overhead deck: 4.5/30/1 Broadcaster helped Blazer games move to a higher power: TV small deck: If Schonz was the voice of the Blazers, television producer George Wasch has been their eyes and ears
George Wasch didn't invent television, and nobody is suggesting that his impact on the sportscasting industry rivals that of Roone Arledge.
But if there is a Hall of Fame for Portland broadcasting, Wasch, the father of Blazers Broadcasting, is a charter member.
Wasch, 70, is closing in on 50 years behind the cameras in Portland. He went to work at KPTV (12) in 1954, less than a year after it began as the city's first station and only the fourth on the West Coast. And Wasch, Blazers Broadcasting's executive producer-director, is still going strong.
But this is his final season on a full-time basis with the Blazers.
'Next year, I would like to back off and just do the home games,' says Wasch, who has been on the road with the Blazers since the club's in-house TV operation came together in 1980. 'It has been a lot of years of travel. It's time to spend a little more time with my wife (Patty).'
As important as Bill Schonely was to Blazers Broadcasting in front of the microphone during his 29-year run as its radio voice, Wasch has been the same behind the scenes.
'Blazers Broadcasting wouldn't be what it is today without George,' says Scott Zachry, the director of Blazers Broadcasting, who came into the fold in 1988. 'George is Blazers Broadcasting. A lot of what we do today is based on the foundation George laid at the very beginning.'
Wasch has seen it all in Portland television from the very beginning, when he was a 1950 graduate of Grant High (and a classmate of Bob Packwood) who had served a three-year Air Force stint during the Korean War. Wasch got in on the embryonic stages of KPTV.
'They had me working in production because of my aeronautical engineering background,' Wasch says. 'But I did a lot of jobs Ñ worked the camera, did audio, floor manager, switcher, and a lot of studio and production jobs.
'It was fantastic, because it was all such a new and experimental business. Nobody wanted to leave work. We all were creating and developing and trying new things. It was really something.'
In 1954, color TV was a thing of the future. Everything was shot in black and white. All cameras had fixed lenses. There were no on-screen graphics.
'We used art cards,' Wasch says, grinning. 'All the news and commercials were shot and developed in film. It was primitive to what we know now, but for then, it was big stuff.'
Wasch soon was involved with KPTV's sports productions Ñ Oregon State football and basketball, Portland Buckaroos hockey, Portland Beavers baseball, even Portland Wrestling. Zoom lenses came in about 1957 to make shooting sports easier, and videotape was introduced in about 1961.
In 1963, KPTV did the region's first color sports telecast Ñ a Lewis & Clark College football game. Through the '60s, the station was the leader in sports TV production in the city.
In 1970-71, the Blazers' first season, KPTV shot 12 road games. Wasch served as producer and director. By then, he was becoming an authority on the business. The station did a number of Blazer games for several years.
In 1976, Wasch left KPTV to join Western Video, an independently operated video company in town. By that time, Blazermania was building. In June 1977, the Blazers won the NBA championship, and 12,666-seat Memorial Coliseum was sold out every game.
Personnel, professional synergy
The team's president-general manager, Harry Glickman, envisioned a closed-circuit, pay-per-view operation to take advantage of the thousands of fans who couldn't get tickets to home games.
Glickman knew Wasch, who had been involved in Portland sportscasting for years and had a mobile RV unit that could be employed. Joe Bashlow, who would later serve as Blazers Broadcasting's chief engineer for 18 years, had moved to Portland from New Jersey in June 1977. Tom McHenry, a cameraman for CBS during the Vietnam War, had just quit the network and was living in town. Portland's Paramount Theater, which seated about 4,500 and was located on Southwest Broadway, was available.
If ever there was harmonic convergence, this was it.
'The whole Blazers Broadcasting phenomenon was sparked by that year and the frenzy that was in town over the team,' says Bashlow, who retired in 1999. 'It was a stroke of genius, along with some good luck, to do the games and put them in the Paramount, which couldn't have been a more ideal venue.'
Wasch directed and produced the simulcasts with Schonely. Bashlow sat in the truck just inside the stage door at the coliseum. McHenry handled the camerawork. Paramount tickets cost $5, and the place sold out there, too, for a couple of glorious years.
'There was a magic to the place,' Bashlow recalls. 'I remember when Schonz used to say, 'Be quiet, let Mychal (Thompson) shoot his free throws,' there was a hush in our audience, too. It was as if they were in the arena, watching the game with the folks who were really in there.'
Team owner grabs opportunity
In those days, NBA teams contracted TV rights to local stations, who handled all operations. By 1980, owner Larry Weinberg had an idea, Wasch says.
'He said, 'Couldn't we do this ourselves?' ' Wasch says. 'A few teams were doing some things in-house, but marketing and TV production, nobody had done. We were told by TV stations that we would fail.'
A contract was signed to air the games on KPTV, with the Blazers selling their own commercials, and Blazers Broadcasting was born. Today, all 29 NBA clubs have in-house TV operations. Blazers Broadcasting has about a dozen full-time employees besides the announcers, Wasch says, in addition to its freelance staff.
'Harry called me into his office and said, 'This is our product now; we want to present ourselves in the best way possible. I know there are some things you have been wanting to do Ñ go for it,' ' Wasch recalls. 'I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
'We became a TV station inside a company, with sales, marketing, graphics and production. I had 25 years' experience in the business, and I was fortunate enough to hire a great freelance crew. Before long, every team in the NBA was calling us, asking, 'How do you do it?' '
Through the '80s, Blazers Broadcasting earned a national reputation for excellence.
'It was obvious right away that George was a big asset to the organization,' Glickman says. 'He was very innovative, very creative, and a hardworking guy.'
Viewers hear how ball bounces
Blazers Broadcasting was first in the league, or among the first, in several facets of its game coverage, including elaborate use of replay
from different angles, cameras in the end zone and right behind the basket (the 'slam cam') and microphones behind the basket to hear the sound of the ball coming off the rim or through the net ('we burned holes through the rubber and ran mikes into the back side of the basket,' Wasch says).
By 1982, Bashlow was working full time, but all other employees besides Wasch were freelancers until Zachry was hired in 1988. By then, Paul Allen had purchased the team from Weinberg. And with Allen's interest in the wired world, it was another boon for Wasch and his crews.
Allen, for instance, authorized use of a 'hothead' camera Ñ a remote, 360-degree tilt pan zoom apparatus that was cost-prohibitive for NBA clubs in the late '80s.
'Paul is so interested in television production, he has given us the support and funding to do it right,' Wasch says. 'Around the league, there is a certain amount of jealousy over that.'
Today, more than 25 years after the start of the Paramount closed-circuit telecasts Ñ nearly 50 years after he began in television Ñ George Wasch is still at it.
'It's amazing that George has been able to do it as long as he has,' Zachry says. 'He's like the Stockton or Malone on our side of the business. There are a few of the original traveling directors around the league, but George has been at it longer than anybody.'