Funeral held for Wizards owner Pollin

Updated: November 27, 2009, 8:22 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Abe Pollin cared so deeply for his Washington Wizards that former coach Wes Unseld remembers him coming into the locker room after victories and giving players a celebratory peck on the cheek.

Once, an uncomfortable player told Unseld he'd punch Pollin if it happened again.

"You go ahead and knock him out," Unseld recalled telling the player. "But your career is over. You're not going to be able to get up yourself, because I'm going to take care of you."

The NBA's longest-tenured owner, Pollin died Tuesday at 85. Unseld and others remembered him Friday during a funeral at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Unseld helped the Washington Bullets win the 1978 NBA championship, and later served as both coach and general manager of Pollin's team, which was renamed the Wizards because Pollin believed too many lives in Washington were being lost by the senseless use of handguns.

Unseld said as a player, coach and GM, he regularly received telephone calls from Pollin asking, "Wes, what's wrong with my team?" He closed by telling Pollin's wife, Irene, "I love the man. I want you to know that."

Rabbi Bruce Lustig said Pollin's wide smile let everyone know "he was in love with life" and that his "sense of gratitude reminded him that he was simply blessed."

Pollin gave Washington the Capital Centre, the Verizon Center, the Wizards, the NHL's Capitals and the WNBA's Mystics. He sold the Capitals and Mystics in recent years to Ted Leonsis, who called the service for Pollin "very heartfelt."

A public memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.

Pollin and two partners purchased the Baltimore Bullets in 1964, but Lustig said "no deal paid the dividends as the deal he struck with Irene," which led to 64 years of marriage.

"He understood people and how to charm all his own," Lustig said.

When he built the Verizon Center, which revitalized the downtrodden Chinatown section of the District of Columbia, Pollin declined to purchase any of the surrounding real estate, knowing the value would skyrocket. His son Robert revealed Friday that Pollin, who felt guilty that some folks could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, planned to break ground next week on an affordable housing project.

"It will be our tribute to you, Dad. We're going to make it happen," he said.

Pollin's "baby brother" Harold praised Abe's "ability to see exactly what was going on in any situation," and son Jimmy thanked the "whole entire Capital Centre family that was always there for him."

"He was a blessing to everybody in this world," Harold said. "Anybody he came in contact with had a friend in Abe."

Pollin created scholarship programs that sent hundreds to college. He was involved with UNICEF, which raised money for the children of Africa, Sudan and Iraq, and his "Abe's Table" program fed thousands of homeless people in the nation's capital.

"We're going to revive Abe's Table and make sure it continues to do the work my father wanted it to do," said Robert, his voice cracking as he fought back the tears.

Progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that impairs moment and balance, confined Pollin to a cart in recent months, but his mind remained sharp.

"He cursed his condition," Robert Pollin said. "He cursed his illness. He sometimes cursed his doctors, but he was never bitter. His goodness became more pure, more distilled."

Most of all, Robert said, his father "loved the Wizards' victories. He wanted more of them. Let's keep that in mind. ... He kept going. He kept fighting. He kept prevailing."

Pollin had lunch Tuesday with Irene and Robert, who said his father planned to attend his first Wizards game of the season that evening. Pollin had flowers delivered that day to wish Irene a happy Thanksgiving.

"They arrived at noon," Robert said. "An hour later, he was gone."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE