We the people love Abe Pollin.
How much? Well, we just gave the guy $50 million in public money. Ostensibly the funds would pay for a new scoreboard and a makeover of his downtown arena and would help attract future events. But, really, the big bucks were just to say thanks for all he’s done for his hometown in his lifetime.
And what a lifetime it’s been. More of his story than you want to know has just been told in a documentary called All About Abe, made by a reality TV impresaria named Ivy Meeropol.
The movie has not yet been released commercially. The only public exposure it’s gotten so far came when a long trailer of All About Abe was shown at a party Pollin threw a few weeks ago to celebrate both his 84th birthday and the 10-year anniversary of the building now known as Verizon Center.
Meeropol’s movie accomplishes some miraculous things. Large parts of it, for example, make Pollin seem like an unlikable sort who holds grudges and is spending his latter years intent on settling old scores.
And since the Pollin family bankrolled her film—Abe’s son Robert Pollin is credited as executive producer—this display of bitterness is enough to make us want our $50 million back.
Such miracles shouldn’t go unrewarded. Without any commercial release, the director is not eligible for a Golden Globe or an Oscar. But that won’t get her off the hook here. So let’s recognize this work for what it is by naming Ivy Meeropol as the 2007 Unsportsman of the Year.
This honor, as it were, isn’t an indictment of the filmmaking abilities of Meeropol, whose claim to fame thus far has been as the auteur behind The Hill, a congressional reality show that aired on the Sundance Channel. Anybody who cares about Washington, not just Washington’s sports history, should find plenty to love in the early portions of her movie.
Pollin, who appears very frail throughout, recalls attending secret meetings to raise funds to ferry European Jews to Palestine in the late 1940s. And viewers see how Pollin successfully courted his wife of more than 60 years, Irene, when they were both 17 years old and living half a country apart, and how their love survived tragedies—the deaths of two young children to congenital defects—that would rip apart most families.
The relationship between Abe and Wes Unseld, as portrayed in the movie, really seems almost as syrupy as Abe and Irene’s. Pollin says that after the Bullets won their first and only championship, he ignored NBA and CBS officials’ requests for an immediate interview: “I’m going to see Wes first!” Pollin said.
Then there are the portions about Pollin’s philanthropic deeds—getting schoolchildren from financially unsound neighborhoods to dream about college, flying around the world to help the hungry through UNICEF, and jumping in at the last minute to save a historic downtown synagogue.
All these personal tales are touchingly told. The sporting portions are equally fabulous. There’s Abe walking out on the ice after Dale Hunter’s overtime goal in the seventh game of the 1988 Patrick Division semifinal. There’s Mitch Kupchak in short shorts, Dick Motta in a leisure suit, and Brent Musberger in plaid shrieking about “the fat lady” back in 1978—the year she sang for the Bullets.
But right after showing feel-good footage of the victory celebrations, Meeropol’s documentary takes a bizarre and dark turn. The beginning of the end comes with a jump from a June 1978 scene with then President Jimmy Carter welcoming the champions to the White House to recent footage of Pollin, former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, and former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) talking about Carter.
Well, not just talking about Carter, actually. More like ripping apart his soul.
“[Carter] tried to keep me from being chairman of the National Governors’ Conference,” Mandel says to Meeropol’s cameras. “He actually said on the telephone…‘We can’t elect a Jew the head of the National Governors’ Conference.’”
Mandel, who claims in the movie that other folks who are “still around” heard Carter’s anti-Semitic slurs, then says he’d “never told anybody” about it before the filming. Meeropol presents no evidence to corroborate or refute this jaw-dropping slander.
The segment on Mandel is among the longest in the movie and feels totally out of place. The scenes with Mandel, Laxalt, and Pollin insinuate that Mandel, who spent 19 months in jail after convictions related to a bribery scheme, was the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime perpetrated by Carter.
Pollin, who earlier in the film is shown not letting the sitting president have his aisle seat at the Capital Centre, then slurs the former president some more. “[Carter] found a couple little things that people bought for [Mandel],” Pollin says. “Shirts, couple of suits, very small stuff. Carter made sure that he was indicted and he was found guilty.”
Well, no. The clips on Carter’s role in Mandel’s downfall not only are brutal showstoppers—they’re also full of hokum.
Meeropol’s movie doesn’t mention that the federal inquiry into Mandel’s dirty dealings was part of a larger corruption inquiry that lasted several years and landed seven of Maryland’s highest-profile political types in jail, including Spiro Agnew, Mandel’s predecessor as governor.
Mandel was indicted in November 1975 and ultimately went to trial on 18 mail fraud and racketeering counts related to the 1971 purchase of the Marlboro Race Track by his political associates. He was convicted on all counts in August 1977.
Mandel was lobbing conspiracy charges against his accusers long before he had Carter to kick around. In December 1975, the Washington Post printed portions of a letter Mandel had sent to the justice department just before being indicted that alleged the government was out to railroad him “almost from the inception of my tenure as governor” in 1969.
Carter didn’t take office until January 1977. So much for those hate crimes.
As for the “couple little things” that Pollin says landed Mandel in the pokey? Court records indicate that Mandel took “thousands of dollars worth of clothing,” as well as $135,000 worth of bonds, $100,000 in cash, and nearly $200,000 in business investments.
Mandel’s only value to the movie is to slander Carter. So viewers will pick up that Pollin has a massive ax to grind with the ex-president. But Meeropol’s movie gives no clue as to why.
Meeropol also sacrifices storytelling for another extended beatdown of a more obvious Pollin nemesis: Michael Jordan.
All About Abe contains all sorts of images that paint Jordan as a broken-down piece of crap during his time here. Pollin calls him “over the hill,” as Jordan is shown letting a routine pass bounce off the side of his face. If Jordan is onscreen, chances are he’s wearing huge ice packs on his joints and/or a pained grimace, and in most shots he looks closer to Pollin’s age than his own.
The filmmaker lets all sorts of Pollin cronies make the final cut to pile on Jordan. Post sportswriter John Feinstein calls Jordan lazy and wasteful. Even sweet Irene Pollin shows up to blast away at her husband’s former meal ticket: “He was going to run the team from the golf course on his cell phone,” she says.
But Abe and Meeropol don’t let Jordan off with simple charges of ineffectiveness and ineptitude. No, just as Carter is painted as an anti-Semite, Jordan is cast as a racist: “He called me a liar,” Pollin says, during an extended boast of how he’d put Jordan in his place, “and the worst thing he said to me was, ‘You’re a no-good redneck bastard.’”
The meeting at which this exchange allegedly took place has been written about plenty, but, like Carter’s alleged slur of Mandel, Jordan’s use of “redneck bastard” has never been reported before Meeropol’s movie. Likewise, there’s no corroboration.
As infirm as Pollin looks, it’s tough to see those scenes and not feel like he’s being exploited in Meeropol’s film.
And that’s downright unsportsmanly.