Wizards Owner Pollin Dead at 85

Pollin had profound impact on community, sports

The man who brought the NBA and the NHL to the nation's capital in the '70s has died.

News4 received the sad news Tuesday that Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, 85, has passed away. Washington Sports & Entertainment offered no further details.

"With Abe Pollin's passing, 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.  We extend our deepest sympathies to Irene and his two sons, to whom he was so very devoted, and to the entire Pollin family."

Abe and Irene Pollin have had a profound impact on sports and the community in the D.C. area.

"He was just one giant of a man," Councilman Marion Barry said.

The Pollins and two partners bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1964 -- the partners were bought out four years later -- and moved the team to the D.C. area after opening the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., in December 1973. That gave the nation's capital its first NBA team since the Washington Capitols, founded as a Basketball Association of America team in 1946, folded early in 1951.

The Pollins also applied for an NHL expansion team after the completion of the Capital Centre. The Washington Capitals debuted in the 1974-75 season. Pollin sold a majority share of the team to a group headed by Ted Leonsis after the 1998-99 season.

In 1978, led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld and coached by Dick Motta, the Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Finals. They lost the rematch in 1979 but were the only team to appear in the finals four times in the 1970s.

"I just lost a real, real good friend," Unseld said. "And I think it's more than any of you will understand or I could even explain. It's just going to be a big void in sports in this community."

Feeling that there were too many negative connotations with the name "Bullets," the Pollins held a name-the-team contest that yielded "Wizards" in 1997.

Pollin was one of the developers who helped D.C. revitalize downtown.

"Today, the District of Columbia has lost one of our greatest treasures," D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said. "Abe Pollin almost single-handedly revitalized the Gallery Place/Chinatown neighborhood by turning down offers from suburban jurisdictions to finance and build the Verizon Center on Seventh Street NW."

In December 1997, the MCI Center -- now the Verizon Center -- was completed. In addition to giving the Wizards and Capitals a new home and the D.C. area a new entertainment venue, it helped the revitalization of its Chinatown neighborhood.

"I think I'm really very proud of bringing sports at that level to Washington, which just wasn't here," Irene Pollin said in a recent interview with News4's Lindsay Czarniak. "There was the football team, and that was it. So bringing a professional basketball team and then the Capitals, and then all the events. It's not just the two teams. Look at all the incredible events that are going on throughout the year at the Verizon Center. It's just fantastic. When I come downtown and I see the lights, I think, 'My God, look what we've done here.' It's wonderful."

"The Pollins can take a large part of the credit for the bright lights, crowds and remarkable revitalization of downtown Washington," D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray said.

Washington Sports and Entertainment, of which Pollin was the majority shareholder, also owned the WNBA's Washington Mystics before selling that team to Lincoln Holdings and Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of BET.

"It’s not just the mixture of sports and business that made Abe Pollin a household name," Gray said. "He also will be remembered for the benevolent business partnerships with the District that sparked housing and other projects to improve the quality of life for some of our residents most in need.

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."

The Pollins' $1 million donation to the Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy in August 2008 established a fund for corticobasal degeneration research to find the cause and cure for the rare brain disorder that impairs movement and balance and which Pollin had for several years. He also had heart bypass surgery in 2005.

For their contributions to the community, the Pollins have received many awards and accolades.

"We're semi-related, because I graduated from high school in St. Louis, and I came to visit my aunt in Washington," Irene Pollin told Czarniak. "She was married to Dan Pollin, who had a nephew."

That nephew was Abe Pollin. She said it was love at first sight.

"All the other guys were hanging around, and he wanted to show off," she recalled. "So he said, 'Watch me play ping pong.' And sure enough he had me saying, 'Wow, this guy is so great.' He's a good athlete. Always was a good athlete."

A moment of silence was observed in Pollin's memory before Tuesday night's game.

"He would want us to celebrate his life and not mourn his death," Wizards coach Flip Saunders said. "That's just the individual he was. But when you're here going through it, it's not that easy.''

Leonsis had 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.

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.

Abe Pollin was born in Philadelphia and moved to the area with his family when he was 8. He graduated from The George Washington University in 1945 and worked for his family's construction company until he and his wife launched their own in 1957.

Abe Pollin would have turned 86 next week. In addition to his wife, he is survived by sons Robert and James and two grandchildren.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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