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Originally published February 27, 2012 at 10:02 PM | Page modified February 29, 2012 at 6:18 AM

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Former Sonics general manager Zollie Volchok loved life and people

Zollie Volchok, who was the Sonics' general manager and president when the team won the NBA title in 1979, died Sunday at the age of 95.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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A picture, perhaps the most famous picture in Sonics history, perfectly captures the spirit of Zollie Volchok.

It was taken in the locker room at the Capital Centre, moments after the Sonics had beaten the Washington Bullets and won the 1979 NBA title.

In the picture, Volchok is hugging Les Habegger as if the Sonics assistant coach were a long, lost member of the family. The scene is all Champagne and celebration and admiration and love, encapsulating the greatest moment in Sonics history.

That picture could be Zollie's wordless obituary. It could serve as his Wikipedia entry. It is exactly who the longtime Sonics general manager and president was, a guy who loved life and people and celebrated every special moment.

"That picture is totally it," said Jim Marsh, who worked for Volchok as a member of the Sonics' broadcasting team. "He was a wonderful person, the kind of guy who made you want to do a good job for him."

Volchok, a longtime friend of former owner Sam Schulman, was general manager of the Sonics during their championship run. He died Sunday night at the age of 95.

Whenever I hear the term "shared history," as it relates to Seattle and Oklahoma City sharing the Sonics' history, I think of Zollie.

How can you share a guy who was as involved with the team, as involved with the community, as Zollie was with the Sonics and Seattle? He belonged to Seattle and the Sonics. He was as unique as the Space Needle or the Olympic Mountains.

The late Seattle columnist Emmett Watson called Zollie "an unfading ray of sunshine."

Zollie liked to tell the story about how Schulman recruited him to run the Sonics in 1969.

"But Sam," Zollie said, "I don't know anything about basketball."

"That's OK," Schulman told him. "Neither do my players."

More important, Zollie understood people. He knew how to entertain them.

"He came from the theater, from show business and vaudeville, but he was able to translate his expertise there into his basketball team," said Habegger, who succeeded Volchok as the team's general manager.

As the owner of the country's largest booking agency, Northwest Releasing, Zollie worked with Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte and Jack Benny.

He brought music, recorded and live, into the basketball arena. He turned player introductions into theater. He added halftime entertainment to the game experience.

But Zollie did it with a light touch. A night of Sonics basketball wasn't the blaring, overbearing, noise-fest that today's games have become.

"He had a sense for how to blend the two," said Dave Watkins, who worked in public relations, promotions and operations with the Sonics from 1968 to 1984. "He came from a different perspective. He understood showmanship and customer service."

When the team moved into the Kingdome in the late 1970s, Zollie sold tickets in the 300 level for a dollar. He wanted people to see the games. The Sonics set a league attendance record.

"I remember one night we ran out of tickets for the upper deck," Watkins said. "I mean we physically ran out of tickets, so we just let people in. That's the way Zollie was."

Zollie was a visionary. He turned the Sonics into one of the best marketed franchises in sports. He started the Sonics' Superchannel, which televised almost all of the team's games and paved the way for the avalanche of all-sports cable stations.

"I learned so much from Zollie," Habegger said Monday from his home in the Phoenix area. "I remember when I took over for him, he told me, 'You've got to have the butts in the seats. If you have people in the building, there are a lot of ways you can make money, but you've got to get people to come to the games.' "

In 1983 Zollie was named the league's Executive of the Year. It was the NBA's acknowledging his contributions to the game, like a lifetime achievement award.

"He had a knack for making a deal," said Harry Glickman, who was either the Portland Trail Blazers' general manager or president from 1970 through 1994. "He just had this way of making people like him. When you just mentioned the first name, Zollie, people knew who you were talking about. He was a great guy. I've lost a great friend and Seattle lost one of its best people."

Zollie helped grow the game in those years before Bird and Magic, M.J. and media by making it accessible to the masses. Sonics weren't distant stars, unreachable to the average fans.

Zollie encouraged them to be active in the community. And it never felt like Fred Brown or Jack Sikma, or John Johnson, Dennis Johnson or Gus Williams was unapproachable.

"He figured out how to do it," Watkins said.

Zollie learned the game, but he also learned to stay out of the way of the basketball people he trusted.

When future Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens returned to the Sonics as director of player personnel in 1977, Zollie was his champion.

"When I first got back, they were working on a deal to trade Fred Brown to L.A. for Earl Tatum," Wilkens said. "I stopped the trade and Zollie supported me. That's who Zollie was. He was the kind of guy you wanted to work with. He was willing to back you. Every step of the way, he was supportive."

As Wilkens put together the championship team, Zollie always was there with him, encouraging him to make the trades Wilkens wanted to make.

"He let me make deals," Wilkens said. "Every step of the way he was supportive."

For a reporter, he was a joy to work with. He came from the show business school of public relations, believing that no publicity was bad publicity.

Zollie might be the only guy I've ever covered who never got angry with me, or at least never acted as if he were angry with me.

"Even if Zollie got mad, he never stayed mad," Wilkens said. "For Zollie, every day was a new day."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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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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