Bob Blackburn, longtime voice of the SuperSonics, dies

January 12, 2010

By Bob Taylor

Issaquah resident Bob Blackburn was the announcer for the Seattle SuperSonics. By Greg Farrar

Issaquah resident Bob Blackburn was the announcer for the Seattle SuperSonics. By Greg Farrar

Long before he was the Voice of the Seattle SuperSonics, Bob Blackburn was the voice for many people in the Vancouver-Portland area.

The Voice will be missed.

Blackburn, 85, died Jan. 8 of pneumonia. The Issaquah resident left a great legacy as a sportscaster. He spent 60 years on the air, calling more than 7,000 sports events, including 2,359 National Basketball Association games.

He is survived by wife Pat, six children, 19 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A private memorial service will be held Jan. 23. The family will hold a public service at 3 p.m. Jan. 24 at First University Methodist Church in Bellevue.Many people will mourn his death because Blackburn had fans throughout the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast and the nation. When surfing the Internet last weekend, it was amazing to see the numerous tributes that had been written by reporters and columnists who admired him as a person.

Blackburn grew up in Los Angeles. As a young child, he was bedridden with tuberculosis. An uncle suggested that Blackburn might want to become a sportscaster, because he had a loud voice.

The Voice began his career at Fresno, broadcasting football, baseball, basketball games, golf and tennis tournaments, and professional wrestling. One of his first big breaks came when he was hired to broadcast the Class AAA Portland Beavers’ baseball games. It was a great experience for some farm boys, too.

By the time I was 9 years old, I had developed an early love for sports. Bob Blackburn was one of the reasons. After doing my chores, I listened on a small transistor radio to the games Blackburn called throughout the year for Portland’s KWJJ and KEX radio stations.

He did the Oregon State University football and basketball games, and Portland’s Pacific Coast League contests. I used to keep a scorebook when Blackburn called the baseball games. He always called the game right, giving you the facts, the stats and the insight.

When he left in 1967 to become the play-by-play guy for the Seattle SuperSonics, it was a sad time for some of us until we discovered that the new National Basketball Association team was going to broadcast its games down in our neck of the world.

I still remember the games Bob called during those early years when the Sonics had such heroes as Bob Rule, Lenny Wilkens, Tom Meschery and Al Tucker. I probably would have done better in academics in high school had the Sonics not broadcast their games. But homework often was set aside to listen to Blackburn and the Sonics.

I met Blackburn for the first time in 1977 as a sports writer for the old Bellevue-based daily Journal-American. Blackburn was at a Bellevue College men’s basketball game I was covering.

David, one of Blackburn’s sons, was playing for Bellevue at the time. Meeting Blackburn was an experience I will always cherish. Often when you have placed someone on a pedestal, like a Major League ball player or an announcer you have admired, it’s always a thrill to discover that the celebrity is really kind.

Bob Blackburn was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Over the next few years, I had the opportunity to visit with Blackburn often when he was the emcee for the Journal-American’s Athlete of the Year banquets.

Blackburn called most of the Sonics’ games solo during his first 20 years behind the microphone. During the 1987-88 season, KJR added Kevin Calabro to the broadcast team and the duo shared play-by-play responsibilities.

In 1992, Blackburn left in what was described as a forced retirement.

Our paths didn’t cross until two years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview Blackburn for a story. He and his wife Pat had moved from Bellevue to Timber Ridge at Talus, a new deluxe retirement complete for seniors in Issaquah. Blackburn loved the Issaquah area, especially the mountains that he saw outside his living room window.

The interview began in his office, which was like a mini-shrine. On the walls were photos of the Sonics’ NBA championship, and Blackburn with sports stars and celebrities, including one of him with Elvis Presley. Blackburn wasn’t always a sportscaster. He also doubled as a disc jockey in Portland. That’s how he got photographed with Elvis.

A great storyteller, Blackburn spun so many stories that my tape recorder ran out of tape. One of my favorite stories was when Blackburn recalled the first Sonics game in 1967. It was tuxedo night and he wore a tux.

Blackburn was still calling OSU football games, too. After the Sonics’ game, he didn’t have time to change, and wore the tux to OSU’s game with Purdue the next day. After interviewing OSU coach Dee Andros before the game, Andros told Blackburn if the Beavers won, he had to wear the tux at the next game.

The Beavers won, and kept on winning. Blackburn became the best-dressed college football sportscaster, wearing a tux throughout the remainder of the season.

That meeting two years ago turned out to be my last meeting with Blackburn. After learning I had cancer, Blackburn said he would pray for me. During the past year, it was my turn to pray for him as he fought to overcome a serious head injury and other medical problems. He had bounced back from bypass surgeries in previous years, and had persevered against other illnesses. However, the final quarter came last week.

The Voice has left us, but he will always be remembered.

Bob Taylor: 392-6434, ext. 236, or bobtaylor@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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