The tales of Abe Pollin's life

By Henry Abbott

On his podcast, Bill Simmons once interviewed NBA Commissioner David Stern, and they had this exchange:

Who's your favorite owner? The guy that you point to and say, "That's how you run a team."

I actually have three favorites: Bill Davidson, Abe Pollin and Larry Miller.

In the year since Stern said that, all three of those owners have passed away, now that Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin has died.

Pollin will be remembered for several things. He was the NBA's longest tenured owner. He was the guy who fired Michael Jordan. And he was the person who changed the name of his team from the Bullets to the Wizards after his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was killed.

The relationship between Pollin and David Stern seems to have been a special one. They ribbed each other at an event honoring Pollin, as told by Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog:

"I would say I met Abe first probably in 1967," Stern, the NBA Commish, remembered before the lunch. "He says he remembers me coming to a meeting and being this cocky kid who, during the break, smoked a cigar. I don't remember it that way, but I don't fight with Abe, so we'll go with that....And he picks on me a lot, he says, 'I remember you when....' I said 'Abe, for crying out loud, I'm 66 years old.' That's no excuse, you're still a kid."

Sure enough, when Pollin spoke at the end of the two-hour event, his first story was about David Stern. As a young kid. Smoking a cigar.

"The kid was so young that he had to bring a big cigar to [show] he was old enough to be a lawyer," Pollin said.

"All right, already," Stern finally said from the crowd.

After firing Michael Jordan, who had been running his team, Pollin was criticized for how he handled it, and said the following, as reported by the Associated Press:

"I agonized over it for days and nights, thinking, 'What is it that I have to do?' " Pollin recalled. "I'm going to think very hard about these decisions and make the best decisions that I think are best for the franchise."

Given Jordan's lack of success in Washington, the actual decision to get rid of him didn't prove as unpopular as the means.

At the meeting, Pollin didn't give Jordan a chance to make a case to stay or outline any plans for the team. It ended acrimoniously after about 20 minutes, and Jordan later termed Pollin's actions as "callous."

"I had made my decision ... and that was it," Pollin said. "I felt by sticking to my decision, I would have less embarrassment for him because if I had made him lay out some of his plans that he had maybe in mind that he was going to do for the team, and then I would say, 'I'm not accepting them,' I thought I would hurt him worse. So I tried to be as gentle as I could with Michael because I have great respect for him."

When Pollin decided to change his team's name, from "Bullets" to "Wizards," to promote peace, George Vecsey reported the follwing in The New York Times:

"They heard I had a tennis court," Pollin recalled. "They asked if I would like to play with the new ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin. Oh, boy. We became friends. His wife. My wife. Our children. Last summer I took my whole family to Israel to see him. It's a tremendous loss."

By then, Pollin was already planning to move the team from suburban Maryland to a proposed arena in downtown Washington. He said he discussed the name change with Susan O'Malley, the president of the team, and Wes Unseld, the executive vice president, who played and coached for this team.

"We all take pride in the Bullets," Unseld said the other day. "But times have changed. Circumstances have changed. All the old guys who wore the uniform have to realize that. Maybe we can have an impact by changing the name. But it's not just a name change. We're going into the schools to reach conflict resolution. Juwan Howard and I have made public-service announcements about violence. This isn't just about a nickname and a logo." ...

"I stood in the place where Rabin spoke," Pollin said. "It was a peace gathering. He was about to leave, but he walked back again. They were rejoicing for peace. I walked those steps. I realized it was time to get this done."