Abe Pollin, a Washingtonian from the age of eight, started his career in construction before becoming an NBA owner. After 12 years of working for his family’s construction business and graduating from George Washington University in 1945, Pollin formed his own construction company in 1957. A few years later he met and married his lifetime love, Irene Pollin.
In 1964 Abe and Irene Pollin purchased the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets from then owner Dave Trager for $1.1 million with former NBA referee Arnold Heft. Trager had originally owned the franchise dating back to its origin as an NBA expansion team from Chicago called the Chicago Packers. After renaming the team the Chicago Zephyrs to little fanfare, Trager moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1963 and renamed it the Baltimore Bullets.
In 1968 the Pollin’s became the sole owners and moved the team to Washington.
Since Pollin owned a construction company, he decided to build an arena in Landover, Md., for his NBA franchise the Capital Bullets and eventually his new NHL expansion team, the Washington Capitals. The arena was named by Irene Pollin and would become known as the Capital Centre. Taking only 15 months to build, and featuring a unique roof design that would make it an iconic building, the Capital Centre opened on Dec. 2, 1973, as the home for the NBA’s Capital Bullets and the NHL’s Washington Capitals.
In 1974, after only one season as the Capital Bullets, Pollin’s franchise switched names once again to become known as the Washington Bullets.
The Capital Centre featured a plethora of unique features not found in other arenas, including electronic ticketing, one-of-a-kind suite accommodations and a never-before-seen telescreen. It was then that Pollin became known as a true visionary for the industry.
Abe and Irene Pollin were at the center of some of the NBA’s most historic events throughout their ownership. In 1978 they reached the pinnacle of the NBA when their Bullets, behind the play of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge, defeated Seattle and brought a World Championship to Washington. In the summer of 1979 Pollin accepted an invitation by Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping to become the first NBA team to visit China, forging the way for the league to become a global entity. Following a signing of normalization of relations between the United States and China by President Jimmy Carter, Pollin took the team overseas.
After realizing that the Capital Centre was becoming dated and having always wanted to build an arena in downtown Washington, D.C., Abe and Irene Pollin decided to build a new state-of-the-art arena: MCI Center. The arena broke ground in 1995 and would be privately financed by the Pollin’s, becoming one of his greatest career accomplishments.
MCI Center took only 25 months to build, but faced several obstacles during construction. The initial soil excavation revealed 175,000 tons of hazardous and contaminated soil, which took six months to remove. The next challenge involved the location of the Metro subway system directly beneath the building site with tunnels for the Red, Green and Yellow lines. Large transfer girders, one including 20 million pounds of concrete, were built around each tunnel to isolate them from the weight of the arena above and allow for the project to continue. The final obstacle involved relocating the entrance for the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station from its original location at 7th and G streets NW to its current home at 7th and F streets NW.
Exactly 24 years to the date from when the Capital Centre opened, MCI Center opened its doors on Dec. 2, 1997. The $200-million facility had become the new home for Pollin’s NBA and NHL teams.
In addition to a new venue, the Bullets experienced an additional change – a new name. As Pollin was building MCI Center he felt that the Bullets name had too many negative connotations that were not appropriate to be associated with the nation’s capital. So Pollin turned to the fans asking them to submit suggestions for a new team name and ended up with the Washington Wizards, a moniker used since the first game played at MCI Center.
After the Wizards and Capitals first season at MCI Center, the Pollin’s bought a WNBA expansion team. The WNBA’s Washington Mystics debuted to a record-setting crowd of 20,674 on June 19, 1998 – the largest crowd ever to attend a women’s professional basketball game.
In 1999 the Pollin’s sold full ownership of the NHL’s Washington Capitals and a minority share of their management group, Washington Sports & Entertainment, to Ted Leonsis. Forming a partnership group called Lincoln Holdings, Leonsis became the majority owner of the Washington Capitals and a minority owner of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, WNBA’s Washington Mystics, Verizon Center and the Baltimore-Washington Ticketmaster franchise. During Pollin’s ownership of the Washington Capitals the team made 15 playoff appearances, including an appearance in the Stanley Cup final during the team’s first season (1997-1998) at MCI Center.
Ownership of the Mystics changed hands in May 2005 when the Pollin’s sold the WNBA franchise to Leonsis’ partnership group. Sheila Johnson joined on as a Lincoln Holdings minority partner and became the Mystics president and managing partner. With Lincoln Holdings’ full ownership of the Capitals and the Mystics and minority ownership of the Wizards, Johnson became the first African-American woman to have ownership interest in three professional sports teams.
The following year the arena itself underwent a change – a new name. The naming rights sponsor of the building, MCI WorldCom, was acquired by Verizon. So in March 2006, MCI Center became officially known as Verizon Center.
Ten years after opening, Verizon Center solidified its stature as the core behind the economic resurgence of Penn Quarter in Washington, D.C., and as an example for other cities to follow. SportsIllustrated.com was quoted saying Verizon Center was “…a building to emulate” when covering the opening of the Prudential Center arena in Newark in 2007. The Star-Ledger also declared that because of Verizon Center, “the neighborhood along 7thStreet NW has evolved from one of the most depressed areas in the nation’s capital into a planner’s dream neighborhood of hotels, restaurants, stores and people on the streets at all hours.”
The same year, 2007, marked two other highlights for the downtown venue: Pollstar, a leading trade publication, nominated Verizon Center for Arena of the Year amongst iconic nominees Madison Square Garden, Staples Center and Air Canada Centre; and the first true high-definition scoreboard for an indoor arena was installed at Verizon Center.
Historic events continued to follow. On Dec. 3, 2007, Abe Pollin’s 84 birthday, then Mayor of the District of Columbia Adrian M. Fenty renamed the street in front of Verizon Center “Abe Pollin Way” in recognition of Pollin’s countless contributions to the city, including the building and opening of Verizon Center.
Abe and Irene’s passion for sports crossed over into philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors. After just 10 years of the arena being opened they had already contributed more than $10 million in tickets to local community groups and organizations, including charitable donations to more than 450 organizations and non-profits, as well as more than 70 elementary schools in the D.C. metropolitan area. Receiving various accolades throughout his career, Pollin added one more in early 2009 as his alma mater, The George Washington University, inducted him into the school’s Sports Executives Business Hall of Fame.
In September 2009, in order to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Bullets first trip to China, Pollin sent players, team personnel, NBA Hall of Famer Wes Unseld and former Bullets player Gheorghe Muresan on a 10-day commemorative trip to China. The team visited the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Yingxiu and took part in various philanthropic activities at universities and high schools as well as a series of basketball clinics, including one with the China Basketball Association’s championship team, Guangdong Hongyuan. The Wizards delegation also visited the resettlement town of Chengdu, which included survivors from the record-setting 7.9 earthquake in Yingxiu in 2008.
On Nov. 24, 2009, after dealing with a rare, neurological disease called corticobasal degeneration (CBD), Abe Pollin passed away at the age of 85. His two greatest accomplishments were winning the 1978 NBA championship and building the privately financed arena in downtown Washington, D.C. He had stated that he had two goals in mind when he built Verizon Center: to make it the best facility in the world for sports and entertainment and to revitalize downtown Washington, D.C.
Abe Pollin achieved his vision as Verizon Center is consistently ranked amongst the top venues in the country and was ranked the ninth highest grossing venue for the past decade (2000-10) by Billboard magazine, a leading trade publication in the industry. The arena is the core of a $6.84 billion redevelopment for the neighborhood, generating $100 million in taxes with a cumulative $2.48 billion in taxes for the seven-block radius surrounding the arena from 1995-2011 (source: Downtown BID). It has created 48,600 jobs, increased Metro ridership by 20.5 million people, brought 34.2 million people through its doors, hosted more than 2,890 events and recorded 652 sold-out events.
The Pollin’s held the distinction of being the longest tenured owners in the NBA, having served at the helm of the franchise for 46 seasons.
Following the passing of Abe Pollin, Leonsis and his partners acquired the remaining shares of Washington Sports & Entertainment in owning the Wizards, Verizon Center and the Baltimore-Washington Ticketmaster franchise. Leonsis founded Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which merged Lincoln Holdings with Pollin’s Washington Sports & Entertainment group on June 10, 2010. In 2011 the Baltimore-Washington Ticketmaster franchise was sold back to Ticketmaster.
Today Monumental Sports & Entertainment is one of the largest integrated sports and entertainment companies in the country, with one of the most diversified partnership groups in all of sports. The company owns and operates three professional sports teams: the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and Verizon Center. Monumental Sports also manages Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the state-of-the-art training facility for the Capitals in Arlington, Va., and the Patriot Center arena at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.