Tuesday night in Washington, DC, a memorial service was held for Abe Pollin in the Verizon Center, the arena that transformed a neighborhood and that he built with his own money a little more than 10 years ago. Washingtonians knew Pollin as an NBA and NHL owner, a real estate magnate and a philanthropist. I never met the man, but have been moved by the many tributes that have been written about him since he died of a debilitating neurological disease just before Thanksgiving.
His life was what Zorba the Greek referred to as the "full catastrophe." The son of an Ellis Island Russian immigrant, Abe Pollin went on to build a real estate business and sports empire that made him a wealthy man. He was married for 64 years to his wife, Irene, and had just given her a bouquet of flowers for Thanksgiving in the moments before he passed away. Those who knew him tell story after story of his philanthropic work and the connection he made with those he served whether it was starving children in Uganda, low income families in DC that needed a safe and clean place to live, or creating futures for kids by paying for their education.
At the same time, Pollin suffered setbacks and tragedies in his life. He and his wife lost two children to disease. He had contractual disputes and lawsuits to deal with over the years. He was the NBA owner who fired Michael Jordan as the Wizards' general manager in 2003 when Jordan was still held in the highest regard (Pollin was right on that one.).
His was a life well lived. He had vision. He had drive. He was loyal. He had a heart and acted on it. He was also stubborn and didn't take criticism well. He wasn't perfect, but he was a human being who stuck with it for 85 years and in the process helped a lot of other human beings. I've been thinking about writing about Pollin for the past couple of weeks. What prompted me to go ahead and do it was this column in the Washington Post from Mike Wise. In it, Wise tells the story of Pollin's barber for 40 years, Jose Ayala. The barber told Wise of how, on a Saturday morning 15 years ago, Pollin helped out in the shop by picking up a broom and sweeping the mounds of hair off the floor. The bigger story, though, was how Pollin helped Ayala adopt his son from Venezuela after his wife had had two miscarriages. The barber and his wife had been to the country and met the one week old baby at an adoption agency. Bureaucracy got in the way, however, and they returned to DC without a son. The next Saturday, Ayala told Pollin what had happened and, as Wise recounts, Pollin said, "Listen, you are going to adopt this child and I will help you. Don't worry, I will take care of you. The main thing is you have your son." From there, Pollin paid for his high end attorneys to run the traps on the adoption process. Today, Jose's son is a 19 year old college lacrosse player.
If you want to understand the heart of a servant leader and how one life can impact thousands of others, read about the life of Abe Pollin. As you read, look past the wealth that Pollin created and look instead at how he paid attention to and acted on what he felt in his heart. No matter the level of financial resources available to us, we all have opportunities to serve others.