The night Caron won one for Mr. Pollin
I didn't start paying attention early enough to have too many memories of the Abe Pollin everyone's been writing about this week. In fact, the first thing I thought of when I heard the Wizards' owner had died was the Pollin from the spring of 2008, the one who told his team to win one final playoff game in Cleveland just for him, and who somehow inspired them to do it.
"That's the game that sticks out in my career more than any game," said Caron Butler, who just about single-handedly won that contest and then said he did it for his owner. "It was just a moment. You know, an unbelievable moment."
Here was the situation, in case you don't remember. The Wizards lost the first two games in Cleveland, came back to win Game 3 at home, but then lost Game 4. With Gilbert Arenas set to end his season, they were heading back to Cleveland to be put out of their misery.
Before they left, though, Ernie Grunfeld told the Wizards that Mr. Pollin wanted to see them. Upstairs. In his office.
"You had to go," Butler told me Tuesday night in a back hallway of the Verizon Center. "Mr. Pollin wants to see you. Ain't no 'Uh, wait a minute, let me get my thoughts together."
So the entire team went up to Pollin's office. He was seated at a table, and they all joined him.
"I don't care about the series," Butler remembered him saying. "I just want to win this game, just this one game. Go up there, and you guys win it for me."
"I think it affected everybody, because we could see that his body was failing him," Brendan Haywood recalled on Tuesday. "He was going to sleep while he was talking to us. But then when he would wake up, he'd start drilling off stats about how many rebounds the other team had, what we needed to do to win. So you could tell his mind was sharp and he still had the passion, but his body just wasn't functioning like it needed to."
"To be honest, it was hard for me to look at Abe Pollin for the last couple months," Gilbert Arenas said, when I asked about that day. "I try to remember him from when I first got here. He used to run around the concourse, miles, and run down by the Kennedy Center. You know, that's the Abe Pollin I try to remember. I didn't want to remember the one who was in the wheelchair. I just hate remembering people in bad situations, so I just try to focus on what he was doing when he was healthy, the slapping."
So they met with Pollin, and they met with the media, and they went to Cleveland. And Pollin's words stayed with Butler, a man who has repeatedly thanked the owner both for helping with his basketball career and encouraging his philanthropy. Pollin funded Butler's bike giveaway; Butler attended Pollin's meals for the underprivileged and his holiday giveaways.
"This franchise and what they do in the community, I've never seen anything like that," Butler told me.
So as that game went on, Butler said, he was explicitly thinking about Pollin's request.
"I thought about it a lot," he told me. "For someone to be going through all that he was going through from a health standpoint, to care about us so much, winning and bringing a championship here? All his speaking engagements, everything he's done, all he'd talk about was championships and rings."
After a back-and-forth game, the Wizards were down five with 80 seconds left, and Cleveland had the ball. Media members went down to the press room, because the game and the season were essentially over. And then, out of nowhere, the Wizards scored the final six points, with Butler contributing four points and three rebounds and the game-winner in that improbable final stretch.
"I've never seem him that intense," Haywood would say after the game. "He wouldn't let us lose." (Read Mike Wise's definitive piece on the game.)
"We went up there, and we played our heart out. Butler told me this week. "At the end, I was just like 'Man, this one was for Mr. Pollin.' ... He called me to congratulate me after the game, said he was so damn proud of me. He always told me he was proud of me. You know, that meant a lot."
It seemed almost too good to believe. And I guess it was. The Wizards would get blown out in their next game at home, ending their season on an entirely anti-climactic note. But that Game 5 win--Butler's 32-point, 9-rebound, 5-assist night in the last playoff win of Pollin's tenure--is one of my most indelible D.C. sports memories.
"I'll never forget that moment," Butler told me. "I'll never forget the moments that we had, our conversations. And I'll never forget him."
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