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Abe Pollin dies at 85; Washington Wizards owner

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Abe Pollin, the Washington Wizards owner who brought an NBA championship to the nation's capital, died Tuesday. He was 85.

His death was announced by his company, Washington Sports & Entertainment. No details were disclosed, but 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.

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 Pollin purchased the Baltimore Bullets in 1964.

Leonsis previously bought two of 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 Washington Sports & Entertainment's holdings -- including the Wizards and the Verizon Center arena in downtown Washington -- when Pollin retired or died.

In the changing world of professional sports, 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 if it weren't for the NBA's salary cap.

He was also critical of 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.

Pollin renamed his NBA team in 1997 because of the violent connotation of the word "bullets," particularly in a city associated with crime.

His ultimate coup -- getting Michael Jordan back into the NBA -- was a plan that didn't pan out. Jordan 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 Jordan decided 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 Pollin parted ways with No. 23 during a stormy 20-minute meeting in May 2003.

Pollin was born Dec. 3, 1923, and moved with his family from Philadelphia to the Washington area when he was 8. He graduated from George Washington University in 1945 and went to work in his family's construction business. He started his own construction company in 1957.

Pollin and two partners bought the Bullets in 1964. The team won its championship in 1978 with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and reached the NBA finals the following season as well, but Pollin was unable to keep up with the subsequent free agency explosion that sent salaries skyrocketing.

He is survived by his wife, Irene; sons Robert and James; and two grandchildren.

news.obits@latimes.com

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