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POLLIN: Kids at heart
(Published May 3, 2004)
By CARRIE DEVORAH
It was in character for Abe Pollin to attend the rededication of Sixth and Iís synagogue, wearing a tie decorated with children of all colors, albeit green, red, yellow. He has kids at heart.
"The God Lord has been good to me. I am on the giving rather than the receiving end. And I try mostly to be involved with kids," he said.
Pollin's interest with helping children began when he was a child. He was raised in a traditional Jewish home, in which both parents actively participated in community affairs.
"I grew up in a household where I have been involved with Israel my whole life," he said.
Pollinís mother was involved in Hadassah Women, the largest volunteer organization supporting Israel. His father was the chairman for Israel Bonds.
Anti-semitism today, in America and the world, concerns Pollin. Having experienced it while growing up, he is committed to fighting it as an adult. The father of two sons and two granddaughters and a longtime officer for AIPAC, a political action committee supporting Israel, Pollin describes his fatherís first visit to Israel, the Holy Land for all religions, one year after it was established: "He fell to the ground and kissed the tarmac."
Afternoon sun pours through the boardroom windows atop MCI Center during our recent talk.
Pollin is at home with the construction directly outside his penthouse picture window. He said he was a "legitimate businessman before I got into the super sports business," constructing houses in the 1940s. "I built the first [G.I. Bill] houses in Washington," he said.
Pollin speaks in a quiet voice, denying he has an accent. "Do I, Sheila?" he asks of Sheila Francis, his company's assistant director for event and venue public relations. They both laugh.
Boss and employee are relaxed with each other, grounded with earthy warm-toned table and leather chairs. The room décor says: "You are welcome." Walls are minimalistically decorated with photos and awards. It is only when Francis points to the Olympic torch that I remember I am visiting with D.C.ís finest, a man devoted to his childhood beginnings. Pollin, a hometown success, was born in Philadelphia, moving to D.C. when he was 8 years old.
Pollin describes D.C. as "the most beautiful, most important city in the world. That is why this building is here." He was courted to build the MCI Center in Maryland, where political leaders offered him keys, zero debt, concessions, club seats, everything. Pollin weighed his options. Zero debt in Maryland or $20 million debt in D.C.? He said he chose D.C. because "this city had been good to me my whole life. Nobody else owned two teams, except me, and nobody else can do it, so I decided to build it here," despite the District, having hit rock bottom, withdrawing its offer to finance his building.
The real star of the Capital Centre family, as Pollin refers to his sports empire employees, is the unassuming man sitting at the table head. Slight in build, he entered the boardroom quietly, suredly. He isnít comfortable with being a public figure.
He lets me know that in no uncertain terms. He handles success, but prefers that news media focus on the ethical morality with which he runs his business. Pollin speaks openly, puzzled at reporters postulating critically on decisions they think he should make differently.
"One half the article praises me," he says of most press profiles, "and the second rips me apart."
"Iím the senior owner of the NBA, Iíve been there 40 years. So having been here 40 years, nothing the press says or does bothers me anymore," he said. "I would hope that the press would be fairer than they are. I donít think they are fair. I think they have preconceived notions.
"Itís not very pleasant, but thatís the way it is. I just forget about it," he said.
But the criticism is not forgotten. The reporters' words are hurtful, even to this senior owner. That reality is written on his forehead, the elevens, the furrows between his eyebrows.
Pollin holds one standard for all employees in the Capital Centre family, including star athletes. Loyalty first, skill second.
"Some of the athletes in the playoffs used to work for me. ÖTop athletes are let go," Pollin said, "when I am not proud of them as human beings."
Loyalty is key to Pollin. It is the trait on which he hires people.
"I tell them that if I expect they be loyal to me, they must expect me to be loyal to them, because life is not a one-way street. It is a two-way street. So, I think people -- a lot of people -- think it's kind of corny when we talk about the 'Capital Centre family.'"
Pollin looks after his staff: "My employees know when they have a problem, they can just walk right in and talk to me. My door is always open."
Pollinís Capital Centre family of employees includes employable disabled men and women, working at jobs doing "the best they can do," Pollin said, "delivering the mail and so on." He owns a Ticketmaster franchise in the Washington, Delaware and Maryland area. "We have about 50 people answering the telephone. Many of them are disabled but able to answer the telephone."
It is not uncommon for families to have second generations working at the MCI Center. One employee, Everett, has worked for Pollin for 53 years. His son, Mike, is MCIís chief engineer. Pollin rewards employee loyalty with milestone service recognitions -- five years, 10 years, 15 years and more. Sheila Francis has been with Pollin a little over two years.
"This job has turned out to be more than I ever expected," said the quiet brunette. A knowing Mona Lisa smile decorates her face.
Family happiness is paramount to Pollin. He supported his childrenís decisions to pick their own paths in life. One granddaughter is graduating from Columbia. She is a Fulbright scholar. She will be spending her scholarship in Biliou, Lithuania, studying Jewish history and Jewish language. His oldest son is a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. His second son is a businessman in the D.C. area.
"They donít want to be involved [with their father's business interests]," said Pollin. "I admire and respect them for it."
Pollin empathizes. At age 35, Pollin left his father's and brotherís family building business.
"We were builders. Successful. Father and sons. But I had to sort of prove I could do it on my own. So I left. I know exactly how my sons feel, that they wanted to do their own thing. As long as they are happy, then I am happy for them."
Pollinís D.C. programs are legendary. Food For Kids, Serving Seniors Thanksgiving Dinner, Pollin Award, Read To Achieve, Our House Rules, Annual Turkey Basket Giveaway, The Wizards Kids 'n Kops program.
Personal tragedy influences his involvement with children. Sharing that he lost two children, Pollin continued: "Iíll give you an interesting story," he says, telling me how he read a Washington Post op-ed article stating that 40,000 children go hungry every day in the world, that half of them could be saved with money and caring. Pollin called the editor, thinking the number was a misquote. It wasnít. Pollin travelled to UNICEFís New York headquarters. Three hours after he arrived, he was chairman of UNICEF, enroute to Uganda and other countries with a television crew, filming children being fed. The pain still etched in his heart, Pollin describes mothers waiting hours with babies, first to have children weighed to determine if they were sufficiently underweight to get extra food. Then, Pollin describes watching the only food available, raw kernels of corn, being poured into the motherís basket, spillage quickly picked up and eaten by children, so hungry they are willing to eat the dirt, too.
Pollin sits quietly. We had spoken earlier about the children filling MCIís events, of disabled guests, event front and center. Military parents from the bases sharing a fun evening with their children. And of one little boy, a WISH child, I photographed at the wrestling event, so proud of the medallions and championship belt the wrestlers gave him.
Pollin clears his throat before speaking again: "The greatest joy I get is when I come to an event and I see families with kids having a good time. I really watch the families and the kids more than I watch the event." He admits shyly the biggest kick he gets out of having built MCI Center is providing the clean, safe, beautiful arena for families to attend.
"Basically, kids are very important to me," Pollin said.
While charitable teachings Pollin learned at his fatherís knee guide his daily dealings, his personal tragedy drew Pollin closer to his religious roots. Burying a child is a parentís greatest pain. Pollin invested time into learning about Judaism. "I wanted to be part of the service, rather than listening to them in Hebrew not knowing what they were saying. Iíve been a reform Jew ever since," he said.
One need only look at the Sixth and I Synagogue to know that Pollinís heart fills its chapel, just like the MCI Center itself and his office suite, filled with warmth, glowing and inviting. A gold star may have been replaced atop the synagogue on Yom Hashoah, the annual commemoration of the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The whole time, a gold star has been here in D.C., atop the MCI Center.
Two mezuzahs decorate Pollinís office doorpost. One for coming, one for going. Expectedly one has a hockey theme, the second a basketball theme. A mezuzah contains passages from Deuteronomy, reflecting on man keeping Godís words constantly in their minds and in their heart. Some people think mezuzahs are good-luck charms. Rather, it is a constant reminder that Man is in Godís presence. There is the expression "Man plans and God laughs."
I can tell you this after sharing in the rededication of Sixth and Iís synagogue, watching Abe Pollin supported by the church congregation formerly housed there, eager to transition a House of God back to a House of God, Pollin is blessed with the greatest wealth in the world -- good friends, loyal employees, a historical road map of tradition influencing his decision making. Sports writers, desperate to fill columns and sell newspapers, just donít get. "Itís" not about money; "itís" about having people, kids of all ages, at heart.
Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator