Abe Pollin Dies at 85
Abe Pollin—real estate developer, philanthropist, and owner of the Washington Wizards and other sports teams—has died at 85.
Pollin today is remembered most fondly as a sports team owner—the man who bought the Baltimore Bullets to Washington and renamed them Wizards, brought NHL hockey to the city, women's pro basketball, and other sporting endeavors.
He presided over one world championship, the 1978 Bullets' NBA title.
But he was also a crackerjack businessman, a developer who left his legacy across the region's landscape, in numerous apartment towers in Montgomery County and the District. His prime development legacy, let there be no doubt about it, will be the MCI Center, which Pollin built out of his own pocket while the city suffered from crippling financial woes and went on to anchor the rebirth of downtown Washington.
Though well known as a hellish negotiator, Pollin was generous with his riches, donating heavily to Jewish causes (he helped save the Sixth & I Synagogue, for instance) and, among other good works, paying for an entire elementary-school class to go to college.
The cause of Pollin's death has been reported as corticobasal degeneration, and he had appeared frail in rare public appearances in recent years. ESPN.com reports this comment from the July 2008 re-signing announcement for Antawn Jamison: "I'm getting a little old and a little sick....But I'm still around, and I'm going to be around until we win the...championship. I'm stubborn and hardheaded."
Pollin was among the last of the old-school pro sports owners who ran his teams as a family business, shaped by his strong personality and his intense loyalties. His teams lost more than they won, and fans often criticized his personnel moves and his failure to spend more money, but Pollin invariably remained set in his ways.
He was also a major philanthropist in the community, paying for affordable housing and endowing a local Boy's and Girl's Club. His grandest project was building the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) in 1997 and triggering a stunning renaissance of Gallery Place and surrounding neighborhoods.
WRC-TV's Lindsay Czarniak interviewed Pollin's beloved wife Irene last month:
ESPN.com notes his impact on the D.C. sporting world and beyond, and notes that Ted Leonsis, who bought the Bullets and Mystics from Pollin, stands to take over his empire, Washington Sports & Entertainment:
Pollin was the NBA's longest-tenured owner. With his death, a group led by longtime AOL executive Ted Leonsis is poised to take ownership of a Washington-area sports empire that began when Pollin purchased the Baltimore Bullets in 1964....
"There's no important initiative or any end to difficult situations or any settlement or any legislation that Abe was not leading the way on across all these years," NBA commissioner David Stern said in March. "He's been an extraordinary league person, always voting the league way, similar to what he did in building Verizon Center. He was going the D.C. way, not necessarily what was in his best economic interest but what was in the best economic interests of Washington, D.C."
Former WaPo sports editor George Solomon is now hosting a live chat on Pollin at washingtonpost.com.
A statement from the Washington Nationals:
The Washington Nationals and the Lerner family join all of the Washington DC community and sports fans nationally in mourning the loss of Abe Pollin. He was not just the beloved owner of sports teams in the Nation's Capital for almost 40 years; he was also a significant force in the rebirth of downtown Washington DC, and a magnanimous contributor to the personality, health, and well-being of everyone who calls our community home. He leaves an important legacy. Our deepest affection and condolences are with the Pollin family and the Washington Sports and Entertainment organization in their time of grief.
Here are some of the best Pollin-related columns by WCP's Dave McKenna:
- About Pollin's team-owner bona fides...back in 2003! "More than ever before, he thrives in comparison with the other major-league owners in town. With every passing week, Dan Snyder proves himself the Redskins equivalent of star-crossed Cubs fan Steve Bartman: a superfan who, when given a chance to control the fate of the team he idolizes, screws it up for everybody. And Ted Leonsis, long billed by the Capitals as "the most accessible owner in sports," committed the mortal sin of ownership by blasting the fans for not coming out to watch his overpaid underperformers fold against Tampa Bay in last year's playoffs." (So he was a little off about Leonsis; the new Caps owner would get Best Sports Owner honors from McKenna this year, with Pollin runner-up.)
- About a group of fans who mobilized to "Save the Caps" in the early '80s after Pollin threatened to move the team unless Prince George's County handed him tax breaks.
- About a Pollin and his documentarian, who won "Unsportsman of the Year" honors in 2007 for making an unnecessarily mean-spirited biopic. Among its revelations: That Michael Jordan “called me a liar, and the worst thing he said to me was, ‘You’re a no-good redneck bastard.’”
- About the Wizards' re-embrace of the Bullets moniker, which Pollin famously discarded citing his feelings on violence in the mideast and in the inner city.
- About Pollin's encounter with rocker Nils Lofgren, author of "Bullets Fever"
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has issued a statement:
Today the District of Columbia has lost one of our greatest treasures. Abe Pollin almost single-handedly revitalized the Gallery Place / Chinatown neighborhood by turning down offers from suburban jurisdictions to finance and build the Verizon Center on 7th Street NW. My deepest condolences go out to Mr. Pollin’s family, most especially his wife Irene, who was always his partner, in sports, construction, philanthropy, and of course, family.
Abe Pollin will be remembered in the District for adopting our city as his hometown, having lived in the area since the age of eight; for more than 40 years as owner of the Washington Wizards; and for being the original owner of the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals and the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Washington Mystics.
He will be truly missed.
Here's At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown's statement:
I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Abe Pollin, a true pioneer who contributed to the growth of professional sports and gave unselfishly to our communities.” In 1997, Abe & Irene Pollin saw their dreams to fruition with the completion of a state of-the-art sports and entertainment facility in our nation’s capitol.
Mr. Pollin, not only achieved his goal to create a facility that would “be the catalyst that turned the city around,” he also demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that our residents became the primary benefactors of the city’s resurgence. Together, the Pollins’ contributions to our communities are invaluable. From employing many of our District residents to giving many of our students the opportunity to attend college, Mr. Pollin embodied the intangible qualities of a wonderful humanitarian, businessman and father, whose legacy will continue to inspire others.”
The prayers of the Councilmember, his family and staff go to Abe Pollin’s wife and partner, Irene and his two sons Robert and James.
The Wizznutzz tweet a tribute: "WE LOVE U ABE POLLIN u helped build DC with your hands & your hope"
Here's D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray:
I am saddened to learn of the passing of Abe Pollin, one of Washington’s most-respected businessmen and philanthropists. He and his wife, Irene, have made a huge difference on the lives of countless residents in the District of Columbia and in the region. My sincere condolences go to Mrs. Pollin and their family.
In the late 90s, Abe Pollin brought the Wizards and the Capitals to what’s now called the Verizon Center. Now, a decade later, the Pollins can take a large part of the credit for the bright lights, crowds and remarkable revitalization of downtown Washington.
It’s not just the mixture of sports and business that made Abe Pollin a household name. He also will be remembered for the benevolent business partnerships with the District that sparked housing and other projects to improve the quality of life for some of our residents most in need. I worked closely with Mr. Pollin on numerous projects and will miss his personal, gentle style of collaboration. Ironically, today I chaired a hearing on the plan for the continued cultural development and revitalization of Chinatown.
Mrs. Pollin was an active partner with her husband on many fronts. No doubt she will continue their immeasurable work to ensure Mr. Pollin’s legacy lives on.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans calls in with his thoughts:
He was a great man. His contributions to the city were enormous, to many of the philanthropic causes, to affordable housing, to the synagogue at Sixth and I, his reach was extraordinary. But what he will absolutely be remembered for is bringing the two teams, the Bullets and the Caps, to downtown Washington and the area that was absolutely deserted and dangerous. And then, when the city could not fulfill its part of the deal, to build the arena, he used his own money to building the arena. It was the catalyst for the revitalization of Washington. You can't say enough how much this city is indebted to Abe Pollin....
I saw him at a game recently, must have been a hockey game. He was not in good shape. I don't know that he recognized me; he was definitely on the downswing. But they had a special place for him in the box....
Every time I saw him, he was so upbeat about the city.
A statement from Washington Convention and Sports Authority CEO Greg O'Dell:
The Washington Convention and Sports Authority, along with the entire Washington, D.C. community, mourns the passing of Abe Pollin, a legendary figure on the D.C. sports scene and a visionary whose dedication to the community is an inspiration to us all. He was a beloved sports owner in the District for more than 40 years and his pioneering efforts were a significant factor in the revitalization of downtown Washington. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on forever. We extend our sincere condolences to his wife Irene, his two sons and the entire Pollin family.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder's statement:
Abe Pollin was a great owner for Washington, as well as a personal friend. His legacy will live through his teams and the arena he built, and just as importantly, through his commitment to his family and to Washington. My thoughts and prayers go out to Irene and the rest of his wonderful family.
Developer Douglas Jemal shares some thoughts with Washington Business Journal:
Jemal...recalled Pollin as a wonderful man and a business icon who did things the old school way.
"I knew him very well and spent a lot of years with him down here when he was building the Verizon Center. And I can tell you when the Verizon Center was being built, he was down here every day monitoring construction," Jemal said.
One day, when a worker on one of Jemal's buildings had a construction accident, Pollin was there to help, Jemal said. "He came running across the street to see what he could do."
Pollin represented a now gone era of "independent, old-school team owners" who cared about the city's where they did business. "I think that team was his life," Jemal said. He said that even when the team was not winning, "he would sit in that owners' box by himself and watch every time that team played."
Pollin will be remembered for several things. He was the NBA's longest tenured owner. He was the guy who fired Michael Jordan. And he was the person who changed the name of his team from the Bullets to the Wizards after his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was killed.
Pollin will long be known as the man who stopped Michael Jordan's basketball ambitions, not on the court where few people could stop His Airness but in the front office. After Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls, Pollin brought him to Washington in 2000, selling him a minority stake in the Wizards.
Jordan, with his towering ego, eventually proved insufferable, especially to Pollin. According to reports, Pollin was particularly irked by Jordan's presumption that he would one day own Pollin's team.
After Jordan sold back his minority stake in order to put on his basketball shoes and play a few seasons for the Wizards, Pollin outfoxed him by refusing to sell back to Jordan once he retired from playing again, the minority stake Jordan had given up. Jordan left the organization in 2003.
From GWU President Stephen Knapp:
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.
The Washington Post already has an editorial written:
AS FAR AS Washingtonians are concerned, the most important thing about Abe Pollin is that he was one of us. By that we mean not that he was necessarily a man of the people, whatever that is these days, but simply that he was part of this community through and through. He did well here, and he did a lot of good in return. He made a fortune in construction but became better known as the owner of Washington's pro basketball team. And while he hadn't had a champion in a long time, he accomplished something far more important for Washington sports fans: Rather than taking teams out of this town, he brought them here. He built, first, an arena on the Beltway and then the one downtown that has contributed greatly to the renaissance of a neighborhood rich in history and tradition....
He was a thoughtful and public-spirited man whose list of charitable and civic activities — helping feed and educate the city's schoolchildren, aiding the homeless, establishing a prize for pediatric research, and much, much more — was as impressive as his work for mutual understanding and respect among the people of this region. Much of his life was a sustained effort, with his wife, Irene, to better the community, and for the most part it was carried on without a great deal of public attention....
From AIPAC, the pro-Israel policy shop:
As a member of AIPAC's board of directors and friend of many of our country's most influential policy makers and elected officials, Abe never missed an opportunity to stress the importance of America's special and unbreakable bond with the State of Israel.
We are profoundly saddened by his loss, but comforted by the knowledge that Abe's courageous and tireless spirit made a profound difference for a cause in which he deeply believed – the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
And from the Israel Project:
Mr. Pollin was a great lover of Israel and the Jewish people. He and Irene have been champions of important causes, both Jewish and in the wider community. Mr. Pollin joined The Israel Project’s board in June of 2004 and he was especially proud to fund our TV ads in Washington that showcased Israel’s democratic nature and desire for peace. Despite health issues he was recently re-elected to the board. He will be missed especially by the Jewish community and by the city of Washington, DC – a place that was made better 1000 ways because of Abe Pollin.
Via Examiner, a statement from NBA Commissioner David Stern:
With Abe Pollin's passing, the NBA family has lost its most revered member, whose stewardship of the Wizards franchise, together with his wife Irene, has been a study in unparalleled dedication to the city of Washington....During his illness he fought with a determination and valor that will remain an inspiration to all.
And more on his philanthropic activities:
Pollin was a philanthropic force, putting his wealth behind numerous charitable organizations including N Street Village, the Salvation Army, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and the I Have a Dream Foundation. Partnering with Calvary Baptist Church, Pollin's Abe's Table program fed the homeless twice a week over the past decade.
"He loved making sure everybody had enough to eat," said Rev. Amy Butler, senior pastor at Calvary. "That was his thing. He really put all of the resources that he had to bear on that, and it was great to partner with him."
The Post has uploaded a fabulous photo gallery.
The official WaPo obit is now up, written by Peter Perl. The lede:
He arrived in Washington more than 75 years ago, the gangly son of a Russian metal worker named Morris Pollinovsky who came to America a poor man speaking no English. Through decades of hard work and a seemingly unstoppable will, Abe Pollin rose to the top of the worlds of business, philanthropy and professional sports. In the process, he transformed his adopted home town by bringing professional basketball and hockey franchises here and by spending $220 million of his own money to build a massive sports and entertainment arena that has dramatically changed the face of downtown Washington.
A statement from Eleanor Holmes Norton:
Abe Pollin built an unparalleled sports empire that left almost no game out, but his heart was in building a better District of Columbia. His agreement to bring his teams from Maryland and build the Verizon Center in the midst of the city’s worst financial crisis in this century was emblematic of his devotion to the town that helped form him from his childhood. In more small and large ways than will ever be widely known, Abe made himself citizen number one in this city. I had many occasions to work with Abe and Irene, who has made unique contributions on her own to our city. What I will remember beyond my friendships with Abe and Irene is how generously they befriended the District of Columbia.
Housing Complex's Ruth Samuelson gets Gallery Place developer Herb Miller on the record:
He was always a very humble man, who could deal with anyone in any capacity. I didn’t know him well professionally until the last 15 years. We could never have built Gallery Place without his help and cooperation. At any rate, the city wanted the connection we built in the atrium between the two....
Two hundred years ago, 7th Street was the main street of the city, and then it died out in the 1950s, and our idea was to bring Main Street back alive. They had already built the Shakespeare Theater on 7th. The goal was to use 7th as the retail core of the city, to literally connect it: At one end, you had the Smithsonian with 30,000 visitors a year. We put the convention center at the other end. It was truly a community effort, but if it wasn’t for Abe Pollin nothing would have happened because he started it. For him to go build the Verizon Center with a risk associated with it—most people would have done it only if the government paid for everything. And bringing his teams into the city at a time was quite a bold and risky proposition. If you walked through downtown then, people were afraid to even go to downtown. People thought it was dangerous.
If he hadn’t committed to the first major project downtown, I don’t think the rest of it would have happened.
From President Barack Obama:
Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Abe Pollin – a giant in the world of professional sports and someone I was proud to call a friend. Abe was a man who knew that being an owner wasn’t just about winning championships, although his teams had plenty of success. It was about helping young athletes become good people as well as good players. And it was about being part of a community. 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.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Irene, his sons Robert and James, and the entire Pollin family.