Why Abe Pollin went from Bullets to Wizards
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Throughout the past few months, with the death of Abe Pollin and Gilbert's Great Gun Goof, there have been frequent references to the franchise's name change from Bullets to Wizards, why it happened and what it meant. But there have been lots of different ways of phrasing the "why" part.
Sports Illustrated wrote that Pollin "didn't want to contribute to Washington's reputation for violent crime." USA Today said it was because "gun violence is at epidemic level in far too many parts of this country." The New York Times said Pollin changed the name "after his friend Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister, was shot to death." The AP said it was "because of the violent connotation." The New York Post said it was "in reaction to violent crime in Washington." Mike Wise said it was "to honor the memory of his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated." Mike Lee said it was "after his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was gunned down." Christine Brennan said it was because Pollin "was so concerned about violence in the D.C. streets." The Dallas Morning News said it was "in deference to the high gun violence rate in Washington."
Charles Krauthammer discussed the issue at great length on This Week in Washington, saying this:
"In a sense, you're almost grateful that he died before he could see this. He's a man who changed the name of the team, the Bullets, which had a long and distinguished history, simply because it gave the wrong message. And he did it, and he probably lost a lot of money doing it, but it meant a lot to him. And to have a member of his team in a gun issue in the Verizon Center, which he built, would have broken his heart."
And the Wizards themselves referenced the name change in their press release about the Arenas suspension:
It is widely known that Mr. Pollin took the extraordinary step of changing the team name from "Bullets" to "Wizards" in 1997 precisely to express his abhorrence of gun violence in our community.
I didn't live here when the name was changed, and I didn't undertake a massive investigative project looking back on that process. But I did go back and read dozens and dozens of stories from before and during the name change, and I learned a few things I hadn't previously known. The results are long but fascinating; here's some of what I found.
Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November of 1995. And yet the reporting on a possible name change began in May, shortly after the Bullets ended another miserable season. Richard Justice wrote many of these stories for The Post, and he wrote this one as well, part of a larger story in which Pollin assessed the state of the franchise.
Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin said yesterday that he'll decide this summer whether to change the name of his team out of sensitivity to the number of gun-related deaths in the area. He indicated no final decision has been made, but his comments suggest he's leaning toward dropping the name the franchise has carried for the past 31 years, including the past 22 in Washington.
"We're considering that," Pollin said. "We haven't made a final decision. In the old days, our motto was Faster than a speeding Bullet.' That's how we were envisioned in Baltimore. Today the connotation is a little different. It's connected with so many horrible things that people do with guns and bullets. I don't know. We're considering it. We'll make a decision this summer."
So this pre-dated Rabin's death, and it wasn't a passionate, spur-of-the-moment decision. It began with uncertainty. Pollin told Justice he wasn't sure what the new name might be, and he wasn't sure when a change would take effect. But from the very beginning, the change was linked to a more general overhaul of the franchise's image, including the opening of a new downtown arena. More Justice:
Several team officials apparently favor such a change as the organization undergoes a widespread facelift that began with the acquisition of forwards Chris Webber and Juwan Howard last fall. That facelift will be culminated if Pollin is able to complete the arena by opening day 1997.
By the end of August--again, several months before Rabin's death--the decision had apparently been made. Justice wrote another story, in which the name change was portrayed as a done deal.
In addition to new uniforms, a new logo and new colors, [the Bullets] apparently will be getting a new name. Team owner Abe Pollin has decided that when the Bullets leave USAir Arena after the 1996-97 season for the proposed MCI Center downtown, they'll no longer be the Bullets, sources said yesterday. In addition, Pollin apparently will allow fans to select the new name later this year in a name-the-team contest.
Justice also reported, correctly, that the contest would be run through Boston Market. So the Rabin stuff, which I'll get to later, was touching and prompted an official announcement, but this name change was a done deal well before the prime minister's death.
No one ever suggested that gun violence in D.C. wasn't a problem, but there were skeptics who immediately pointed out that there might be more going on here than a mere aversion to guns and bullets. Again, these columns are all from well before Rabin's assassination.
In May, before the decision had been made, Tony Kornheiser was already landing a few playful jabs.
(Let me interject a word here about the Bullets, who are contemplating changing their name as well as their uniform. The concern is that "Bullets" is a symbol of violence. Of course I welcome changing the name to "Les Boulez," and giving me free tickets for life. But I fear this climate of political correctness. If "Pistol Pete" Maravich were playing today, would he have to be known as "Pesto Pete"? Should Chuck "The Rifleman" Person petition to change his nickname to "The Raffleman"? If Abe Pollin abandons "Bullets" and still wants a gritty aspect of local life, how about the Washington Not Getting Your Garbage Picked Up, or the Washington Rats In The Uptown Theater, or We're Washington, We Don't Have Those Stupid Pinwheels Like In Indiana.)
By August, Tom Knott chimed in via The Washington Times, and he wasn't being playful. He was calling the whole thing a farce.
In 1978, when the Bullets won their only NBA championship, 189 people were murdered in the District. One-hundred and eighty-nine murders, however frightening, were more acceptable than the 416 recorded in the city last year.
Fortunately, the 189 murders did not spoil the championship celebration. The 189 murders did not stop Abe Pollin and the Bullets from visiting Jimmy Carter's White House....
Team nicknames don't kill people; people kill people. I'm surprised I have to point this out. Yet now, 17 years later, Pollin is deeply troubled by the nickname's connotation. He apparently can't sleep at night thinking about all the carnage on the mean streets of Washington. He apparently cringes each morning when he reads about the latest casualties. He apparently can't help but be disturbed by his team's nickname amid the violence.
Or so goes the spin. It is, of course, an accommodating spin, particularly when cast against the Bullets' lackluster performance in merchandise sales. Most people wouldn't be caught dead - excuse the expression - in Bullets paraphernalia.
Maybe you'd expect a cynical take from Tom Knott, but it's an interesting point. D.C. Gun violence didn't start in1994, and in fact, the peak of the D.C. murder spree came in 1990-1991. By the mid-90s, the numbers were still horrific, but they were declining. And Knott wasn't the only prominent columnist to bring up the merchandise potential, which is the exact opposite of what Charles Krauthammer now claims: that the switch cost Pollin money. Here's Mike Wilbon from that August:
Personally, I think the association between the name of the local basketball team and horrible things that people do with guns is a reach. Me? I'd keep the name Bullets. But I can understand Pollin's growing uneasiness. And if there's ever a time to change it, now would be that time, what with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard aboard and new uniforms and a new downtown arena in the works.
Being competitive now doesn't stop on the court. You can't be one of the major players if your merchandise is dead last, as has been the case with the Bullets, or if it isn't even on the shelves in America's major retail sports stores....
Competition in marketing is as hard-fought as the competition under the boards. Come up with a great jersey and logo and you can sell San Jose Sharks stuff to kids in Southeast D.C. who have never in their lives seen a puck. Toronto's NBA expansion franchise conducted a national poll to name the team and came up with "Raptors," which reportedly already is in the top five in NBA gross retail sales, even though the team hasn't played a game.
This is the chance for the Washington basketball franchise to elbow its way into national conversation (and sales).
Did it work? No. But was it one goal? Seems persuasive.
In the first week of November, Rabin was assassinated. A few days later, Pollin issued a statement saying the team's name would change. Here's part of it:
I realized this some time ago when I picked up the newspaper and saw the word 'bullets' in a headline and thought for an instant that the article was about my basketball team. Unfortunately, far too often these days, 'bullets' in the news does not have anything to do with basketball. It was then I realized we should change our name.
I can't imagine the first use of "bullets" in a D.C. headline came in the mid '90s, but that was the statement. When Pollin talked to reporters about the name change, he linked the change to both the death of Rabin and the gun violence in D.C. I'll quote extensively here from Richard Justice's story:
"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.....
Still, Pollin said he was compelled to make the change for a couple of reasons. Originally, they were the Baltimore Bullets -- a team that wanted to be "faster than a speeding bullet." Now, because of the high number of gun-related deaths in the Washington area, the term Bullets has taken on another, more negative connotation. Pollin said the name change will be made in conjunction with another campaign.
"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."....
"If I save one life, make a change in one life, it'll be worth it," Pollin said. "The Bible says that if you save one life, you save the world. Hopefully, we'll save many more than that."
The switch is also a matter of image, and perhaps profits. The Bullets have been at the bottom of the NBA in the sales of T-shirts and other merchandise for several years, and team officials hope that a new nickname, complete with a new logo and colors and a snappy new uniform, will become more popular.
The Bullets also want a complete break from the past -- specifically, a recent past in which they've had eight straight losing seasons. Since the acquisition of Chris Webber and Juwan Howard last fall, team officials have talked of wanting a completely new image, and their proposed new arena, along with their new players, provides them with that opportunity.
That's a mouthful of reasons, many of which have been washed out over the past 15 years. I had no idea that the franchise launched this anti-violence campaign, nor did I realize how coordinated the total changes were. The other big story on the topic at the time was written by the New York Times's George Vecsey, who talked extensively to Pollin about the name change. Here are some highlights.
"I've thought about it for 31 years....Bullets connote killing, violence, death," Pollin said. "Our slogan used to be, 'Faster than a speeding bullet.' That is no longer appropriate."
The nickname has a glorious history in professional basketball. The original Baltimore Bullets (1947-54) echoed, alliteratively, the tradition of the Old Shot Tower, still standing in Baltimore, a 234-foot brick shaft built in 1828, where molten lead was cooled in tanks of water, producing bullets for war and peace.
But the American love of guns has long since got out of hand. Children have guns. Children are being killed by bullets. The current basketball team was named on June 4, 1963, after the Packers/Zephyrs moved from Chicago to Baltimore. I can remember going to games in downtown Baltimore and hearing the sound effects of a rifle being fired when Earl (the Pearl) Monroe performed the dipsey-doo.
"I've had people say I was changing the name just to make money from a new nickname, new colors, a new logo," Pollin said. "I find that distasteful. It's not a question of money."...
"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."
But as with most things, it's hard to say that was the final word. A few days later, Pollin was on NPR with Noah Adams. Pollin had told Vecsey he'd been thinking about the name's baggage for 31 years, but when Adams asked if he had early misgivings about the name, the owner said "Absolutely not....I thought that was very appropriate at that time." And while he told the Times that Rabin's death made him realize it was time, he told NPR that he had made the decision before Rabin was killed.
"I've been thinking about it for over a year that with this increased violence and shooting and killing that bullets connote death and violence and shooting and I just felt that a sports team should not be involved with that kind of a name....I'd already made up my mind [before Rabin died], but that sure put an exclamation point on the fact that I made a right decision."
Adams also asked a key question: if this was such an imperative, why not make the change for the '96-'97 season? Why wait two years, for a new arena to open? Pollin's response:
"Well we can't do that because the league has certain rules about name change that have to do with merchandising stuff all around the world and stuff like that. So it's actually dictated by the NBA as to when we could do it and that's as soon as we can do it."
The ensuing contest was indeed run through Boston Market, and the restaurant reportedly received 500,000 name suggestions involving around 3,000 separate names. Some of them were classic.
They "ranged from what you'd expect, like the Washington Generals or Washington Stars or Washington Monuments, to some strange ones," team spokesman Matt Williams said at the time. "Antelopes, Astronauts, Geckos--that's a lizard, I believe--and the Funkadelics. You wouldn't believe it."
Other choices included Accelerators, Zulus, Wolverines, Litigators, River Dawgs, Power Cats, Glory, Fury, Cobras and Monuments.
The finalists--chosen by a panel that included Pollin, Susan O'Malley, George Michael, Juwan Howard and others--were Sea Dogs, Express, Stallions, Dragons and Wizards. Fans had three weeks to vote among the five finalists via a 1-900 line; the $1 cost was given to anti-violence efforts. And the choices were roundly skewered.
Hey, who slipped something in Susan O'Malley's mineral water? his is the lamest group of choices since Chevy introduced its luxury Geo line....
Let me tell you something, my good friends: You don't go through 500,000 submissions and come up with "Washington Sea Dogs" unless the other 499,999 suggestions were all "Washington Gerrymanderers." Who was on this panel, the folks who signed off on New Coke?
I would take the Washington Wildebeests, the Washington Wallaroos, the Washington Whippoorwills, the Washington Whirligigs, the Washington Whammos or the Washington Whoosh before I'd take the Washington Wizards. And those are just names I made up while showering 15 minutes ago!
Except for Sea Dogs, which is simply inexplicable, they look like the output of the same computer programs that create names for new car models and laundry detergents.
One other thing they have in common: None of these names has a thing to do with the city, its climate, flora, fauna, landmarks, geographical features, history or primary activity, which is the government.
They're kidding, right? They've got to be kidding.
These proposed nicknames all stink. And when I say "stink," I mean like a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Or should I say a Sea Skunk?
How could people come up with such bad names? And I say that as someone named Anthony Irwin Kornheiser, one of the silliest names imaginable. If I was given the chance to choose a totally new name for myself, do you think it would be LaPhonso Steinberg?
And so on. O'Malley said that copyright restrictions had kept the franchise from considering many more traditional sounding D.C. nicknames. Fans and writers unleash a torrent of other possibilities. The Post ran a poll with the team's five choices, "None of the Above" and "Bullets;" the latter two combined for 85 percent of the votes. (Sea Dogs led of the other choices with about 5 percent.) Chris Webber suggested River Dogs; "The Potomac River is right here," he explained, making the choice more logical than Sea Dogs.
When Wizards was chosen, the president of the D.C. chapter of the NAACP said it invoked images of the KKK and should not be used. A New Jersey-based barnstorming basketball team known as the Harlem Wizards filed a trademark infringement suit. Many fans said the deck had been stacked for Wizards, and Pollin said it had been one of his early favorites.
It's someone who can do things," Pollin said. "It's magic, flamboyant, smart and a winner. All those things connote a winner. Once we get the new logo and uniform and colors it'll be fantastic. The NBA has very creative people."
And he talked again about why he was making a change.
"Bullets has been a very important part of my life," he said. "In fact, it has been more important than most people know. The Bullets came at a time in my life when I'd just lost a daughter. I was really not in life. The opportunity to buy the Baltimore Bullets brought me back into life. I won a world championship with it. I have a ring that says Bullets' and Pollin' on it. I'm prepared to give that up. If I can maybe make a difference and save some lives, that's more important than the history that will be lost. I finally decided if there was the possibility of making a difference with this anti-violence campaign, it's more important than the nickname of a team."
The skeptics remained. Like Kornheiser:
I appreciate how sincere Pollin is in his desire to stop violence. But not all of us connect the nickname "Bullets" with some drive-by sniper. Some of us hear the name "Bullets" and think of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. I hope that doesn't make us insensitive louts.
Regardless, after the 1996-'97 season, the franchise officially became the Washington Wizards.
To me, one of the most puzzling features of the name change and its purported anti-violence origins was Pollin's willingness to have his team wear (and sell) Bullets jerseys less than a decade later. This was part of the NBA's throwback program; fans could (and did) buy Bullets jerseys, and the players wore the familiar threads.
Three times in the 2002-03 season the team trotted out red white and blue throwbacks. Nine times in 2004-05, and six times in 2005-06, they wore the throwback orange unis. During one game in Miami, the PA announcer referred to the team as "the Bullets" throughout. And the Michael Jordan red-white-and-blue top became a huge seller.
In 2005, Eric Fisher of the Washington Times explored this seeming contradiction.
The issue of Pollin, his feelings about the Bullets name and the Wizards name change, were discussed when the NBA approached the club last year to return to the Hardwood Classics program, league officials say. In the end, Pollin signed off on the move, in part because the move does not resurrect old Bullets uniforms that actually showed a bullet on the jersey....
Said Matt Williams, Wizards vice president: "It's a balance. [Pollin] does feel Bullets is the wrong name, but at the same time there is a history and he has fond memories for our history."
The Wizards and NBA, no doubt, also have a fondness for the orange Gilbert Arenas Bullets jersey now on sale at MCI Center, the league's online store and other spots on the Internet. The new Bullets throwbacks, much like the red, white and blue uniforms that replaced them, are sold out in some retail channels
And even now, if you go to the online team store linked off the Wizards' Web site, the model in the center of the page is wearing a Bullets t-shirt. Still, when Gilbert Arenas wrote that op-ed for The Post this week, one of the themes sounded straight out of 1995:
"If I help steer even just one young person away from violence and trouble," he wrote, "then I'll once again feel that I'm living up to Abe Pollin's legacy and to the responsibility I owe the kids of the District."
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