Abe Pollin died yesterday. I realize to most of the country his death is not that big a deal. He was 85 and he had been sick for a long time. He was the owner of an NBA team that hasn’t been a serious factor in the league for most of the last 30 years. His Wizards, in fact, have won ONE playoff series since 1988.
Here in Washington though, Pollin’s death was a huge story—which is as it should be. It was Pollin who brought the NBA and the NHL to Washington in the 1970s and Pollin who spent $220 million of his own money to build Verizon Center in downtown. To look at the thriving area around the building now you would be hard-pressed to understand that it was completely burnt-out, practically a ghost down before Pollin opened the arena 12 years ago.
So, it is fair to say that Pollin was responsible for changing the quality of life in his hometown. When he brought the (then) Bullets and Capitals to suburban DC in the 1970s the nation’s capitol had ONE professional sports team—the Redskins. Baseball didn’t come back until 2005 and by then the Redskins were in control of arguable the worst owner in the history of sports.
Pollin made plenty of mistakes and he has to take at least some of the responsibility for the Wizards mediocrity (he changed the name in 1997 when the team moved downtown because he didn’t like the connotation of the word, ‘Bullets,’ in the city which, at the time, had the highest murder rate in the country). But he really did try to do the right things—he worked tirelessly for numerous charities and, unlike the owner of the Redskins, never tried to take bows for doing good.
(Let me pause here to explain that a bit further. Not long after Dan Snyder bought the Redskins he called me, upset because I had been critical of him for firing long-time employees left-and-right after taking over the team, including a public relations assistant who had been there for about 30 years.
“Do you have something against Children’s Hospital?” he asked me.
“WHAT?” I said. Children’s is one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country and, in fact, my son had gone through hernia surgery there and the people in the hospital had been fabulous from start to finish.
“I just thought maybe you were attacking me because I give a lot of money to Children’s Hospital.”
“First of all Dan, I would never attack someone for giving money to any charity. Second, I’m attacking you—if that’s what you want to call it—because I think you’ve treated people badly. Third, did you really just ask me that?”
He changed tactics—slightly. “You don’t know me well enough to criticize me. You don’t know how much money I give to charity.”
“Dan, I don’t CARE how much money you give to charity. Rich people SHOULD give money to charity. I know people a lot less wealthy than you who I bet give a much higher percentage of their income to charity than you. But that doesn’t matter. The fact that you would even bring it up makes me think less of you, not more.”
We have not been good friends since.)
The point is, Pollin would never in a million years have done that. He might pick up the phone to tell you he hated something you wrote. In fact, he bought full page ads in The Washington Post criticizing Post columnists for criticizing him. He once call me FURIOUS because I had called The Capital Centre, “the worst building in the world.” He got me to admit that perhaps I hadn’t been in every building in the world. There was no mention during the conversation of his charity work.
I actually got to know Abe while I was covering Maryland politics. The Cap Centre was in Prince George’s County in Maryland and Abe and his political cohort Peter O’Malley had twisted a lot of arms to get the building up and running and to get the tax breaks they felt they needed to make it work. A lot of the local pols didn’t like O’Malley and thus didn’t like Pollin.
I liked Pollin. Actually my dad knew him better than I did because he and his wife Irene spent a lot of time at The Kennedy Center when my dad was running it and were major patrons of all the arts in town. In the mid-80s, I was asked to do a piece on Pollin for The Washington Post Magazine. He agreed to talk to me at length and we had a long session over dinner in his private dining room at Cap Centre one night.
I wrote what I thought—and what most people thought—was a very favorable, though fair piece. It talked about all the good he had done and all that he had accomplished but also talked about some of the controversies he’d been involved in.
On the Sunday that the story ran I was at a Caps playoff game and ran into Steny Hoyer, who is now the House majority leader. Hoyer is a Prince George’s County guy and O’Malley was his political mentor so he was close to Pollin.
“Jeez, why didn’t you warn me that Abe was so angry at you,” Hoyer said.
“Angry?” I said. “What in the world is he angry about?”
Hoyer shrugged. “I’m not sure. But I just saw him and I said, ‘hey, great piece in The Post magazine today.’ He practically bit my head off and said, ‘it baffles me that a great guy like Martin Feinstein could have such an SOB for a son.’”
To be fair, a lot of people said that. My father loved that story. But that was Abe—never afraid of criticism but very sensitive about it. He was also forgiving. The next time I needed to talk to him he took my call, we talked at length and we moved on. He played a major role in the start-up of what is now The BB+T Classic by giving us The Cap Centre and later Verizon Centre at a very reduced rental rate. (The people we now negotiate with there haven’t been as generous).
When Abe, urged on by Ted Leonsis who had bought the Capitals from him, hired Michael Jordan as President of the Wizards, it was hailed in Washington as a master stroke. After all Jordan brought nothing but credibility to a franchise that desperately needed it.
The problem was the only good personnel move Jordan made in three-and-a-half years was hiring himself to play. Even at almost 40 he was still a good player but he certainly wasn’t Michael Jordan. And he was a lousy CEO: he was rarely at games, he hired all his cronies and gave them unlimited expense accounts; he drafted Kwame Brown with the No. 1 draft pick and he never really seemed to care if the team got better as long as he had his cigars and his luxury suite when he did bother to come to town.
At the end of the 2003 season, Pollin fired him, a difficult and gutsy move because he knew he would get hammered for it. Which he did. A lot of people pointed out how much money Jordan had made for him by selling the arena out during the two years he played. That was true. But here’s the question: Did Abe ask Michael to play or did Michael tell Abe he wanted to play? It was, of course, the latter. Was Abe supposed to turn Michael down? Would any owner in sports have turned Michael down?
Of course not. Abe fired a lousy executive. If his name had been Joe Smith no one would have even taken note of it. But because it was Jordan, because Jordan stormed out of Pollin’s office it was a huge deal. Two of Pollin’s major attackers were John Thompson and my friend Michael Wilbon. Both implied there were racial undertones to the firing.
They were wrong on every level. Pollin did the right thing for the right reasons. Hiring Ernie Grunfeld turned the franchise around—the Wizards ended a 17 year playoff drought in 2005 and made the playoffs four straight seasons before injuries devastated them a year ago.
It would be nice to report that in the smart, sweet column Wilbon wrote in this morning’s Post that he did a mea culpa and said Pollin had been right six years ago. Instead, he said he wished Pollin and Jordan could have forged the kind of friendship that Pollin had with Magic Johnson, who Pollin helped guide into the business world. That, of course, misses the point: if Johnson had been as incompetent an executive as Jordan was in Washington, Pollin would have fired him too. Michael should have said, “I made a mistake.” Hell, we all make them.
I have a box here in my office in which I keep letters I want to be absolutely certain I never lose. One is from Abe, written shortly after the book I did with Red Auerbach, ‘Let Me Tell You a Story,’ came out. Red and Abe went to the same high school, though Red was several years ahead of Abe. He joked in the book that had he known Abe was going to get so rich he’d have been nicer to him.
Abe sent a handwritten note saying how much he enjoyed the book and how much he always respected Red—even if the Celtics had tortured his team for years. At the bottom of the note he wrote. “Actually, you aren’t such a bad guy. I know your dad is very proud of you.”
I took that one out and looked at it last night. That’s one I’m glad I didn’t lose.
I’m going to take tomorrow off to give everyone—including David Stewart and Terry Hanson who do all the heavy lifting for the blog—a day to enjoy their turkey, their families and some football—and basketball. I wish everyone—and I mean everyone—a Happy Thanksgiving. I’m not a big believer in clichés but boy do I have a lot to be thankful for this year.