Abe Pollin, 85, owner of Washington Wizards
WASHINGTON - Abe Pollin, the Washington Wizards owner who brought an NBA championship to the nation’s capital and later had the mettle to stand up to Michael Jordan, died yesterday. He was 85.
His death was announced by his company, Washington Sports & Entertainment. No details were disclosed but Mr. Pollin suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that impairs movement and balance. He had heart bypass surgery in 2005 and broke his pelvis two years later.
Mr. Pollin was the NBA’s longest-tenured owner. With his death, a group led by longtime AOL executive Ted Leonsis is poised to take ownership of a Washington-area sports empire that began when Mr. Pollin purchased the Baltimore Bullets in 1964.
Leonsis previously bought two of Mr. 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 Mr. Pollin’s Washington Sports & Entertainment holdings - including the Wizards,
In the changing world of professional sports, Mr. 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 but for the NBA’s salary cap.
Mr. Pollin considered his greatest accomplishment the Verizon Center. He risked much of his fortune to build the arena in a neglected D.C. neighborhood, and it has spearheaded a revitalization of downtown Washington since its opening in 1997.
“There’s no important initiative or any end to difficult situations or any settlement or any legislation that Abe was not leading the way on, across all these years,’’ NBA commissioner David Stern said in March. “He’s been an extraordinary league person, always voting the league way, similar to what he did in building Verizon Center. He was going the D.C. way, not necessarily what was in his best economic interest but what was in the best economic interests of Washington, D.C.’’
A builder by trade, Mr. 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 Mr. Pollin maintained he would not sell the franchise until it won another championship - repeating that vow from his wheelchair in March as he was inducted into the George Washington University Sports Executives Hall of Fame.
“I’ve contracted a very rare disease, but it’s not going to keep me from winning a championship,’’ Mr. 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.
Mr. 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,’’ Mr. 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.’’
Mr. 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 Mr. Pollin parted ways with number 23 during a stormy 20-minute meeting in May 2003.
Mr. Pollin later explained his decision in an interview with the Associated Press.
“It was an atmosphere on edge,’’ Mr. 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. I always do what I think is best for the franchise.’’