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Originally published December 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 19, 2008 at 3:38 PM

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Steve Kelley

Bob "Voice" Blackburn sounded hope to Sonics fans

When I first came to the Northwest in the fall of 1973, I was working in an apple shed in Chelan and living at the Lake Chelan Motel off...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Best wishes for Bob

If you would like to send your best wishes to Bob Blackburn, he can be reached at: Bob Blackburn c/o Timber Ridge at Talus, 100 Timber Ridge Way N.W., Issaquah, WA 98027.

When I first came to the Northwest in the fall of 1973, I was working in an apple shed in Chelan and living at the Lake Chelan Motel off Highway 97.

I knew practically nobody west of the Mississippi and, let me tell you, November nights in Chelan can feel cold, dark and empty to an East Coast transplant.

In those Stone Age days of television sports, there was no ESPN and a town like Chelan could feel like Siberia to a basketball fan desperate for a game.

It was back then, in the kitchen of my efficiency apartment, after a long day driving a forklift, that I first heard the voice of Bob Blackburn. And it was that voice that reconnected me to the NBA.

At the beginning of the 1973-74 season, the Sonics were beginning to emerge from their bleak, early days of expansion. Spencer Haywood was a bona fide All-Star. Fred Brown was catching fire from downtown.

A quirky guard with a green halo of a headband named Slick Watts was stealthily trolling passing lanes and creating fast breaks. And the great Bill Russell was prowling the sideline adding credibility to this still-young franchise.

After winning only 26 games the season before, the Sonics won 36 that season and made the playoffs for the first time in 1974-75.

But probably the person I most connected with in my first season in the Northwest was Bob Blackburn. I don't know what I would have done on those dark nights without him and I suspect a lot of other people feel the same way.

Earlier this week, "Voice," as he is known to his many friends, suffered a head injury after a fall near his home in Issaquah. He is recovering at an Eastside hospital.

Blackburn has had a seismic impact on Seattle sports, the first voice of the first franchise. He is a legend. A banner celebrating his years with the Sonics still hangs, where it belongs, from the rafters of KeyArena.

He came to the NBA in its more innocent years, when very few games were televised and we relied on the broadcasters to make the games come alive as we listened on battered Realistic radios. Like so many play-by-play men in those days, he did the job solo for the first 20 years.

He was part of a remarkable group of broadcasters who came together when the league expanded into the West — Blackburn, Chick Hearn in Los Angeles, Bill Schonely in Portland, Bill King in the Bay Area and Al McCoy in Phoenix.

In many ways, their voices, their storytelling, were as important to the growth of the NBA in the West as Jerry West's jumpers, Elgin Baylor's drives, Nate Thurmond's rebounds and Rick Barry's point-scoring sense.

We've been lucky in Seattle to attract some of the best local announcers in the business, from Dave Niehaus to Kevin Calabro, Pete Gross to Bob Rondeau, Bob Robertson and Steve Raible. Voice often was taken for granted.

He was so consistent in his calls, we came to expect him to be on top of the game, on top of each play and on top of the news.

I first met Voice when I was covering the Trail Blazers in the late 1970s. At that time, it seemed everybody knew everybody in the NBA and Bob Blackburn always was one of the most gracious, glib and popular people in the league.

We traveled together when I covered the Sonics in 1982. Occasionally we played tennis when we were on the road, and even though he is 25 years my senior, he ran me ragged with his magical assortment of drop shots and top spin lobs. I ran about 15 miles during a match with him. Voice moved about 15 feet.

Bob retired in 1992, but he will never be described as retiring. During the past 15 years, when I saw him at a Sonics game, he always was full of energy, telling me about the cruises he'd taken and the auctions he'd hosted.

But basketball, and specifically Sonics basketball, always was at the heart of our discussions, and he was as hurt as anybody in town when the team left for Oklahoma City last summer.

In 1983, he had open heart surgery and I had arranged to meet him in his hospital room to do a column about him. But just hours before our interview, he had a brief setback and when I arrived at the hospital I was told he was unavailable.

We've joked about that over the years. I've told him that was the lamest excuse I've ever heard to get out of an interview.

My great hope now is that Voice and I can schedule another interview in the near future. We can talk some more about the innocence of the early days.

In the meantime, in this first season in 42 years without NBA basketball in Seattle, all of us who love hooping should take time to remember Bob Blackburn's contributions to the game in our town.

He enriched life in the Northwest. He gave voice to the game. And he remains one of the most respected sports figures in Seattle.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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