There have been so many incredible things written about Abe Pollin by people that know of him far better than I for me to have too much to add. (In fact, here are some of them). But since it's Abe Pollin, possibly the most influential non-politician in Washington over the last 30 years, I feel compelled to add this to the discussion.
I don't think I need to list several of Abe's great attributes right off the bat. We all know them. In short, he was a great man, the type of person who "every little child hopes he grows up to be and every old man wished he had been," according to one of his former employees. And yet, Pollin was also derided by many for running a "mom and pop" organization. He was too loyal, too unwilling to let people off the hook for poor job performance. He was criticized for being cheap and for valuing character over talent. He was lambasted for his treatment of Michael Jordan and for his previous unwillingness to go over the luxury tax.
Pollin essentially was bashed for not possessing a single-minded pursuit of winning. In all other walks of life, his adherence to higher principles would be universally praised. In sports, it was a reason to criticize him. That should tell you something about how sports is perceived to be simply about winning. It was never about that for Abe Pollin, and the more we think about it, it really isn't about that for any of us either.See, Abe Pollin used the Washington Bullets/Wizards as a vehicle for social improvement. As far back as the 1970s, when racial discrimination in sports was still rampant, Pollin was hiring African Americans such as KC Jones (just four years removed from his playing days) to high positions in his organizations. He brought his championship-winning club to China in 1979 in an attempt to help improve U.S. relations there, an action that seems common now, but was anything but then. He rewarded those who were loyal to him, standing by them whether they were upper-level management or the equipment managers. He renamed his team because he was concerned that he was promoting violence in some way. (For the record, this site's name is not in protest of Mr. Pollin's decision, but rather as a rallying cry uniting the two eras of the franchise). And, of course, in the most stunning example of social consciousness of all, he moved the team downtown and built a stadium in a downtrodden area of town on his own dime in an attempt to revive the surrounding neighborhood.
There are many wonderful people owning sports teams who do good deeds. Pretty much all of them do, unless they are Donald Sterling. But nobody else ran their sports franchise that way. Mark Cuban may do all sorts of wonderful ancillary things to help people in Dallas and everywhere, but the bottom line for him is that he'll do everything he has to do to win. And lest you think I'm singling out Mark Cuban, he's not the only one. There are so many owners in this world who possess and are praised for a single-minded pursuit of winning, for putting themselves and their resources out there to field a winner. Abe Pollin was not like that. He instead put himself and his resources out there to make the world a better place, with his team as the vehicle.
That's not to say Pollin didn't want to win. He cared about his club tremendously, and made that well known. Contrary to popular opinion, he was not cheap. Just ask Juwan Howard and Gilbert Arenas. In case I needed any more reminder of that fact, the one-on-one interview 106.7 did with Ernie Grunfeld drove the point home. During it, Ernie mentioned how once the economic crash occurred, he brought up whether it would be prudent to cut costs. Mr. Pollin's response? No way. I can afford the hit more than they can. It almost makes me feel really bad for desperately trying to think of ways to shed salary last year because I was sure Mr. Pollin would be unwilling to pay the luxury tax to field a winner.
But for Abe Pollin, winning wasn't how he felt fulfilled. He wasn't about the glamor, the flashiness that is associated with winning and running a big-time sports franchise. SB Nation's Andrew Sharp probably expressed this best. He attended last night's game, which, like any other NBA game today, featured loud intro music, luxury suites, cheerleaders and fire coming out of a massive Wizards logo, and commented how this all felt so out of character with Abe Pollin. It's true. Abe Pollin stood for something more than all of that.
It's enough to make me think about why we are drawn to sports. The easy answer to this question is because it gives us a chance to win at something. There's no feeling like being a fan of a winning club. But there are so many elements of sports fandom that have nothing to do with winning. Being a fan of a sports team means breaking down boundaries with people. It means finding common ground with others when everything else about you is different from them. It means supporting your city, your family, your legacy or something else that may be far more personal. It means being a part of a critical mass of people that maybe isn't changing the world, but is still cultivating relationships that you may need for the rest of your life. It can even mean finding something worth smiling for when everything else in life gets you down.
For Abe Pollin, owning the Washington Bullets/Wizards was about all those other aspects of sports fandom. He broke down boundaries with his employees. He found common ground with fans and partners. He supported and dramatically improved his city. He held true to his friendships so much that a single death of one of his closest friends (Yitzhak Rabin) was enough to convince him to change the team's nickname. He headed a critical mass that helped him both change the world and maintain incredible personal relationships all the way until his death. He even used his team to lift himself up from depression when health problems beset his family.
That is Abe Pollin's legacy for me more than anything. Anytime I get too bogged down in the team's struggles, I remember how winning was never the only thing for Abe Pollin. It gives me perspective. It makes me realize how much the Bullets/Wizards have meant for me even when they aren't winning. How much they've given me even as they slogged through yet another non-playoff season.
Now that he has passed away, I strongly encourage everyone to step back, as he did his whole life, and think about all the reasons you root for your sports team besides the prospect of victory. Chances are, Abe Pollin embodied those reasons.