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."
While he remained mentally sharp, 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.
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."
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 big 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.
"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."
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 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.
"I have no doubt that he kept me longer in positions than he should have," said Unseld, who also was the Wizards' coach and later their general manager, "and longer than I wanted him to. He was loyal."
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.
After far too many losing seasons to count, the Wizards finally started winning again in recent years. 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.
Despite his illness, Pollin made his annual trip to training camp in Richmond, Va., this year to encourage the team.
"He would want us to celebrate his life and not mourn his death," coach Flip Saunders said before Tuesday's game. "That's just the individual he was. But when you're here going through it, it's not that easy."
Pollin's other major franchise was more successful competitively, if not financially. The Capitals, faced with the daunting task of turning Washington into a hockey town, made the playoffs regularly in 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.
In addition to his wife, Pollin is survived by sons Robert and James and two grandchildren.