Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Institution

Washington is, in the eyes of many, a city of institutions. The great houses that anchor the image of the ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the great museums, the monuments, the edifices of stone and glass that house the agencies of Government.

But there have been two other great institutions in the recent history of this city that perhaps only locals can appreciate. They could not have been more different than those two great institutions that stand at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. One – Jack Kent Cooke, was flamboyant almost to a fault. He was the owner of a local sports team who would hold forth on every Sunday looking on from his private box with an aristocratic air as his burgundy and gold charges galvanized a region. In more than a quarter century he ran the club, the Washington Redskins would know their greatest successes and would become the common thread that united an entire community, regardless of color or class. But although Cooke was an outsized character in life; what he left behind has somehow been diminished in his absence. The monument built to his name is not revered by local fans as was the rickety predecessor in which they had their greatest successes. The town he conjured up as its home is no longer called by name. The team he owned has fallen on hard times, at least on the field.

The other local institution is Abe Pollin, a man who seemed no less determined to succeed, both in business and in sport, but one who applied that determination in very different ways. Mr. Pollin passed away yesterday. He did so having built a legacy in his adopted home town that will long outlive him. He was of the community, a part of it, not above it, and it was reflected in his innumerable charitable pursuits and his devotion to the teams he would bring to Washington. Fans of hockey in this region would later complain that the Washington Capitals were the neglected stepchild, relegated to lesser status to that of his beloved Bullets (later the Wizards) basketball team. We can only think such a charge hurt Pollin, given his incredible devotion to his city and its people.

Whether the charge is fair or not is another discussion. But Pollin seemed more a business man rooted in another era, a man who seemed less an anonymous corporate manager but rather a mom-and-pop store owner writ large. Some might see that as a fault. We see it otherwise, for it implies a simple devotion to the local community and to the people who are employed by that firm. He had the resources to devote to bring two professional sports teams to Washington, to allow its residents to swell their chests with pride that first the Bullets, which he brought to Washington from Baltimore, and then the Capitals, which he brought here when the National Hockey League expanded in 1974, were “their team.” It seemed for him, personal as well as “business.” And, unlike those modern professional sports teams who use the towns in which they reside as pawns to leverage ever sweeter deals for new stadiums, Pollin would later build his own arena downtown (after city officials balked at the prospect of doing so) to house his teams.

Pollin’s was not an uninterrupted path of success in managing sports franchises. His teams won little during his tenure, save for an NBA championship, and he could be, even for public consumption appear out of touch and cranky about his teams and his management style. But what he leaves behind is a city that is better for his efforts. While our attention is on the hockey team he brought here and subsequently sold, sports teams are perhaps the least of his legacy. The lives of many Washingtonians have been made better for his efforts, and a section of the city long left neglected has been raised up largely through his work and resources.

The other great institution of recent Washington sports history has passed – one of its great civic institutions. It is an incredible void he leaves in the Washington community that will be long in filling.

Thank you, Abe.