Pioneer moved Bullets: Wizards owner Abe Pollin dead at 85

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 Nov. 24, 2009. He was 85.
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 Nov. 24, 2009. He was 85. (AP photo)
Abe Pollin, a pioneer in area sports and the first man to move a major league sports franchise out of Baltimore in the modern era, 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.

"With Abe Pollin's passing, the NBA family has lost its most revered member, whose stewardship of the Wizards franchise, together with his wife, Irene, has been a study in unparalleled dedication to the city of Washington," NBA commissioner David Stern said.

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.

"I just lost a real, real good friend," said former Baltimore Bullets star Wes Unseld, a center on the 1978 championship Washington team who later became its coach, then general manager. "And I think it's more than any of you will understand or I could even explain. It's just going to be a big void in sports in this community."

A moment of silence was observed in Pollin's memory before the Wizards' home game Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers.

"He would want us to celebrate his life and not mourn his death," coach Flip Saunders said. "That's just the individual he was. But when you're here going through it, it's not that easy."

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 Pollin's Washington Sports and Entertainment holdings, including the Wizards, Verizon Center and Washington-Baltimore Ticketmaster, when Pollin retired or died.

Pollin, born in Philadelphia, moved with his family to Washington at the age of 8. He graduated from George Washington University in 1945 and worked for his father's construction company. He launched his own construction business in 1957, building apartment buildings and offices.

His involvement in sports began in 1964, when Pollin, Arnold Heft and Earl Foreman purchased the Baltimore Bullets for $1.1 million. Pollin became sole owner four years later.

In a move that earned him eternal enmity in Baltimore, Pollin in 1973 moved the Bullets to Landover and a privately financed arena. The first move of a major league sports team out of the city, it began the era of instability in which the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and Camden Yards was built to keep the Orioles.

In 1997, he moved the Bullets - and the Capitals, a team he acquired though expansion in 1973 - to MCI Center in Washington. The Bullets were renamed the Wizards, both to boost their poor merchandise sales and in deference to the capital's violent crime.

Although the playing performance of his teams had been spotty, he was a pioneer among sports entrepreneurs. He was one of the first bi-sport team owners, demonstrating the economies of owning two teams that could share a facility and administrative staff.

His facilities, too, were visionary. The US Airways Arena, now the site of a shopping center, opened as the Capital Centre in 1973, the first arena with modern skyboxes. MCI Center (renamed Verizon Center in 2006), which he also financed privately with government aid for infrastructure, drew immediate praise for its combination of technology, sports and related entertainment.

His ownership of the local Ticketmaster franchise meant his organization, under the umbrella of Washington Sports & Entertainment, controlled everything from ticket sales to scoreboard ads and player trades.

Pollin emerged as an elder statesmen in the NBA's politics and a voice for taking a hard line against rising player salaries. During the lockout in 1998, Pollin went toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan across the bargaining table.

Pollin took less interest in the NHL and was not as involved in owners meetings, according to fellow owners.

He was also active in Maryland and national politics, contributing thousands of dollars to mostly Democratic candidates.

Maryland's Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, were among dignitaries mourning his loss Tuesday.

"There are few community organizations that did not benefit from his advice, his philanthropy or his leadership," Mikulski said in a statement. "He made our region a better place, and will be greatly missed."

Said Cardin, also in a statement: "Abe Pollin was a giant in the sports world, but he also was a civic leader and a generous philanthropist. ... Abe was a gentleman who believed in sportsmanship and in honor on and off the court."

In May 1999, Pollin announced the beginning of the dispersal of his sports empire. He sold off the Capitals and a minority stake in the Wizards and MCI Center, along with a right of first refusal for the rest of the latter two assets.

Pollin long maintained that he would not sell the NBA franchise until it won another championship - repeating that vow from his wheelchair as he was inducted into the George Washington University Sports Executives Hall of Fame in March.

"I've contracted a very rare disease, but it's not going to keep me from winning a championship," he 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."

Although 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, a psychotherapist, established a $1 million research fund in 2008 at the Society for Progressive Supranuclear Palsy in hopes of finding a cure.

In addition to his wife, Pollin is survived by two sons: Robert, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and James, who is president of The Pollin Group/ MedEdatSea, a travel business specializing in cruises. He also is survived by two grandchildren.