One of the professional sport franchise owners I deeply respect and admire is the late Abe Pollin, former owner of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. While he led the efforts to bring professional sports back into city centers to help revitalize downtowns rather than suburbs, I am most appreciative of the amazing stand he took against violence.
Most owners, and people for that matter, don’t like to go against the status quo. Change is scary. “Tradition! Tradition!” goes the Fiddler on the Roof anthem. Pollin was the exception.
He had been thinking about changing the name of the Washington Bullets for many years. He felt like it sent the wrong message in a city that was dubbed the murder capitol of the world.
“I’ve thought about it for 31 years….Bullets connote killing, violence, death. Our slogan used to be, ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’ That is no longer appropriate,” Pollin said in an interview with the New York Times.
But it was the assassination of his friend Yitzhak Rabin in Israel that brought Pollin from an idea to action.
“I just came back from Israel, where I attended the funeral of my good friend, Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin,” Pollin said. “My friend was shot in the back by bullets. The name Bullets for a sports team is no longer appropriate…..”
“It was a peace gathering. He was about to leave, but he walked back again. They were rejoicing for peace. I walked those steps. I realized it was time to get this done.”
“I have asked our staff to implement an entirely new community relations program, an anti-violence initiative that will begin this season,” Pollin said. “All that we do in the community will be focused on an anti-violence message with a conflict resolution theme. Our name change will go hand-in-hand with the Bullets’ anti-violence campaign.”
So Pollin and his staff sponsored a naming contest and the Bullets became the Wizards.
There is nothing magical here. The switch was a matter of image, yes, and a chance for the team to turn over a new leaf, to start anew. But I admire Pollin for his willingness to act, to move beyond tradition to a place more reflective of peace and justice.
As the late owner said, “If I save one life, make a change in one life, it’ll be worth it. The Bible says that if you save one life, you save the world. Hopefully, we’ll save many more than that.”
(Another owner of a professional franchise in Washington would do well to follow Mr. Pollin’s example).