WASHINGTON — Former Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin was remembered as a civic-minded visionary, passionate sportsman and generous philanthropist at a public memorial service Tuesday night.
"He believed in people," Wizards forward Antawn Jamison said before the ceremony. "He believed in this city when people didn't believe in this city. ... His time here, he really made a difference."
Pollin, 85, died Nov. 24 from corticobasal degeneration, a rare brain disease. Pollin had donated $3 million toward finding a cure for the brain condition at the time of his death.
Tuesday's public memorial service was held at Verizon Center, which Pollin built with his own money and opened in 1997 as the home for the Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals. The program was held on the hardwood court where Pollin, who made his fortune in construction, loved watching his basketball team play.
Photos of Pollin were displayed on the scoreboard hanging over the court, along with video and photos of significant moments of his life. The entire Wizards team attended the ceremony, along with fans, former players, coworkers and employees, and those touched by Pollin's kindness.
"With Abe Pollin, it was about people, not profit," said Rabbi Bruce Lustig. "It was about doing what was right, not what was easy."
Pollin owned the Wizards franchise for 45 years and was the longest-tenured NBA owner at the time of his death, and he ran the Capitals from their inception in 1974 until 1999. But his focus was not singularly on sports, and Pollin made countless donations to a wide range of civic causes.
Tiffany Alston, now an attorney in Upper Marlboro, Md., was one of 55 students at economically disadvantaged Seat Pleasant Elementary School in suburban Prince George's County who took Pollin up on his offer of a free college education — provided they graduated high school.
"He instilled the community with doctors, lawyers, teachers, public servants and police officers. ... Thank you, Pollin family, for sharing him with us," Alston told the crowd of about 1,000 seated in the arena's lower level.
But education was merely one of Pollin's passions. He fed the area's homeless through a program called "Abe's Table," donated money to Capital Area Food Bank, built low-income housing in indigent areas and revitalized a downtrodden Chinatown neighborhood with his self-financed arena.
When he became worried that his team's moniker, the Bullets, cast Washington in a negative light because of the city's high murder rate, Pollin decided to change the name to Wizards.
"He's done all these things for so many people, not only here in this country, but in other countries as well. Kids he's helped out with all the scholarships that he's given. Those are the things that will live on long after today. That legacy that he's leaving, this is what it's all about," said basketball Hall of Fame guard Earl Monroe, who played for Pollin's Baltimore Bullets from 1967-71.