It was an odd marriage from the start: the old-time real estate developer and the new-school king of sports commercialism, Abe Pollin and Michael Jordan.
Nearly 40 years apart in age and even more distant in approach, their partnership in the Washington Wizards often seemed like a Lincoln Town Car and an Aston Martin vying for the same parking spot.
But while the ugly collision that ended it all at MCI Center might have been foreseeable, it might also have had as much to do with Pollin and Jordan’s similarities as their differences.
Both men are proud, determined and competitive, with a long history of speaking their minds. In fact, before Jordan and Pollin started working together in January 2000, their most notable public conversation had been an argument.
Wednesday, the words from both sides were equally forthright, although each in his own style.
From Jordan: “Today, without any prior discussion with me, ownership informed me that it had unilaterally decided to change our mutual long-term understanding. I am shocked by this decision, and by the callous refusal to offer me any justification for it.”
From Pollin: “In the end, Ted (Leonsis, a minority owner) and I felt that this franchise should move in a different direction.”
In public, Pollin likes to coat even the most sour message with caramel, but in private, sources said, he was much more severe, turning a meeting Jordan thought would be a long discussion into a curt half-hour dismissal.
“One thing they both have in common, they are both very surefooted, and they are both very competitive -- Abe’s always been ultra-competitive as an owner, and he takes it very hard when he doesn’t win,” said New Jersey Net General Manager Rod Thorn, who has dealt with Jordan and Pollin extensively in his current capacity and in his former job, as the NBA’s executive vice president.
“Michael is the same way, of course. Obviously, there was a difference in age, they’re from different eras, so that may affect the way their personalities come out. Whether that played into what happened (Wednesday,) we can only guess.”
Certainly, the two have clashed before. At a meeting between players and owners during the NBA’s contentious 1998-99 labor negotiations, Pollin talked about the money his team and many others were losing.
Jordan snapped back, “If you can’t make a profit you should sell your team.”
According to some in the room, Pollin coldly replied that, as the NBA’s longest-tenured owner, he deserved more respect from Jordan, and while Jordan apparently acknowledged that to be true, the altercation remained pointed.
So when Leonsis first approached Pollin about bringing Jordan into the franchise a year later, Pollin’s response -- that he wanted to have dinner alone with Jordan to get a better feel for the man -- was, in many ways, Jordanesque.
Jordan is known for being extremely careful before dipping his toe into business, politics or any other arena, and the first few meetings between the two felt like a pair of high school dance partners scoping each other out from across the gym.
Pollin invited Jordan to his home. Jordan tried the salmon Pollin was serving, even though, he told Pollin at the time, he had never eaten salmon before in his life.
At another time, the two met in Pollin’s living room with Leonsis also present, three guys talking sports over sodas and beers.
By the time Pollin and Leonsis introduced Jordan as the Wizards’ part-owner and president of basketball operations, Pollin was calling Jordan “one of the greatest athletes that ever put on a suit, but also a guy who really is class.”
“He’s a straight, honest, decent, wonderful human being, and in the short term, I’ve gotten to really know him,” Pollin said. “I really consider him as somebody I really consider and honor, consider a friend.”
Yet over the 3 1/2years the two men worked together, the tenor of that friendship was challenged, with disagreements often echoing the themes of their long-ago exchange at the NBA labor negotiations.
At times Jordan questioned Pollin’s vision and ability to financially keep up with the rest of the league. When Pollin required the Wizards to stay at an airport hotel in Portland that his brother owns, Jordan used his personal credit card to book rooms for all the players at a more upscale, centrally located hotel.
Pollin, in turn, saw his preference to deal with his brother as an example of the fierce loyalty he is known for. Pollin also sometimes felt slighted by Jordan’s lack of deference to him.
According to two team sources, Pollin called Wizard Coach Doug Collins into his office late this season to remind Collins that he worked for Pollin, not Jordan.
The conversation was not unlike those Pollin has had for decades with the politicians and developers he crossed in his real estate business.
Former Maryland state delegate Frank Pesci, a heated rival of Pollin’s in the 1980s, once told The Post: “There’s an arrogance there. When you get your way all the time and someone tries to tell you that you can’t have your way, you get upset.” Around the same time, a former Prince George’s County, Md., councilwoman publicly called Pollin a “bully.” It’s a notion Pollin does not completely dismiss. “I am not a nice guy,” he once told Sports Illustrated. “That is a misconception. I want to win.”
The words sound nothing like what one would expect from a septuagenarian known for his philanthropic legacy and his genteel social graces; they actually sound something like the phrases tossed out by the 40-year-old Jordan over the last few months. Flogging teammates for what he perceived as a lack of effort, Jordan said, “I’m not going to hold anyone’s hand” and “I’m here to win, not just show up.”
“Michael Jordan is not someone who says things in a kindly, big-brother way, unless you mean the kind of big brother who came around and whipped your butt,” longtime friend and former Chicago teammate Scottie Pippen said. “But all that comes out of a fierce desire to win, and a feeling that he knows how to win. And if you look at what he’s accomplished, it is hard to argue with him.”
In the end, that quality may have been the flint igniting the problems between Pollin and Jordan. Leonsis is more of a conciliator; sources said he was stunned by Pollin’s outright dismissal of Jordan in Wednesday’s meeting, having expected more of a give-and-take discussion. Pollin and Jordan, on the other hand, are more absolute in their positions and their confidence.
They can also both be withering with their silence. The two did not speak, sources said, between the day of the Wizards’ last game and Wednesday, a period of three weeks.
“There are just some guys who you say, ‘Why do you want to (tick) this guy off?’ ” Net Coach Byron Scott said Wednesday morning, offering up his own point guard, Jason Kidd, as well as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, whom he called “number 32 in purple and gold,” Larry Bird, whom he called “number 33 in green and white,” and Jordan, whom he referred to as “number 23 in black and red.”
“Sorry,” Scott said of Jordan. “But I just can’t think of him as a Washington Wizard.”
Apparently, he is not the only one.