Some people invest their money. With the capital they've earned, these people can give funding and support to those who can make a difference.
Other people invest their time. They might not have the bank accounts that people in the first group have, so they help deserving causes with their efforts, their output, and their presence.
Rarely do you find people who can do both, especially at the level that Abe Pollin did throughout his life. In an era where so many owners demand the city pony up money for new arenas, Abe went against the grain twice and paid for new arenas out of his own pocket. Abe Pollin knew how to make money, but more importantly he knew how to give money.
Odds are if you've spent any amount of time in or near the District of Columbia, you've been impacted by Abe Pollin in some way or another. Whether you were one of the lucky students who received a scholarship from Abe, your business prospered from the rebirth of Chinatown that he spawned, or the joy you received from being a Wizards fan, Abe Pollin had a positive impact on your life.
Below is just a small sampling of reflections on the passing of Abe Pollin. Feel free to add your own reflections in the comments.
Though he often lamented the escalating salaries of players over the years, he knew how much impact they had on society. He was the man who demanded, and brought in, the rule of player conduct on the current labor agreement of the league. "You may or may not want to be role models, but you are role models. If you don't want to be role models, you should get out of this business and go do something else." He was a role model himself. He saved a historic synagogue from being turned into a dance club a few blocks from his offices, even though it cost millions of dollars to refurbish. He gave every school in the city working computers so children could use them. He established a program called "Abe's Table", where his team would go door to door and give food to the needy. Today the program was out giving food when he passed away.
Not surprisingly, Pollin was praised widely in the wake of the news that he had died, at 85, and deservedly so, especially when the conversation turned to his civic and charitable contributions. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned in this space that Pollin and I clashed on a couple of issues, some of it the everyday stuff that happens when a columnist is critical of a local owner. But some of it was a little more confrontational, like a pointed disagreement over the firing of Michael Jordan and, years earlier, the building of the new downtown arena. Pollin actually took out a huge ad in The Washington Post the day after I wrote a column saying that the basketball franchise would only remain viable if he got out of Capital Centre and moved downtown. Pollin paid thousands of dollars for ads in The Post and The Washington Times, ripping me and calling Capital Centre "state-of-the-art," which by then it certainly was not. Anyway, it wasn't more than 18 months later when somebody from Pollin's office called me to come and cover the groundbreaking for a new arena downtown. I came ... and brought with me a copy of the ad in The Post. When handed a yellow hard hat, I handed Pollin the ad and asked him to sign it, which he did with a smile, after grabbing me around the neck and kissing me on the cheek. All was forgotten. I was easy. After I suffered a heart attack nearly two years ago, there was a warm phone call and a floral arrangement at the door from Abe and Irene Pollin.
As with any life, Pollin's shouldn't be reduced to a single image. It should be a collage -- in his case, one that would include not just that Google Street View of D.C.'s Chinatown district but everything from underprivileged kids receiving college diplomas to a red basketball jersey hanging in a former sports editor's house. And while a certain other Washington-based franchise has defiantly refused to change its offensive nickname, Pollin was the one who -- completely unprompted -- changed the name of his team from Bullets to Wizards to avoid any violent connotations. Pollin wasn't as flamboyant or successful as former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, nor did he generate the animosity of current Skins owner Dan Snyder. However, as a fellow former Washington resident texted me Tuesday, Pollin was one of the few nongovernmental types who defined life in D.C. Before selling the NHL Capitals and before the arrival of baseball's Nationals, Pollin oversaw two-thirds of Washington's pro sports teams. And, fittingly for a man who made his fortune in the construction business, he made his biggest impact with buildings; first the Capital Centre just outside the Beltway, then the Verizon (née MCI) Center in 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.
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. 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.
"He had opportunities to go to other places, but this is where he wanted to be," team president Ernie Grunfeld said. "He wanted to do this for his city." 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."
For decades the downtown of Washington, D.C. didn’t really exist. Buildings, entire neighborhoods emptied out once people left their offices. There were no quality restaurants, no hip night spots, no life or vitality downtown. The Verizon Center, in the city’s Chinatown district, changed all that. The Gallery Place area is now buzzing night after night with young and old [especially young] strolling the streets and moving in and out of restaurants, night clubs, lounges, movie theaters and, of course, the Verizon Center. It was Abe’s arena, now 12 years old, that is the single biggest reason for all this. Particularly after Michael Jordan’s presence on the court guaranteed sellout crowds for every game, Chinatown became a popular place for people to be after dark in DC. Now, the area is crowded even when the Wizards and Caps are not playing.
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.
Antawn Jamison nodded at the portrait being painted of Mr. P, whom the veteran forward said worried as much about his millionaires as his minimum-wage minions. "I have a friend here who said to me today, 'If it hadn't been for Mr. Pollin, I'd probably be dead.' It wasn't just the players he cared about; he got people off the streets in D.C."
"[Pollin] was not just the beloved owner of sports teams in the Nation's Capital for almost 40 years," the Washington Nationals and the Lerner family said in a press release. "He was also a significant force in the rebirth of downtown Washington, D.C., and a magnanimous contributor to the personality, health, and well-being of everyone who calls our community home. "He leaves an important legacy." No truer words have been said.
He was also a strong philanthropist, but his greatest contribution to DC is the Verizon Center. Pollin took a huge risk and sacrificed a lot of his wealth to build that arena. The result? 'That arena' has completely revitalized (vitalized?) a downtown area to the benefit of all DC residents and become a model for any team looking to build a new stadium in terms of geographic location. It is not a coincidence that Pollin amassed his fortune in housing development. The arena has also had the effect of taking teams in peripheral sports (not football), and putting them right in the heart of DC, literally and figuratively.
Pollin sometimes was criticized for the so-called "mom and pop" way he ran the franchise. He sometimes was criticized for his devotion to his employees - he was loyal to a fault, they said. If that is so, his was a fault to be valued in sports today, when loyalties are too often measured by the bottom line. The bottom line about Abe Pollin was that he was ours. He was part of the District.
Pollin's competitive spirit drove him throughout the 46 years that he owned the Wizards, but not because of the recognition it brought to him personally. The deterioration of Pollin's health over the last few years was difficult for veteran players to watch, but even wheelchair-bound he still made it to the team's training camp in Richmond earlier this fall.
Washington, DC: I have heard cynics say that Pollin changed the name of the Bullets to the Wizards as a mere marketing ploy, not out of any genuine sensitivity to gun violence in DC or the assassination of Yitzak Rabin. Do you have insights on that?
George Solomon: Nothing Abe Pollin ever did in his life was for marketing.
The Pollins have made just as big a mark on the community with their philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors. Abe Pollin served as the chair of the Advisory Council, was honorable chair of the Salvation Army’s Leadership Committee for Centers of Hope and was co-chair of the Community Capital Campaign for N Street Village. He co-sponsored the "I Have a Dream Foundation." The Abe’s Table program feeds the underserved in D.C. community. Through Gilbert Arenas’ Gilbert Scores for Schools program, the Pollins donated $100 for every point that Arenas scored in games during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons to Washington-area schools. "The first person I called was my dad because [Pollin] was the father away from California," Arenas said at the Verizon Center before Tuesday night's game against the Philadelphia 76ers. "So it hurts. We just got to stick together. He wanted the championship before he died, and as long as I'm here, that's what I'm going to be shooting for."
But his strongest characteristic is likely to be the one passed over by many writers. His fearless approach to life and profession. Everything would point to life working against the son of a Russian immigrant in the early 1900’s, by Abe Pollin crafted fortune out of opportunity, and generosity out of affluence. He eschewed a life as a real estate mogul in exchange for life as the owner of the Baltimore Bullets, characterized early on as the definition of risky business. Rather than making professional sports ownership into a hobby venture, he envisioned a lucrative business operation. A fearless proposition for a team that was not perennially successful, and had very few supporters in the region.
Mr. Pollin remained mentally sharp, but his brain disease forced him to give up his active lifestyle 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. Over his years in the District, Mr. Pollin won a National Basketball Association championship, took the city's hockey team to its only Stanley Cup final, built two arenas, helped revitalize part of downtown, hired and fired the world's most famous basketball player and performed innumerable acts of charity.
After Mr. Unseld’s speech, I listened to Team President Ernie Grunfeld and Wizards’ guard DeShawn Stevenson discuss what Mr. Pollin meant to them, and then I prepared for the game. I felt overwhelmed by the all the information I received, and I even commented to someone next to me, "I don’t even want the game to start yet, I have so much to process." Unfortunately though, the game had to start, but before it did, there was a moment of silence for Mr. Pollin. And for those brief eight seconds, the house that Pollin built was completely silent, while his picture, with the years he lived under it, hovered over all of us in attendance on the giant flat screen.
And [Gilbert] was asked about his first meeting with the owner. "It was kind of weird, because to be honest, I was coming off a gun charge in San Francisco, so I'm already nervous," Gilbert explained. "And I'm like, 'Aw, I don't think this guy's gonna pick me up.' And he's like, 'Oh no, we're family.' And then we just started talking about life. We started talking about family, him and my dad talked--I'm gonna take care of your son, I know he's a young kid, he's an extension of me--and from there we just bonded." Which is not to say that Gilbert, in his own way, wasn't also touching and heartfelt and appropriate. "It was kind of a hard evening, but at the end of the day, Abe Pollin loved us so much that we couldn't feel the pain until after the game," Gilbert said. "We had to go out there and just play. He wouldn't want us to stop doing what he loved because of what happened....We wasn't gonna try to lose this game for Mr. P. You know, he treated us like family, he [brought] us in, he believed in us. No matter what nobody was saying out there, he always believed we were his guys from the beginning."
Pollin will be remembered both as an exceptional owner and a great man. He was a rare owner in todays sports world who cared more about values and loyalty than team revanue. An owner who put a quality and family oriented product on the court for his city. An owner who through his longevity and consistency became a staple in the city he was from. Abe and Irene Pollin were entering their 45th year of ownership of the Wizards, which was the longest-tenured ownership in the NBA.
Mr. Pollin was a good owner. Not particularly adept at guiding a franchise toward winning (at least in my lifetime), but a good owner. He was a loyal man, a trait which countless will stand in line to attest. Perhaps, at times, that loyalty got in the way of winning. But that wasn’t the path Abe wanted to take. It didn’t mean he wanted to win any less than the next fan for life. This team, this city was damn lucky to have Abe Pollin on their side. So cheers to the captain of the vessel, here’s to hoping your successor steers the ship at least as good as you did, and to the best of your championship aspirations.
It was an unconventional move; most teams hire a general manager and then let him pick the coach. But Pollin selected [Eddie] Jordan, a D.C. native, and then two weeks later chose Ernie Grunfeld as team president. "He meant a lot to me," Jordan said. "He hired me to come back and coach a team that I was a big fan of. It was my hometown team. It was a 10-minute interview, and I shook his hand, and he said, 'I don't live by contracts; I live by handshakes.' I shook his hand and walked out and then all of a sudden thought... 'Did I take the job, or what happened there?' " Jordan, who coached the Wizards for five full seasons and guided them to four straight playoff appearances, credited Pollin's enthusiasm and knowledge of basketball as a source for the team's success.
"When I was a little kid, we moved to New York for a while," Snyder remembered. "We had an uncle that passed. We lived with my grandmother. And we moved in, and my father was working a little bit in New York, and we would go across the street and get the newspapers that came out in the middle of the night when [the Bullets] were playing Seattle. [ellip] It goes way back. I mean, if you're a Washingtonian, you have to have loved Abe Pollin."
"I just lost a really, really good friend. I think it's more than any of you will understand or I could explain. It's going to be a big void in sports and this community as well. The type of person he was, Mr. Pollin was a tremendous competitor. I wanted to win because it made me look good and I could re-negotiate contracts. He wanted to win because he was a competitor and for what it gave to other people and gave them a sense of pride. He was different and he followed that every day for the 40 years I knew him."
"Everybody knows how much he thought of myself, and he always said, 'You remind me of Wes,' and we all know the bond that he has with Wes Unseld. For me, I thought it was the utmost respect and just how much he believed in me, my professionalism and just as a player, he put a lot of trust in me from day one. Nobody has given me that trust, ever, really, as far as just doing my job and being the person that I am. This guy always checked up on me and my family and my kids. He always asked me how they were doing, and ‘Buy a gift for them and say it’s from me,’ and just, this guy’s done so much, not only for this city but this organization, making this world a better place."
Mr. Pollin was a model philanthropist, an icon in the sports world and the individual responsible for founding the Capitals and bringing an NBA championship to our city. He was the catalyst in building a fabulous downtown arena that revitalized the surrounding area. Anyone walking down 7th Street, seeing the throngs of excited fans, the host of popular restaurants, hotels and nightspots, can attest to the lasting legacy of Mr. Pollin's deep commitment to D.C.
On the day that the Wizards' longtime owner, Abe Pollin, 85, died of a rare brain disorder, his team played better than it had been playing. After the game, Sixers coach Eddie Jordan said of Williams' last-second miss: "Mr. Pollin's spirit blocked that shot out of the rim."