The Two Faces Of Abe
By Harold Bell
In Washington, DC on Tuesday November 24, 2009, the sports world lost a sports superstar who never hit a game winning basket at the buzzer, kicked a winning field goal as time expired or hit a walk off homerun to win the World Series. His name was Abe Pollin and his uniform number was No. 1. He was the owner of the NBA Washington Wizards.
I became familiar with the name Abe Pollin when he brought a struggling Baltimore Bullets franchise in 1964. One of the NBA’s superstars during that era was a young athlete out of Spingarn High School in Washington, DC. His name was Elgin Baylor, he was known to Washingtonians as “Rabbit.” He was the only excuse we needed to travel to Baltimore to watch a losing Bullets team.
The one-on-one battle between Elgin and Gus Johnson of the Bullets made the ride from DC up the Baltimore/Washington Parkway worthwhile.
My co-worker at the United Planning Organization and later legendary radio personality Petey Green and I could not wait for the next home game. The games were classics, especially after the arrival of Earl Monroe.
Abe Pollin and Wes Unseld
When Mr. Pollin signed “The Pearl” in 1967 and Wes Unseld in 1968 to play along side Gus Johnson, the Bullets became The Original Show Time of the NBA. The Lakers’ show time with Magic, Kareem and Worthy were “Second Banana” to these guys.
Dave Bing (Detroit Pistons) and Earl arrived on the scene at the same time. I was in NBA Basketball heaven. They completed my NBA connection.
The “Triangle” of Elgin, Earl and Dave made destination Baltimore an Easy Rider. Elgin and Dave were Spingarn alumnus and we shared a special kinship (we were coached by the same coaches). Earl and I were alumnus of Winston-Salem State College in North Carolina. It was there I met him on one his visits to the campus in 1963. We both played for the late legendary basketball Hall of Fame coach Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines.
If there was any doubt that Mr. Pollin created The Original NBA Show Time all one has to see is a video of Wes Unseld retrieving a rebound and tossing one of his patent outlet passes to Earl and then join Gus on a fast break to the basket. The fans would be standing on their feet holding their breath expecting the unexpected. Would it be a rim shattering dunk by Gus or a no-look pass from The Pearl? They were a sight to behold.
When Mr. Pollin moved the team to Landover, Maryland in 1974 I was just entering the world of media as a sports talk show host with “The Original Inside Sports.”
In many of the stories written in newspapers and the repeated discussions of Mr. Pollin’s legacy on talk shows, the one word that seems to dominate the stories and those discussions—is loyalty.
When I think of loyalty and Mr. Pollin’s, I think of Landover, Maryland in 1974. The move started a divorce that was heard around the NBA, Pollin vs. Monroe. There would be no out of court or on the court settlement. Earl would take his ball to New York and Mr. Pollin would take his team to Landover.
Mr. Pollin’s boyhood and close friend Hymie Perlo once said to me “That was the worst basketball decision Abe ever made.”
Earl Monroe revolutionized how the guard position was played in the NBA. He brought showmanship and moves to the basket never before seen in pro basketball. When we talk about “Great Athletes” I define their greatness by how they changed the rules and the way the game is played. Earl changed the rules and the game.
Their split was about money, Earl’s contract was up and he was looking for a long term deal and a raise. Abe Pollin didn’t think Earl was worth the time or the money he was asking for and they went their separate ways.
Earl left for the New York Knickerbockers and got the money he thought he deserved and a NBA Championship. In discussions with Earl about his Bullet departure, loyalty was not one his favorite words. He would often say, “Going to New York was the best decision I have ever made.”
The divorced left a bitter taste in Earl’s mouth for many years. He is still the most popular player in the history of the franchise.
Mr. Pollin realized he had made a mistake and that was one of the reasons he summoned him back to Verizon Center last season. It was there Earl and Mr. Pollin renewed their vows kissed and made up. The Wizards retired Earl’s number during a welcome back home ceremony.
When Mr. Pollin moved the Bullets to Landover in 1974 there was a double standard established at the media press table. There were some who ignored it and others who only dared to whisper about it.
When I took my seat at the press table the seating arrangement made me wonder why was there Brown vs Board of Education, marches on Washington and Selma Alabama, assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, three little girls blown up in their church. Why black and white civil rights workers were lynched fighting for the civil rights of us all?
I refuse to allow myself to feel like a second class citizen all over again.
I thought of putting my own life on the line during the 1968 riots. Here we are in 1974 and white media was seated to the left of midcourt and black media was seated to the right of midcourt. Something was wrong with this picture!
During the 1974 NBA season I established the first monthly Media Roundtable at WOOK radio where my sports talk show Inside Sports was aired. The participants included Dave Dupree, Bill McCaffrey, Ed Frankovich, George Solomon, Ed Brown, Sonny Hill, Elmer Smith, Bill Rhoden and a host of other contributors.
It was on one of my shows where the idea was hatched that Ed Frankovich and I would change seats at the next Bullets home game.
The next home game was against the Golden State Warriors. I remember Warrior Coach Al Attles and I meeting under the basket just before the game started. I told him what was about to transpire and he said, “Be careful” and he went back to his seat on the bench.
The sit-in took place quietly and without fanfare. A new seating chart was posted a week later and a new era in media relations had emerged at the Capitol Centre.
Mr. Pollin’s loyalty was tested again in 1975. Boston Celtic great K. C. Jones was fired after he coached and led the Washington Bullets into the NBA finals against The Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were coached by Al Attles, making this the first time in NBA history two black coaches had met in a Championship game. The Warriors swept the Bullets in four straight games and K C Jones was later fired. All the blamed should not be laid at the door of Mr. Pollin. Several of K. C.’s closest backstabbing friends helped expedite his exit.
I remember former player Carlos Terry who was destined to be an impact player for the Wizards before a knee injury ended his career. Carlos was a Winston-Salem State University grad and played for Bighouse Gaines. Coach Gaines asked me to keep an eye on the big fellow and help him navigate the deep water in DC.
Carlos and I became good friends and he joined the team of Kids In Trouble, Inc to work with at-risk children. He was a great young man with a big heart. His teammate Rick Mahorn was a bad influence. Mahorn was a country boy who got blinded by the bright lights and big city and became a NBA bully and a “City Slicker.”
DC is a small town and my community is even smaller. It is hard to keep a secret if more then two people know the secret.
Carlos picked up a couple of bad habits hanging out with Mahorn, I diplomatically pulled him aside one night after a game and told him to be careful of his after hour hangouts. He said “thanks, no problem.”
After his knee injury and cutting his ties with the Bullets, Carlos became depress and drifted off. I would wake up one morning to hear the news via radio that he had been killed in an automobile accident on the beltway. Reports were that he had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Coach Gaines called me several days later saying “Carlos’ family don’t have the money to bury him.” I asked Coach to let me check around for some resources. My first call was to the Wizards’ GM Bob Ferry and explained the family’s dilemma; he said “Harold let me get back to you.” I am still waiting for him to get back to me.
Thanks to Coach Gaines and Carlos’ college family and friends, the funeral proceeded. I traveled to his hometown, in Lexington, North Carolina to speak on behalf of Kids In Trouble, Inc., at his home-going. I don’t recall seeing anyone from the Bullet’s organization in attendance—loyalty.
Mr. Pollin hired native Washingtonian Eddie Jordan to coach the Wizards on a handshake. Eddie rescued the franchise and took them back to what had become Never-Never Land, the NBA playoffs. The team excelled for 4 straight seasons. His reward, he was fired last season–loyalty.
Ironically, Eddie Jordan is now the coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and they were in town to play the Wizard’s on the eve of Mr. Pollin’s death. Eddie always a class-act said, “I am appreciative of the opportunity Mr. Pollin gave me to coach in my hometown, it has been the highlight of my basketball career.”
One year ago Tuesday on the eve of his death Mr. Pollin raised eyebrows when he sent MJ the man known as Michael Jordan packing back to North Carolina. He fired MJ from his duties as Vice-President of basketball operations. MJ helped turn a financially down and out franchise into a money making Cash-Cow.
He returned to his “Comfort Zone” the basketball courts of the NBA to sell out crowds making ticket scalpers some of the most sought after guys in Chinatown. On game nights the restaurants were suddenly full before and after Wizard’s games. Mr. Pollin an astute businessman and suddenly a magician pulled a rabbit out of the hat. The rabbit was Michael Jordan. He later did a Bugs Bunny and said to MJ and his fans “That’s all folks.”
It is here that I think Mr. Pollin gets a bum rap as it relates to the dismissal of Michael Jordan. I blame MJ and his agent David Falk for allowing Michael to make a business decision with a businessman without having anything in writing! This was business and it had nothing to do with friendship.
Mr. Pollin never forgot the put down by Michael at an owner’s meeting before a threaten strike by the NBA players. Mr. Pollin questioned the selfish and greedy motives of the players, Michael’s response, “Mr. Pollin if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.”
I have read the stories and heard the so-called experts talk and discus the legacy of Mr. Abe Pollin. The only one that made any sense was Michael Wilbon. His column in the Washington Post “A man who reached out to others” was very compelling.
Michael’s column taught me two lessons in one. His column gave me an inside look of a very complicated man who reached back and gave unselfishly to others. Whether, he gave back because of family pain or a guilty conscience, only he knows. The second lesson was when Michael challenged this giant of a businessman on two business decisions that he thought the columnist knew nothing about. Mr. Pollin thought the columnist should concentrate on keeping scores of games and batting averages of athletes—-because business was out of his league.
Mr. Pollin, the multi-millionaire and giant businessman took out an ad in the local newspapers including the columnist’s paper saying in so many words “Mind your damn business.”
Several years later the columnist’s advice would prove him to be right, the story could have ended right there, but Mr. Pollin swallowed his pride and invited the columnist to the groundbreaking ceremony for the new MCI Center. This was the same downtown location that the columnist had advised Mr. Pollin, “If the Bullets are going to remain viable they need to move to downtown DC.”
This gesture along with the move to bring Earl Monroe back home told me lot about Mr. Pollin. He was man enough to say “I was wrong.” This is a lesson that we all can learn from, never be too tall to say ‘I made a mistake.’
Mr. Pollin made his share of mistakes that included, Earl Monroe, Red Auerbach, Arnold Heft and others that we will never know. But he was human and we all make mistakes.
Winning or losing I must admit Mr. Pollin and I were like ships passing in the night. We would sometimes nod our heads at each other and sometimes we would look right through each other.
I was holding Mr. Pollin responsible for the inconsiderate acts of a few when he had a full plate.
In the final analyst, Mr. Pollin’s cup was half full and half empty. We all should live to be so lucky.
I was especially proud to see three young men in attendance at Tuesday night’s game who have been touched by Kids In Trouble, Inc. and Inside Sports. The three are now making their mark and making a difference as sports journalist on the national scene, Michael Wilbon, David Aldridge and Kevin Blackistone.
I discovered that I can still learn from them. Through them I learned a lesson taught in a great man’s death that he cared long before Harold Bell and the NBA.
Mr. Abe Pollin——1923-2009 when two faces in Washington, DC, was better then one.
Harold Bell is the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television. Throughout the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties, Harold embarked upon a relatively new medium–sports talk radio with classic interviews with athletes and sports celebrities. The show and format became wildly popular and has been copied over the years by others in the mainstream media.