BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/01/2012

Thiel: Volchok in charge of making people happy

Former Sonics GM, Volchok died at 95, leaving behind a splendid hoops legacy that was inherited in part by Chris Hansen, the would-be arena-builder. The message: Don’t screw it up.

Not a basketball guy, Zollie Volchok nevertheless helped make a championship basketball team -- as well as a city full of friends. / Volchok family photo

As a promoter whose show business reach went from the Mickey Mouse Club to Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to Gus Williams as The Wizard, Zollie Volchok knew how to get people down in seats, then bring them up.

Often when one of the acts he brought to Seattle finished a performance, Volchok, sitting in the back row of the theater, was the first to his feet, furiously pounding his palms ahead of anyone else, just to make sure the love quickly circulated the house and reached the entertainers.

What a cool job: Shepherding happiness when people were already in the mood.

“My dad told me,” said Gary Volchok, “a happy entertainer makes a happy audience.”

Zollie Volchok helped make many happy audiences. The audience Tuesday at Temple de Hirsch on First Hill wasn’t so happy for the occasion — the 95- year-old impresario died Sunday — but they were delighted to have been part of the grand theater that was Volchok’s life. He may have been the happiest entertainer of them all.

“I thought,” said one attendee, “that he was my best friend.”

A sentiment, it turns out, that was shared by many among the couple of hundred at the memorial service. From dazzled children — when a neighborhood kid had a birthday party,  the whole crew ended up in the audience of the J.P. Patches Show on KIRO-TV — to a prideful, down-on-his-luck old-timer who received a quiet, hundred-dollar handshake, Volchok had a penchant for small deeds that meant more to many than large achievements.

Yet most will remember him for his largest public achievement, because it remains unmatched locally  — this success-resistant sports burg’s only modern major pro sports championship.

He always disavowed much contribution to the quality basketball that made the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics the NBA champs. But the team photo shows him, beaming, standing behind Williams and in front of Jack Sikma. As president and general manager, Volchok was a large part of the success by navigating one of the more difficult feats in pro sports — keeping the owner, in this case Sam Schulman, from screwing it up.

Schulman, a bombastic Los Angeles entertainment baron and sometime movie producer, was a stage-hog as much as Volchok was a stage manager. Turned out they were nearly as formidable a duo as Stockton and Malone.

When Volchok returned to the Sonics full-time upon the departure of coach/GM Bill Russell in 1977, the franchise embarked on its most successful run — one championship, two trips to the Finals, three trips to the Western Conference Finals and a cumulative 289-203 record over six seasons until Schulman sold the club in 1983 to local billboard mogul Barry Ackerley.

Volchok, a most unlikely figure for a pro-sports executive, nevertheless was named NBA Executive of the Year in 1983. The award wasn’t because he could find a power forward in a Kentucky backwoods or knew a pick and roll from a Rolls Royce. He was honored for, as Rabbi Daniel Weiner put it, “the sense of community he forged between the city and the Sonics.”

In the bitter chasm left by the Sonics’ departure, the notion of “sense of community” between town and team is almost beyond quaint, to the point of being archaic. Yet that link is much of what brought back Chris Hansen, a Roosevelt High School grad, to Seattle with $290 million of renewed hope that a successor team will play again someday in a new arena.

As a boy hooping it up in the Rainier Valley, he dreamed of being Williams. As a man who has made a fortune, he would do well to emulate Volchok.

Instead of a shrugging acceptance of what Weiner bluntly described as the modern NBA’s “ridiculous ticket prices and outrageous acts of self-aggrandizement,” Hansen might recall that when the Sonics moved from the Coliseum into the Kingdome in 1978-79, a lot of the third-deck seats, at Volchok’s order, went for $1 or $2. Hansen may have been among those kids who fell in love with the game because they had a chance to know it.

Hansen was probably among the nose-bleeders in 1980 — when the Sonics met in the Western finals a Lakers team led by rookie Magic Johnson — who helped set an NBA record with an average attendance of 21,725. That roaring basketball success spawned the awards by the NCAA of three Final Fours to Seattle (1984, 1989, 1995), economic mini-booms that are no longer within civic reach.

In his final days, according to son Gary, Volchok offered an instruction regarding Sylvia, Zollie’s wife of 72 years.

“Take care of Mom,” he said. “Don’t screw it up.”

That may well have been Schulman’s long-ago orders to Volchok too. Volchok kept the bond to Schulman, as will sons Gary, Michael and Tony to Zollie. Regarding Volchok’s basketball legacy, Hansen, political and business leaders, taxpayers and hoops fans can keep a bond with him too.

Make people happy. Don’t screw it up.


YourThoughts

  • Ljstonebraker

    Great writing, Art.  Straight from the heart.  

    • Artthiel

       Thanks, Stony. Always enjoyed him. What would we call him now — Z-Vol? I like it.

  • Ljstonebraker

    Great writing, Art.  Straight from the heart.  

    • Artthiel

       Thanks, Stony. Always enjoyed him. What would we call him now — Z-Vol? I like it.

  • jafabian

    I was one of those nose-bleed patrons.  Many, many times because the price was unbeatable.  I was a part of the 38,000 that saw the Sonics beat the Nuggets.  Biggest crowd for a regular season game at the time.

    You’d never see Zollie put together a press conference like what the Heat did when they signed LeBron.  Zollie not only was a solid GM but he was pure class.

    • Artthiel

       Zollie could be flamboyant, but only for the right moment. He would never had allowed a player or a team to jeopardize goodwill with a stunt like that.

  • jafabian

    I was one of those nose-bleed patrons.  Many, many times because the price was unbeatable.  I was a part of the 38,000 that saw the Sonics beat the Nuggets.  Biggest crowd for a regular season game at the time.

    You’d never see Zollie put together a press conference like what the Heat did when they signed LeBron.  Zollie not only was a solid GM but he was pure class.

    • Artthiel

       Zollie could be flamboyant, but only for the right moment. He would never had allowed a player or a team to jeopardize goodwill with a stunt like that.

  • Tian Biao

    I don’t know whether sportspressnw is making money, or is viable, or whatever, but I sure hope it is, and that it stays around for a long time, because I really, really like reading articles like this. 

    • sportspressnw

      Thanks for the kind words, Tian.  We are working to get the site to be around for a long time, and it’s continued support from readers like you that will make it happen.

    • Artthiel

       Thanks Tian. We can always use more readers like you, so please like us on Facebook and tell your friends.

  • Tian Biao

    I don’t know whether sportspressnw is making money, or is viable, or whatever, but I sure hope it is, and that it stays around for a long time, because I really, really like reading articles like this. 

    • sportspressnw

      Thanks for the kind words, Tian.  We are working to get the site to be around for a long time, and it’s continued support from readers like you that will make it happen.

    • Artthiel

       Thanks Tian. We can always use more readers like you, so please like us on Facebook and tell your friends.

  • http://www.seattletotems.org/ thekellygreenandwhite

    Very enjoyable. Nice to finally know Zollie Volchok.

    • Artthiel

       Thanks. A rare, delightful, especially in pro sports.

  • http://www.seattletotems.org/ thekellygreenandwhite

    Very enjoyable. Nice to finally know Zollie Volchok.

    • Artthiel

       Thanks. A rare, delightful, especially in pro sports.

  • TGH

    Good one Art.  I remember those years well, when I was about 10-14.  We had one or two games per year in Rainier Bank courtside seats, a few more in the bleachers about 30 rows up, and a few more in the 300 level.  It was fun to be in the building, despite the seat being not very good. 

    I hope Chris Hansen and/or Steve Balmer and the Seattle leadership can get this Sonics deal done.  This is such a great basketball city, and we have so many great fans that want to come back.  I love the game, but the NBA and Stern have soiled the sport.  As Slick Watts said it last year…”David Stern ain’t gonna live forever.” 

    • Artthiel

       TGH, it’s hard to get past the bitterness of what the NBA did, but we all have to. And I still think the NBA needs to acknowledge its failures to make things work faster.

  • TGH

    Good one Art.  I remember those years well, when I was about 10-14.  We had one or two games per year in Rainier Bank courtside seats, a few more in the bleachers about 30 rows up, and a few more in the 300 level.  It was fun to be in the building, despite the seat being not very good. 

    I hope Chris Hansen and/or Steve Balmer and the Seattle leadership can get this Sonics deal done.  This is such a great basketball city, and we have so many great fans that want to come back.  I love the game, but the NBA and Stern have soiled the sport.  As Slick Watts said it last year…”David Stern ain’t gonna live forever.” 

    • Artthiel

       TGH, it’s hard to get past the bitterness of what the NBA did, but we all have to. And I still think the NBA needs to acknowledge its failures to make things work faster.

  • http://twitter.com/PomeroyPalouse John Gordon

    Yeah, remember those days of old. Even in the 70′s, $1 or $2 wasn’t much. A friend of mine from work would go to dinner (often Larry’s Greenfront, is that right?) for dinner then watch the Sonics. Went to all the playoff games the  year they lost to Washington (including Hec Ed). Made it to the games the next year too.
    The Wave was great fun for Sonics games. We’d get it started, then pause while it went around the ‘Dome where there was no one sitting (This was Basketball, remember) , then get going again.
    I remember a game after Lenny left when Paul Silas (my favorite Sonic EVER) was coach (acting coach maybe?) and so many fouls were called against the Sonics that they were down to 4 players in uniforms. My friends and I started a chant (from the 300 level remember, maybe 2 miles from the court) that “We want Paul (Silas), We want Paul”. After a while, he heard us and looked up and waved. Didn’t go into the game, though. (Well, he WAS in a suit)
    John

    (edited to add: Wow! The twitter login with Disqus is screwy. I changed that avatar picture about 6 months ago. Oh, well)

    • Artthiel

       I’ve covered a lot of pro hoops, John, and I put Silas in my all time top five as far as quality people. Admirable man.

  • http://twitter.com/PomeroyPalouse John Gordon

    Yeah, remember those days of old. Even in the 70′s, $1 or $2 wasn’t much. A friend of mine from work would go to dinner (often Larry’s Greenfront, is that right?) for dinner then watch the Sonics. Went to all the playoff games the  year they lost to Washington (including Hec Ed). Made it to the games the next year too.
    The Wave was great fun for Sonics games. We’d get it started, then pause while it went around the ‘Dome where there was no one sitting (This was Basketball, remember) , then get going again.
    I remember a game after Lenny left when Paul Silas (my favorite Sonic EVER) was coach (acting coach maybe?) and so many fouls were called against the Sonics that they were down to 4 players in uniforms. My friends and I started a chant (from the 300 level remember, maybe 2 miles from the court) that “We want Paul (Silas), We want Paul”. After a while, he heard us and looked up and waved. Didn’t go into the game, though. (Well, he WAS in a suit)
    John

    (edited to add: Wow! The twitter login with Disqus is screwy. I changed that avatar picture about 6 months ago. Oh, well)

    • Artthiel

       I’ve covered a lot of pro hoops, John, and I put Silas in my all time top five as far as quality people. Admirable man.