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Abe Pollin: Saying goodbye to a mensch

2:44 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2009
by rachel leibold

When I was a kid, it was an indisputable fact about my hometown of Washington, D.C., that the Gallery Place/Chinatown stop on the Metro was a place to switch between the Green, Yellow and Red Lines - not actually get off.

Abe Pollin changed that. In 1997, he moved his basketball team, the Washington Wizards (known until 1995 as the Bullets), to a brand-new arena in Chinatown - the MCI Center.

Abe Pollin
It was the biggest gamble he ever made, and I'm counting hiring (and then firing) Michael Jordan. Turning down a cheap and easy offer to move the team back to Baltimore (where it had been based when Pollin bought it in 1964), Pollin put up $220 million of his own money to build an arena in what was then one of the crummiest neighborhoods in the District. (He had also used his own money to build the Capital Centre, where the Bullets and Caps played.)

The arena's arrival transformed the neighborhood in such a radical way that today's Chinatown seems like Disneyland compared to that of only 15 years ago. I remember getting off the Metro one time around 2002, after not having been in the neighborhood for a while, and being paralyzed with awe at how different it looked.

He may have been, er, frugal at times with his team, but Abe Pollin spent copiously to revitalize the District and to help its residents. His vision and love for the city saved downtown Washington.

Abe Pollin died yesterday at age 85. He was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who became the man responsible for making D.C. a real sports town again. After making a fortune in construction, in 1964 he bought the Baltimore Bullets, and in 1973 moved them to D.C. The following year he purchased an expansion NHL team, dubbed them the Washington Capitals and gave the District its first hockey team.

In the Washington-area Jewish community, Pollin is probably best remembered for his friendship with Yitzhak Rabin.  Over the years Pollin had become unhappy with the name of the Bullets, given the high violent crime rate in Washington, and after Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Pollin had had enough and announced that he wanted to change the name once and for all. Fans were invited to vote (over the phone - so antiquated!) on a new name for the team. My personal favorite was the Washington Sea Dogs, but ultimately Wizards won out.

The Washington Post calls Pollin "among the last of the old-school pro sports owners who ran his teams as a family business, shaped by his strong personality and his intense loyalties." (Dan Snyder, take note - Abe Pollin's Bullets/Wizards may have sucked nearly as badly as the Redskins have lately, but everyone still loves him. Figure it out.)

There's a lot more I could say about Abe Pollin, like how he and two other developers snapped up the Sixth and I Synagogue and restored it before it could be turned into a nightclub. It's now one of the hottest spots in the District for young Jews.

But I'll just leave it at this story that always makes me cry. In 1988, Pollin and his friend Melvin Cohen showed up at Seat Pleasant Elementary School, an impoverished and underperforming school in Prince George's County, Md. The pair announced to the 55 children in the school's fifth grade class that if they stayed in school, Pollin and Cohen would pay for their college education.

And they made good on their promise - of the 59 students in the class (four transferred in later, something that Pollin and Cohen didn't mind), 49 graduated, 39 went to trade school or college and by 2007, 17 had received at least one college degree, according to the Washington City Paper.

Of course, Pollin didn't just tell a bunch of 10-year-olds he'd pay for college and let them sink or swim on their own. He provided tutoring, took them to cultural events, had lunch with the students. He gave them the means to succeed in a way that went beyond money.

He was a mensch all right. With a Bullet.

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