Thiel: Volchok in charge of making people happy

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on March 2, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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.

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