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Zollie Volchok, 95, pioneer in sports team marketing

Associated Press/file 1977

Mr. Volchok was general manager when Seattle won its only NBA championship.

NEW YORK - Zollie Volchok, a onetime theater manager and entertainment promoter who as general manager and president of the Seattle SuperSonics drew legions of fans to their arena and helped lead the franchise to its only NBA championship, died Feb. 26 in Seattle. He was 95.

The cause was pneumonia, his son Gary said.

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The famous story told about Mr. Volchok is that not long after the Sonics entered the league - their first season was 1967-68 - the team’s owner, Sam Schulman, approached him about joining the franchise. Mr. Volchok, whose closest previous brush with the world of sports was his brief ownership of a roller derby team several years earlier, could not have been more surprised.

“I don’t know anything about basketball,’’ Mr. Volchok said.

“Neither do my players,’’ Schulman said.

Schulman was savvy enough to know, however, that an expansion basketball franchise would need marketing help, and at the time Mr. Volchok was perhaps the most successful entertainment promoter in the region.

His company, Northwest Releasing, was a leading booker of theatrical shows, musical performances and closed-circuit broadcasts of athletic contests, and Schulman figured that a man who could bring capacity crowds to theaters and arenas to see road productions of “My Fair Lady’’ and concerts by performers such as Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles might do the same for his basketball team.

When Mr. Volchok arrived, the Sonics were averaging about 6,000 fans a game. Wise enough to yield basketball decision-making to the basketball experts (including his head coaches, the Hall of Fame former players Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens), Mr. Volchok concentrated on marketing and promoting the team.

A Bill Veeck-like espouser of the sports sideshow, he turned Sonics games into minor spectacles, bringing live and recorded music into the arena, turning player introductions into theatrical displays, and creating halftime shows - not as frenzied, perhaps, as the rock-concert atmosphere that now prevails at many NBA contests, but certainly a harbinger of it. He also held Kids’ Nights, Ladies’ Nights, and Seniors’ Nights.

The team improved, too, and by the late 1970s, Seattle was the league leader in attendance. For four seasons, beginning in 1978-79, the Sonics averaged more than 18,000 fans a game. In 1977-78, the Sonics lost to the Washington Bullets in a seven-game championship series, but the next year, with Wilkens as the coach and the stars Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson, and Fred Brown, they avenged the loss with a five-game rout of the Bullets, capturing Seattle’s only NBA championship.

The next season, the team averaged 21,725 fans, then the NBA attendance record. (In 2008, the franchise was sold and moved to Oklahoma City.)

In the early 1980s, Schulman and Mr. Volchok made the Sonics among the earliest teams in any sport to venture into pay television, leasing a channel on several cable systems in the Seattle area and providing games and other programming, essentially creating a SuperSonics channel and anticipating what has become a standard part of a professional sports franchise’s financial plan. In 1983, Mr. Volchok’s involvement with the team ended when Schulman sold it.

Zalmon Marcola Volchok was born in Salem, Ore. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he managed movie houses in Portland, Ore., and during World War II he served in the Navy, mostly as an entertainment booker for the Pacific Fleet. In the early 1950s, he started a film distribution company in Seattle that evolved into Northwest Releasing.

Mr. Volchok lived on Mercer Island, near Seattle. In addition to his son Gary, he leaves his wife, Sylvia, whom he married in 1939; two other sons, Michael and Tony; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

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