Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards and former owner of the Washington Capitals, died yesterday at age 85. Pollin brought basketball and hockey to Washington, DC. He also built two arenas with his own money, the Capital Center in the 1970s and the MCI (now Verizon) Center in the 1990s.
The latter gym cost more than $200 million.
The city of Baltimore offered to build Pollin a new arena for free.. However, he turned down the offer and paid to build a state of the art arena in a run-down section of downtown D.C. Pollin, as loyal a Washingtonian as ever there has been, explained that he hoped the new area would help revitalize the neighborhood nearby. It has.
In the 1980s, Pollin’s basketball team (then called the Bullets) was one of the NBA’s marquis franchises, winning a championship and making it to three additional Finals. The team remained solid during the 80s, but generally has been poor for the last 20 years.
Pollin’s critics claimed that he was too old-fashioned and perhaps even too cheap to be a successful owner. These charges, which in some cases may have been race or religion-based, were ridiculous. Pollin made one bold (but almost always unwise) move after another in an effort to revive his team’s fortunes. He brought in Moses Malone (a little too old), Juwan Howard and Chris Webber (too immature, at least in the latter case) and Michael Jordan as an executive and, eventually, a player (no apparent ability to evaluate talent and perhaps not sufficiently committed to that job).
Facing a constant drumbeat from local sports pundits to spend, Pollin consistently paid top dollar to keep his high profile players in the fold. Again, this was often unwise. Recently, he awarded Gilbert Arenas a six-year contract worth more than $100 million, even though Arenas has a bad knee and may not be worth that price even when completely healthy.
The Wizards finally made their way back to respectability a few years ago, but last year, with Arenas and others injured, they were dire. They have a better, healthier squad this year, but to date have remained dire.
However, Pollin’s legacy shines. In addition to the teams he brought here and the arenas he built, Pollin was a philanthropist par excellence. I can’t think of any one person who has done more to combat hunger and homelessness in this area.
Of all the Pollin stories I know or have heard since his passing, this one stands out for me. Earlier this year, with the economy in shambles, Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld went to Pollin and asked if he should present a cost-cutting proposal. Pollin replied that there would be no layofffs, as he could afford to lose money but his “people” could not.
Pollin wasn’t stodgy or cheap, but he was old-fashioned.
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