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Abe Pollin's legacy will be felt by the citizens of Washington D.C.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty Images

Despite flaws, Pollin helped save Washington, D.C.

Posted Nov 24 2009 11:23PM

WASHINGTON -- To properly measure the impact of Abe Pollin on my hometown, Washington, D.C., you only had to be at Verizon Center on Tuesday night, to see the fans.

As it is most every night, the Verizon Center crowd was the most racially diverse in the NBA. Alongside the K Street lobbyists and the politicos of varying political stripes, there were people of color, sitting courtside as well as in the upper bowl, loads of women who run their own businesses or help others run theirs. That is Washington, circa 2009.

Abe Pollin played a part in that. A big part.

Not the biggest part, to be sure. But a city that is still psychologially scarred, 40 years later, by the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., only now has a downtown corridor capable of sustaining nightlife, providing jobs for locals and housing for yuppies and buppies, of being a destination point for bosses and for working people, as all great cities used to have. And the main reason that downtown exists today is because Abe Pollin built an arena on the corner of 7th and F Streets.

I worked downtown in the early '80s. Trust me, there was next to nothing there. If you worked late at the National Theatre, as I did, it was highly recommended that someone walk you to your car afterward. Marion Barry, a talented but flawed man, brought development and investment to the city as mayor, got office buildings built and parking lots zoned. He got companies to hire teenagers for summer jobs (yours truly included), and made D.C. a place to do business. But after dark, nobody stayed. They went to the suburbs -- which is where most sports teams had their arenas, and where people had their fun afterward, and where they went to sleep.

And much of downtown Washington was still dark when Pollin committed $180 million of his own money to build what was then MCI Center in 1997. It wasn't the only building going up, but it was the most important. It was the catalyst, the accelerant that convinced others to invest in the city. To believe that the city could move beyond race and class and provide something that everyone could use and where people felt safe. From MCI/Verizon, businesses and apartments spread like tentacles, each new one another anchor in the city's economic revitalization.

Today, 7th Street is filled to bursting with restaurants, movie theaters and upscale bowling alleys. To the north, the corner of 14th and U Streets, N.W. -- once local shorthand for the epicenter of the drug trade that swallowed a whole generation whole in my youth -- is now teeming with shops and stores, white teens walking down the same streets where I didn't see a white person for years.

I don't mean to make this some kind of utopian fantasy. Things aren't perfect, of course. There is still immeasurable poverty in far too many parts of town. But they're a lot better.

Abe Pollin helped save my hometown.

You may think that's hyperbole. You'd be wrong.

And that's why, I guess, I was sadder than I thought I'd be upon hearing that Pollin had died Tuesday at 85, after a series of illnesses. Part of it is work-related; I am fairly certain that there aren't many people who've seen more Bullets/Wizards games over the last two decades than I. Covering the Bullets was my first beat; a decade later, I interviewed President Clinton in a Verizon suite. Part of it was sentimental; going to Pollin's Capital Centre with my dad is one of my first sports memories. Imploded years ago, the Capital Centre was state of the art in the late '70s; the Original Man to Jerry Jones' mega-screen at his new billion-dollar Cowboys Stadium was Pollin's TelScreen.

Pollin, who bought the then-Baltimore Bullets with two other investors in 1964, also brought pro hockey to the Washington area by getting the expansion Washington Capitals in 1974. But Pollin understood what I have always believed, that D.C. is a basketball town, not a football town. It's a Redskins town, to be sure, but that's not the same thing. The reverence in D.C. is for hoops, from Turkey Thicket in Northeast, which helped produce Elgin Baylor; to Spingarn High, which sent the world Dave Bing; to DeMatha, which produced Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry; to Georgetown, where John Thompson won a national championship in 1984, bringing a style that was mother's milk for local hoop lovers and a succession of future NBA stars -- Sleepy Floyd, Ewing, Mourning, Mutombo, Iverson. Jack Kent Cooke brought Super Bowls to Washington, and was respected -- maybe even feared.

But he wasn't beloved.

Was Pollin loved? I wouldn't go that far. But he was part of the community, part of the city's fabric.

He was a businessman, to be sure, threatening to move his Capitals until he got oodles of tax-break goodies from the state of Maryland. He would hold out until the last possible second to get the best possible deal. He made his millions in real estate, naming his apartment buildings after family (the Irene, in Chevy Chase, Md., was named after his wife, and until very, very recently, when the Wizards traveled to Portland, they stayed at a hotel run by his brother). He alienated a lot of people that believed in him and turned on people that had worked for him. For a long, long time, he earned his reputation for being cheap. (That changed, as Gilbert Arenas can attest to every second week of the month, as Pollin futilely chased a second championship to go with the one the Bullets won in 1978.) But he did the right thing most of the time, and his philanthropic works were legion.

"One time, I was asked to go over to Giant Foods headquarters," Wes Unseld, Pollin's Hall of Fame center and friend, said Tuesday. "I was walking up to the corporate office, and the head of Giant Foods at the time was a guy who was very well thought of, Izzy Cohen. He stopped me and we got to talking -- he was a sports fan -- and he said, 'You work for the best person in sports this city has ever known. He's a mensch.' I think I'm pronouncing that right now. I remember thinking, 'I hope he didn't call him a dirty name.' But I've always thought of him that way."

His loyalty to his employees defied all logic and common sense. If you looked around Verizon Center on Tuesday, you saw the same people you saw two decades ago, when we were all a lot younger. Same community relations and PR people, same ushers, same equipment guys. But, something new on Tuesday -- wet eyes.

After all their success in the '70s, including four Finals appearances, the Wizards were irrelevant for much of the Magic-Bird-Jordan era, a seeming relic. But Pollin wouldn't fire anybody, keeping Wes Unseld as coach ("he kept me on a lot longer than he probably should have, or that I wanted him to," said Unseld, who coached from 1987 to 1994 -- never posting a winning record after year one). Indeed, Pollin was way in front on giving different looking people than the norm a chance. He hired K.C. Jones as head coach in 1973, when an African-American on the bench -- even one as accomplished as Jones -- was still an unfamiliar concept to many; he hired Susan O'Malley, at 29, to be the first female team president in league history in 1991.

Famously, he hired Michael Jordan to run his team, after a run-in with him during a collective bargaining session during the 1999 lockout . Famously, he fired Michael Jordan, after milking two years' worth of sellouts out of him when Jordan returned to play in 2001. I thought it was rotten then and I think it rotten now, cynical beyond all measure. Jordan's greatest sin was not the Wizards' poor record -- Washington doubled its previous year's win total in Jordan's first season -- but how he and his people treated Pollin's people. Woe unto those who said or wrote bad things about his team (yours truly included, who got more than one call from a hot owner.)

As he got older, and lost close friends like Detroit owner Bill Davidson, Pollin's influence waned, though he was still a confidant of Commissioner David Stern. His physical condition deteriorated; victimized by a degenerative disease, he was stooped over and confined to a wheelchair in his final years, unable to take part in the yearly 3-point shooting contests with Unseld that were a training camp staple. He would still speak occasionally with his current players, including Caron Butler, who recalled how Pollin, in 2005, told him he wanted to be a Wizard for a long time -- and then agreed to give Butler a $46 million contract extension.

"That was a moment which was great for my family, a life-changing experience," Butler said. "I'm really grateful for that. For life."

Same wet eyes.

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