Commentary

When it comes to Pollin, think big picture

Originally Published: November 24, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Abe PollinMitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty ImagesAbe Pollin, who was the NBA's longest-tenured owner, died Tuesday at the age of 85.

If you're in the age range of the typical NBA player, you probably think of Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin as the man who fired Michael Jordan. In fact, that's the exact phrase that appeared at the top of a Google search of Pollin's name Tuesday. And if you do remember him that way, then the image that popped in your head upon hearing the news that Pollin died at age 85 Tuesday was of Jordan driving off from the arena in his convertible Mercedes on May 7, 2003, the day Pollin told him he would not regain his position as Wizards president.

You should stop focusing on that close-up, pull back and look at the bigger picture. Go ahead, click on the link, pan around the neighborhood and look at the sleek new buildings, the restaurants, bars and shops that went up after Pollin paid for the construction of the $260 million Verizon Center. Before he built the arena, the area was filled with run-down row houses. Now, it's a vibrant destination.

Pollin didn't have to build his arena there. The local NFL team had its chance to build a stadium inside the city limits and did the reverse, leaving RFK Stadium for a site in Maryland beyond the reach of the Metro system.

As with any life, Pollin's shouldn't be reduced to a single image. It should be a collage -- in his case, one that would include not just that Google Street View of D.C.'s Chinatown district but everything from underprivileged kids receiving college diplomas to a red basketball jersey hanging in a former sports editor's house. And while a certain other Washington-based franchise has defiantly refused to change its offensive nickname, Pollin was the one who -- completely unprompted -- changed the name of his team from Bullets to Wizards to avoid any violent connotations.

Pollin wasn't as flamboyant or successful as former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, nor did he generate the animosity of current Skins owner Dan Snyder. However, as a fellow former Washington resident texted me Tuesday, Pollin was one of the few nongovernmental types who defined life in D.C. Before selling the NHL Capitals and before the arrival of baseball's Nationals, Pollin oversaw two-thirds of Washington's pro sports teams. And, fittingly for a man who made his fortune in the construction business, he made his biggest impact with buildings; first the Capital Centre just outside the Beltway, then the Verizon (née MCI) Center in the District.

There are two major ironies in Pollin's cold dismissal of Jordan.

One is that it deeply wounded Washington's substantial African-American community, sending a message that Jordan was welcomed as a uniformed player selling every single ticket for each home game he played in two seasons but that as an executive in a suit his input was unnecessary. Yet Pollin's track record shows he hired eight African-American coaches, beginning with K.C. Jones in 1973. He also had an African-American general manager (Wes Unseld), and a female president (Susan O'Malley) for good measure, giving the franchise one of the most diverse front offices in sports.

The other irony is that Pollin was called ungrateful for firing Jordan, when Pollin was known to be loyal to a fault to his employees. When I returned to Verizon Center in the years after I left D.C., I could count on seeing the same faces checking my credentials at the entrance or dishing out the food in the media workroom from my time covering the team in 1996-97.

Jordan wanted to do things his way and clashed with the Wizards' standard operating procedure, even checking the team out of the hotel Pollin's brother owned near the airport and moving everyone to a downtown hotel on a trip to Portland, Ore. In the end, Pollin chose to stick with his people and the way they had always done it.

That quality, that resistance to change, also hampered Pollin's franchise. I never considered it a coincidence that he won his lone NBA championship in 1978, the year before the modern era of the NBA began. That fall, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and everything became bigger, more lucrative, more expensive. As the sport became more star-driven, the Bullets kept adding the big names when it was too late. They brought in Bernard King and Moses Malone, but neither had a playoff series victory to show for his time there. So the team took to marketing the visiting stars as a way to sell tickets.

In the 1990s, while other teams were moving into their own practice facilities such as the Bulls' modern Berto Center in suburban Chicago, the Bullets remained in a cramped old gym at Bowie State University, where they were known to lose a player or two to injuries suffered from colliding with the thinly padded wall just beyond the baselines. When other teams used hydraulic guns to shoot T-shirts high into the stands, the Bullets' mascot tossed shirts as high as he could with a lacrosse stick.

The Wizards changed their name and caught up with the rest of the league with the opening of their downtown arena (complete with practice court) in 1997. Pollin shelled out somewhat reluctantly, after the city politicians rebuffed his requests for public funding and BET founder Robert Johnson pledged to build an arena if Pollin sold him the team.

Pollin had a reputation as a reluctant spender for player contracts, as well, but he shelled out when he had to. (Just ask Gilbert Arenas, of the $111 million contract). The $9.6 million average salary of the six-year contract Chris Webber signed in 1995 was the highest in the league at the time. And when the NBA voided the $105 million contract Juwan Howard signed with the Miami Heat in 1996 for salary-cap violations, Pollin took on the salary and brought back Howard to settle one of the wildest free-agent stories ever.

The league's willingness to give Pollin a do-over on the Howard contract after he got outbid initially was seen as a sign of commissioner David Stern's fondness for Pollin, one of the last of the old-guard owners. Whenever there were leaguewide issues up for discussion, "Abe was at the center of all of them," Stern said Tuesday, "thinking not of his team or of himself, but of the league."

Pollin was a noted philanthropist, and among his many charitable endeavors, my favorite was his personal guarantee to pay for the college education for a class of high school students. Sometimes, his generosity could be seen in his personal touch, as when he came by The Washington Post offices and delivered a personalized Bullets jersey to my former boss George Solomon to commemorate his 20th year as sports editor.

But that's all overshadowed because he crossed paths with Jordan. You'll notice that when Jordan ran down his hit list during the Hall of Fame inductions, calling out Jerry Krause, Pat Riley, John Starks, Jeff Van Gundy, Magic Johnson, Bird, Isiah Thomas and Bryon Russell, among others, he didn't mention Pollin.

That's because he never got revenge on Pollin. Pollin's the only one who wound up getting the better of Jordan.

It's a unique distinction. It shouldn't be his only legacy. People can change teams and even leagues. Few sports figures make a tangible impact on a city.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.