Everybody knows how big he was to this program and how long he’s been in the NBA. He ran this team for 40-something years. That’s a long time. Then he was born in 1923, so that’s even longer. It’s something to see somebody live that long and have that big of a legacy.”
Some of the Wizards players said it was hard to get the motivation to focus in practice. Others said wanting to honor Pollin drove them to have a strong practice.
“He cared about this franchise and us winning and moving forward; everybody knows that’s what he would’ve wanted - for us to continue to build and have success,” said small forward Caron Butler, who was forced to sit out Tuesday’s game with a sore right ankle. “This was his baby - he built it from the ground up. He wanted another championship. He put us together. He loved all of us - but myself, Gil and Antawn like sons - and he kept us together, and he wanted us to be together for a reason, and that’s to bring something special to Washington.”
As sad and shocking as Pollin’s death was, Butler said, it caused the Wizards to unite at a time when dissension in the locker room had been growing with the players frustrated over the mounting losses.
At the center of the conflict had been Gilbert Arenas’ public criticism of Butler for failing to execute the offense. Butler reached out to Arenas on Monday, and the two resolved their misunderstandings.
“Gilbert’s my little brother. We’ve been through a lot together, and if we have any problems, we discuss it,” Butler said. “Some things get twisted, get put out there, but we’re a family. I have a problem with my brother, I deal with him in-house. I put him in a headlock, my momma say enough and we move on. There’s no problems here. We’re cool. The elder brother Antawn oversaw everything. He said, ‘Y’all are cool.’ And so we’re moving forward. That’s water under the bridge, and we’re going to dedicate this season to Mr. Pollin.”
To this point, the Wizards have failed to live up to expectations largely because of injuries, chemistry issues and a struggle to execute Flip Saunders’ system consistently. But Pollin’s desire to win another championship and end the 31-season drought since his franchise’s only title in 1978 gives the Wizards extra motivation.
The Utah Jazz received a spark in a similar situation last season. After the death of owner Larry Miller on Feb. 21, the Jazz responded by winning nine straight games. The Detroit Pistons, meanwhile, were already struggling when owner Bill Davidson died March 14, and they proceeded to lose six of seven games and end the season on a 6-12 skid.
Pollin will be honored at a private memorial service Friday at 11:30 a.m. at Washington Hebrew Congregation and at a public service Tuesday evening at Verizon Center. The time for the public memorial has yet to be determined.
The Wizards, who for now will wear a black stripe on their uniforms but eventually will sport a commemorative patch on their jerseys, say Pollin’s death will serve as the rallying point they desperately need.
“That’s the goal. Obviously, we’ve gotten off to a slow start, weathering adversity that we’ve been going through on and off the court. We need to stay together and move forward,” Butler said. “That’s the right thing to do. And Mr. Pollin wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. With the talent that we have and the expectations, we feel like we’re definitely capable of doing that.”
Said Arenas: “This was his life. You know, I felt that he held on, he tried to hold on as long as he can to see us succeed, and we’re gonna have to. We’re gonna have to jell together and become the dream he wanted.”
Note - President Obama paid tribute to Pollin with a statement Wednesday:
“Abe believed in Washington, D.C., when many others didn’t - putting his own fortune on the line to help revitalize the city he loved. He was committed to the teams he guided, generous to those who needed it most and as loyal to the people of D.C. as they were to him.”