Washington Wizards Owner Pollin Dies at 85
WASHINGTON -- Abe Pollin was the NBA's patriarch, an old-school owner who won a championship and had the mettle to stand up to Michael Jordan. He introduced luxury boxes and the large replay screen to big-time professional sports. He used to have 3-point shooting contests with Wes Unseld.
That's plenty to admire for the rest of the country. In the nation's capital, Pollin will be remembered for so much more.
On Tuesday night, hours after Pollin died at the age of 85, the Washington Wizards played the Philadelphia 76ers in a neighborhood that was torched during the 1968 riots, on a street that most everyone avoided only 15 years ago.
Now the street is called "Abe Pollin Way," and it sits in front of Verizon Center, an arena Pollin risked much of his fortune to build. The building anchors a downtown area flush with theaters, shops and restaurants -- all owing their existence to a man loyal to his city.
"He loved Washington," said Hall of Fame center Unseld, "when some of us at the time really didn't care a lot about it."
A moment of silence was held before the game for the NBA's longest-tenured owner, and the Wizards played with heavy hearts. They had learned of Pollin's death late in the afternoon. No details were disclosed, but he had suffered for years from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that impairs movement and balance. He also had heart bypass surgery in 2005 and broke his pelvis two years later.
"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," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "During his illness he fought with a determination and valor that will remain an inspiration to all."
With Pollin's 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.
"We are committed to continuing his tradition of building exciting, championship-caliber teams," Leonsis' ownership group said in a statement.
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. He was such a father figure that the team's marquee star, Gilbert Arenas, immediately called his own father on the West Coast upon hearing of Pollin's death.
"He was the father away from California," Arenas said. "He wanted a championship before he died. And as long as I'm here, that's what I'm going to be shooting for."
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. …