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Music Cues: Abe Pollin
Scott Simon
January 22, 2000

Scott Simon commentary about Washington sports luminary Abe Pollin

Abe Pollin is a millionaire who puts his money where his heart is.

Mr. Pollin is the slender, elderly man with a thinning thatch of silver hair sitting three seats away from Michael Jordan when Mr. Jordan announced that he was joining the Washington Wizards basketball team as a part owner and chief executive. While other people on the dais spoke about Mr. Jordan's winning record and reputation, Mr. Pollin said he had been led to offer Michael Jordan a stake in his team because, "I asked myself, 'What is the greatest gift I could give this city I love that has given so much to me?'"

Abe Pollin is a builder by trade -- nothing as ethereal as "information superhighways," but buildings, bridges, subways and hospitals.

In the Washington D.C. of the late 1950s, Abe Pollin integrated construction crews. During the early 1980s, when the city was perplexed and pressed to provide for thousands of homeless people, Abe Pollin began Abe's Tables, a feeding program that still operates. He called his basketball team the Washington Bullets -- as in, "faster than a speeding bullet." But when gun violence murdered so many, Mr. Pollin changed his team's name, and funded gun control programs. And when the District of Columbia was still reeling and bleeding in its heart from crime, Abe Pollin decided to build the team's home arena in the heart of downtown -- not the Washington D.C. of alabaster monuments and lobbyists' watering holes that the rest of the country resents, but the true city core.

"Sometimes," said Mr. Pollin, "if one person just shows a little faith in the future, people will follow." And, so far, many have -- the area surrounding the basketball arena now teems with new housing, restuarants, theaters, galleries, and even our studios -- though we came first.

Last year, when the National Basketball Association season was delayed by a labor dispute, Michael Jordan and Abe Pollin had a widely-advertised public argument. Mr. Pollin reportedly bellowed that the players' demands could drive out good owners who wanted to pay their players well, but were not merged multinational corporations able to write off millions of dollars of debt. Mr. Jordan bellowed back that players were not a burden, but the team's true wealth.

This week, both men said that they had become partners not in spite of that disagreement -- but because of it. They remembered that they had concluded their difference of opinion by saying, "I still respect you, Michael," and, "I still respect you, Abe." And this week, when they decided to become partners, they weren't betting their mutual futures on money, celebrity, or even ambition, but a more enduring commodity they had glimpsed in each other: character.