It’s just occurred to me that I listened to Bob Blackburn during the 25 most formative years of my life. I first listened to him for 15 years on the radio, delivering an almost nightly Sonic serenade, mostly in the dark, on my scratchy transistor radio. I then was a captured audience during my first 10 years as a sportwriter, during which Bob was a travel and dinner companion, and tennis partner on the long and long-winded NBA road.
Man, the guy could talk. It’s difficult to fathom The Voice silenced. Not even death, which came to Bob Blackburn today, Jan. 7, 2010, could muzzle him. I mean, as I contemplate and grieve his passing, Bob’s voice, clear as a bell, comes flooding back, describing Bob “The Golden” Rule’s 47 rookie points so vividly I almost think I actually was there. Or like I was in Washington, D.C., when Gus Williams threw the ball way up in the air and Les Habegger did the “Habegger Hop” after the Sonics won the 1979 NBA championship. Bob was the reason I ran out to my porch that day to listen to what seemed like the entire city of Seattle honking its horns in celebration.
I went to as many games as a guy with a Seattle Times paper route could afford, but I knew them all because of Bob. Tommy Kron and Tom Meschery. Dick “the Duck” Synder and “Downtown” Freddy Brown. Spencer Haywood and Slick Watts. They all came to life via a voice that cannot be described as mellifluous as much as it was unwavering.
“Well, you kno-ooow …” There was no such thing as ESPN back then, and we had only five TV channels, none of which carried Sonic games.
When I started covering the Sonics for The Times, much of the championship team still was intact. I remember a buddy asking me, “What’s he like?” Who, I asked, Gus? Sikma? Lenny? “No,” he insisted, “Blackburn!” Yeah, that’s where the guy stood with a lot of us.
Back in those days, NBA teams still flew commercial. So there was a lot of sitting around on airplanes, standing around in airports or baggage claim, staged on busses, before disembarking for dinners and furious tennis matches. All the while, I did a lot of listening because of Bob. The listening skills have come in handy during my career. I think a lot of athletes liked being interviewed by me because I listened. I gotta admit, I’d been programmed for 10 years by Bob. During his last year with the Sonics, Bob and I did what may have been the first sports call-in show on KJR. I remember being startled because Bob began the first show by asking me questions and insisting that I speak.
“Now, Bob?” I asked during a break. “After all these years?”
A crafty tennis player, Bob frustrated me and neutralized my youthful advantages with spin and guile. And he could keep those gums flapping. Once, during a doubles match on the roof of the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, I sent a serve screaming … right into the kidney of my partner, Lenny Wilkens, then the Sonic coach with whom I was in the midst of a tense feud. Leave it to Bob to blurt, out loud, something about my “striking a blow for the media.”
I swear Bob could out-talk the Devil himself. He was so glib, he could render mime-like the late Jimmy Jones, part of the Sonics entourage as broadcaster along with Jim Marsh, analyst and lefty with a big serve. Bob was muted, temporarily, in 1983 because of triple-bypass surgery. When he returned, he loved talking about his good fortune and new dietary ways, which irked Jones, who’d had at least one quadruple bypass. Jones would order a big steak and maybe desert in retaliation, but the move would backfire, serving only to fuel more culinary commentary by Bob.
The past 10 years I ran into Bob too infrequently. He was of course still talking. About his auctioneering (how poetic is that?) and his cruises. I hung on to every word, as if the Bill Russell-coached Sonics were marching to the franchise’s first playoff berth. Or drafting the X-Man ahead of Detlef. He’d had his mic retired, but that hardly quieted him.
The Sonics – and the NBA – were my job for 17 years, so I have not missed them since they moved to Oklahoma City. Until now, that is. For me, Bob Blackburn was the Sonics. And now they’re both gone, reminding me that so, too, is my youth. The silence is not golden, much less welcomed. It never was.