November 24, 2009

Abe Pollin, RIP

There are a lot of RIP blog posts and columns this sad evening in the Nation's Capital regarding the passing of a great owner, the man who brought hockey and basketball to Washington and put us on the national sports map, and the man who singlehandedly revitalized a large swath of Northwest Washington and supported our great city in so many other ways, Abe Pollin.

I am a child of the 80s and 90s. I never saw the Caps or Bullets win a championship. Hell, I considered it fortunate when they made the playoffs. But I know for damn sure how high of esteem EVERYONE in DC held Abe Pollin.

Abe put DC on the major sports map. Before Abe, we had the Redskins and the Senators (two incarnations of which had left town). Abe brought the NBA Baltimore Bullets to town in the arena that he built entirely with his own funds, the Capital Centre. Abe was also awarded ownership of the expansion Washington Capitals. The highlight of his ownership of the Bullets was their 1978 NBA Championship; of his ownership of the Capitals was their 1998 run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Later, Abe spent $200 million of his own money to build the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) on 7th Street in Northwest Washington. Contrary to popular belief, Verizon Center is not a publicly-funded arena. While the site of the arena is just a few blocks north of Pennsylvania Avenue and only about 12 blocks from the Capitol building, in the early 90s, prior to the building of the arena, the area was largely decrepit. It was Washington's Chinatown, and consisted of seedy restaurants and bars and wasn't all that safe after dark. Nowadays, the area is called "Penn Quarter," and is home to some of the priciest rents and arguably the most vibrant entertainment district in the City. Throngs of people line the streets, restaurants, and bars on game nights and concert nights. Verizon Center serves as the very model that many cities rely upon to justify the massive public expenditure on an arena in the hopes of revitalizing a portion of a city. I'll say it right here... the next owner of the arena and Wizards should return Verizon's naming rights money to them and rechristen the arena "Abe Pollin Arena."

Abe didn't just revitalize a section of Northwest Washington by building an entertainment home for the wealthy to come spend their dollars and sit in luxury boxes. Abe spent millions of his own dollars on supporting various charities in the DC area. He did so in a very quiet manner and nothing bore the Pollin name.

And let me take a moment of this rambling post to clarify one of the greatest myths about Abe's ownership of the Wizards. While I personally hate that the team's name was changed from Bullets to Wizards, the name change was not in response to gun violence in Washington, D.C. Rather, Abe was so moved by the assasination of his close personal friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that Abe changed the name to Wizards in the hopes of inspiring world peace and making one less popularized connotation to violence. As I read stories tonight, even the story on, it continues to spread the myth that the reason for the name change was gun violence in D.C. It was not the reason.

Abe, we DC sports fans will miss you. You da' man, you da' man. Or, as a caller to Sportstalk 980 put it so aptly tonight, you are a "mensch" of the truest form (Google it non-Jews).

Head to 1:58 for Abe's awkward white man rap dance

4 Responses:

Nikhil Verma said...

Born and bred in the DC area too. A child of the 80's and 90's as well. Great piece. Not to be too picky, but the Bullets won in 1978, not 1979. In '79, they made it to the Finals and lost.

Also, Pollin was long considering changing the name to Bullets, before Rabins assasination. Rabins assasination clinched his decision. But it wasn't the sole reason for the name change.

Jeremy said...

Thanks, Nikhil. Edited for accuracy. I was typing this one quick and working off memory.

Jon said...

I hope you’ll all indulge the length of this comment, but I think it’s important. I have lived in DC for my entire life, and I have a great deal of pride in that fact. I love this city dearly.

During a period of madness I watched as my city collapsed under dwindling population, corrupt government, appathetic federal involvement, and the plague of crack. In short, my town had become a national joke.

It was in this environment that Mr. Pollin decided to build the finest arena in sports in a bankrupt town with his own money. That gesture was a huge part, if not the largest part, of saving our city. It made it OK for other businesses to invest in the city. It brought people back to downtown. It was a huge gesture of faith in our town that made us feel that maybe we turned a corner.

Tonight, on my way home from work, I pulled over my car and wept for an old man who I’ve never met. I don’t care what his contributions to sports were, and in DC they were without measure, his contributions to my hometown were even greater.

On the night they opened the then MCI Center, the crowd in the upper deck spontaneously broke into a cheer for Mr. Pollin that I would like to end with here:

“Thank you, Abe.”

Jeremy said...


Thanks for writing and visiting. Keep coming back, we try to cover DC/Baltimore sports a lot. I agree wholeheartedly with you about Abe taking such a huge personal risk and showing others that it was alright to come back to DC to invest and build. People forget that in the early to mid 90s when Abe broke out plans for MCI Center, DC was incredibly dysfunctional (even more so than it is usually). DC had just gone through the trauma of the Mayor Barry trial and was in the grips of Sharon Pratt Dixon. The city wasn't even trusted by Congress for home rule at the time, yet despite so many people telling him he was crazy, including Wes Unseld, Abe was willing to invest most of his personal fortune on his vision.

My Abe story is running into him at an open Capitals practice at MCI Center in September 1999 during preseason when they had the Eastern Conference trophy and banner on display. I told him that I wasn't alive for the Bullets championship but I was so grateful to him for bringing a winner back into town. Bear in mind that at that point we were only 7 years from the most recent Redskins Super Bowl win (not 17 as we now stand). Abe looked so proud to be there and hear the same thing from me and others. You could tell that he really felt joy by bringing Washingtonians joy. He'll just be very missed. There's no other way to put it.

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