Abe Pollin, the Washington Wizards owner who brought an NBA championship to the nation's capital and later had the mettle to stand up to Michael Jordan, died Tuesday. He was 85.
His death was announced by his company, Washington Sports & Entertainment. No details were disclosed but Pollin suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder impairs movement and balance. He had heart bypass surgery in 2005 and broke his pelvis two years later.
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.
Leonsis previously bought two of Pollin's teams — the NHL's Capitals in 1999 and the WNBA's Mystics in 2005 — and secured the right of first refusal to buy the rest of Pollin's Washington Sports and Entertainment holdings — including the Wizards, Verizon Center and Washington-Baltimore TicketMaster — when Pollin retired or died.
In the changing world of professional sports, Pollin stood out for decades as an owner who tried to run his teams like a family business. He bemoaned the runaway salaries of free agency and said it would have been difficult for him to keep the Wizards if it weren't for the NBA's salary cap.
Pollin considered his greatest accomplishment the Verizon Center. He risked much of his fortune to build the arena in a neglected D.C. neighborhood, and it has spearheaded a revitalization of downtown Washington since its opening in 1997.
"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."
A builder by trade, Pollin also constructed the Verizon Center's predecessor, originally known as the Capital Centre, in the Washington suburbs in 1973. He renamed his NBA team in 1997 because of the violent connotation of the word "Bullets," particularly in a city associated with crime.
The Bullets won the 1978 NBA title, and Pollin maintained he would not sell the franchise until it won another championship — repeating that vow from his wheelchair as he was inducted into the George Washington University Sports Executives Hall of Fame in March.
"I've contracted a very rare disease, but it's not going to keep me from wining a championship," Pollin said. "Until then I'm not going to quit, and I'm going to do whatever I can to win a championship for this town, for me, and for the fans."
While he remained mentally sharp, his brain disease forced him to give up his active lifestyle altogether and rely on a cart to ride the halls of the Verizon Center. He and his wife, Irene, established a $1 million research fund in 2008 at the Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy in hopes of finding a cure.
Pollin was critical of modern-day player misbehavior and wouldn't hesitate to trade a star who got in trouble off the court. At his insistence, the final labor agreement after the 1998-99 lockout included stricter rules concerning player conduct.
"You may or may not want to be role models, but you are role models," Pollin told his players after the labor talks ended. "If you don't want to be role models, you should get out of this business and go do something else."
Pollin's ultimate coup — getting Jordan back into the NBA — was a plan that didn't pan out. Jordan, in a deal brokered by Leonsis, bought a minority stake in the Wizards in 2000 and was given the title of president of basketball operations.
The sport's biggest name spent 3 1/2 seasons in Washington, the last two on the court after deciding to come out of retirement as a player, but his domineering personality overwhelmed the organization and made losing even more miserable. He expected to return to his front-office job and repurchase his ownership share after playing his final game, but Pollin parted ways with No. 23 during a stormy 20-minute meeting in May 2003.
Pollin later explained his decision in an interview with The Associated Press.
"It was an atmosphere on edge," Pollin said. "It was not a healthy atmosphere to produce a happy organization or a winning team. ... I knew that there would be some negative stuff thrown at me, but when I made my decision, I stuck to my decision. I wasn't going to change. I always do what I think is best for the franchise."
The drama of Jordan's exit threatened to overshadow the rest of Pollin's accomplishments, including his philanthropy and his two state-of-the-art arenas.
The Capital Centre, located in Landover, Md., and was the nation's first sports major venue with luxury boxes and a large replay screen. It was topped 24 years later by the Verizon Center, which Pollin built with $200 million of his own money at a time when many owners of professional franchises demanded taxpayer support for new facilities — and threatened to move their teams if they didn't get it.
Pollin, though, wasn't about to leave Washington.
"I wanted to build a beautiful arena and one that served as a catalyst to turn things around downtown," Pollin said. "I'm proud to say we succeeded in both scores."
The arena, built on a lot that was torched during the 1968 riots, is now a a popular nighttime destination, filled with restaurants, bars and other attractions.
Born Dec. 3, 1923, Pollin and his family moved from Philadelphia to the Washington area when he was 8. He graduated from George Washington University in 1945 and went to work in his family's construction business. He started his own construction company in 1957.
Pollin and two partners bought the Bullets in 1964 for a record $1.1 million, a mere fraction of the salary of today's NBA stars. He bought out his partners four years later and moved the team to the Washington suburbs when the Capital Centre opened. He also acquired an expansion NHL franchise, the Capitals, for his new building.
The Bullets won their championship with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and reached the NBA finals the following season as well, but Pollin was unable to keep up with the subsequent free agency explosion that sent salaries skyrocketing. He kept a shoestring front-office operation for much of the 1990s, was sometimes reticent to spend big for players, and developed a reputation for retaining employees who were loyal but not necessarily successful.
Pollin's frustration boiled over when he argued with Jordan at a labor negotiating session during the 1998-99 lockout. When Pollin complained that individual owners such as himself could no longer survive, Jordan suggested that Pollin sell his team. Less than a year later, Pollin and Jordan became partners in a relationship that never blossomed.
Still, Pollin publicly kept his eternal optimism, but it looked more and more out of touch with reality as coaches came and went and as the losses mounted.
"It's been disappointing, but not frustrating," he told the AP in 2003. "Because, obviously, I'm a competitor, and I want to win. If I was in this business just for the money, I would be doing something else."
An upswing began with the hirings of team president Ernie Grunfeld and coach Eddie Jordan in the summer of 2003. A beefed-up scouting department, Grunfeld's shrewd player acquisitions and Jordan's levelheaded coaching made the Wizards contenders again. A 2005 playoff series victory was the franchise's first in 23 years, and the team returned to the postseason for the next three seasons.
Pollin's other major franchise was more successful competitively, if not financially. The Capitals, faced with the mammoth task of turning Washington into a hockey town, made the playoffs regularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s but also lost $20 million the year they made the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Pollin sold the team to Leonsis the following year.
While Pollin's teams sometimes frustrated fans, he was a widely hailed and frequently honored community leader who devoted considerable time and money to charities. One of his most popular programs is Abe's Table, which has served free meals twice a week at a church one block from where his teams play.
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