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Signing off

TV sportscaster Joe Becker, who 'did it my way,' now opts for early retirement

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Popular Portland sportscaster Joe Becker has 32 years with KGW (8) to celebrate as he heads into retirement.On his first night as a civilian in 37 years, Joe Becker had a grand time at Moda Center.

The day after his retirement following a 32-year career as a sportscaster at KGW (8), Becker was feted by the Trail Blazers during a ceremony with team personnel and members of the media prior to Saturday’s playoff game with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Coach Terry Stotts stopped by to take a photo and offer congratulations. President/CEO Chris McGowan offered some kind words. President/basketball operations Neil Olshey presented Becker with a commemorative “No. 8” Blazer jersey.

“There aren’t a lot of media in town I’d give a Blazer jersey to, but Joe is one of them,” Olshey cracked.

Becker then sat in the stands with his children, Jeffrey and Alison — Janice, his wife of nearly 35 years, was back East — to watch the Blazers beat the Clippers. In the fourth quarter, Becker was shown on the Jumbotron, receiving a nice ovation by the fans.

“It was great,” Becker says. “The Blazers were so nice to me. It was very cool.”

If you see Becker cavorting about town over the next few weeks, he’ll probably be wearing a jersey of some sort. The Timbers and Winterhawks also presented him with a “No. 8” shirt, symbolizing the work he put in at Channel 8 for so many years.

Becker’s weekend farewell tour included a Friday night party at Cassidy’s attended by 150 of his friends and fellow employees over the years. Joe arrived fashionably late, as usual, after working his final shift in the 6:30 p.m. newscast. Longtime co-workers Joe Donlon, Tracy Barry and Laurel Porter were on the set, and a tribute retrospective piece on Becker’s career was aired, with accolades by members of the Blazers and the Timbers.

At Cassidy’s, “There were photographers he worked with from decades ago, people from the past all the way down to young kids who are there now,” says Adam Bjaranson, his former cohort in the KGW sports department. “They all know and love Joe. I thought, ‘Gosh, what a legacy to leave behind.’"

Becker didn’t ask for all of this. Didn’t want a story written about him, either. He’s a genuinely humble person, a bit embarrassed by all the fuss.

But that’s what you get when you become an institution in your city, especially when you’re universally considered a prince of a guy.

“Joe never, ever had a bad word to say about anybody,” says Scott Lynn, who was the sports director who hired Becker for KGW in 1984. “I remember years ago when a co-worker was saying some bad things about Joe, trying to get him fired. I asked Joe about it. I said, ‘The guy’s a pompous jerk.’ He thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Well, you know, that’s fine.’

“Joe rolled with it. Eventually the guy left, and Joe remained for 32 years. I have immense respect for him. He’s truly a survivor — the last man standing in Portland.”

Becker, 61, didn’t intend to retire quite yet. He is in good health and was still enjoying the job as much as ever.

“But the company offered me early retirement, and I decided to take it,” he says. “I had to think about it quite a bit, but I feel like it’s a good thing for me.”

Becker wanted to be a sportscaster since his grade-school days growing up in St. Louis, the second of six children of a father who worked for the phone company and a mother who was a homemaker. He loved sports, and he loved listening to legendary Cardinal broadcasters Harry Caray and Jack Buck.

At first, Becker wanted to be a major-league play-by-play voice, but that changed once he got his first professional job as a TV sportscaster in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1979. Becker’s mentor, veteran sportscaster Jay Randolph, critiqued Becker’s audition tape as a recent graduate of Southern Illinois-Evansville and helped him get an interview in Providence.

Five years later, Lynn hired him as weekend sports reporter at KGW after viewing Becker’s audition tape while working Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals, the Celtics beating the Lakers at the Boston Garden.

“Joe was on the floor in the middle of a wild celebration, doing his stand-up amid all the bedlam,” says Lynn, now broadcasting in Largo, Florida. “As it turned out, we’d both gone to SIU-Evansville, we’d had some of the same professors and had both worked for Jay. We had a lot of things in common.”

Broadcasting is a transient industry, with employees moving from job to job and city to city and rarely staying at one place very long. Becker stayed put, in part because he loved his job and the city of Portland, in part because he never had great aspirations to move on.

When Becker arrived at KGW, he formed a three-man sports crew with Lynn and Carl Click. Through the years, he worked with at least 10 sportscasters there, including Bjaranson, Colin Cowherd, Eric Johnson, Steve Bartelstein and Ron Pivo.

“Joe resisted the consultants who tried to put their imprint on the industry,” recalls Lynn, who worked with Becker during his first five years in Portland. “They wanted you to be entertaining more so than informative. They’d want you to do the story in a flashy way to draw attention to yourself.

“Joe remained true to himself. He had fun, but he took his work very seriously. It speaks well for him that he lasted all those years in a time when the industry was changing so dramatically. He just enjoyed being there. He had staying power.”

When Becker started in the business, TV stations were still using film. He used typewriters to write his scripts. Soon came computers and tape and eventually digital video. Time allotment for sportscasts shrunk, and content changed, but Becker — who retired as the lone sportscaster at KGW — always adjusted.

“I just enjoyed going out and doing stories, putting the highlights together, meeting people and working with the people at the station, who were all great,” Becker says. “I just did it my way.”

Becker was a staple of KGW’s “Friday Night Flights” during prep football season, eating hot dogs and enjoying the banter with high school students and athletes. He used his musical ability to write a song for the show, then played the guitar to it and put it on the air.

“I probably did about 12 songs (during the broadcasts) over the years — some by myself, some with the help of professional musicians,” he says.

All along, Becker earned the admiration and respect of his peers.

“There’s not a person I’ve come across in my life who has been so accommodating, so loyal and such a team player,” says Bjaranson, who now works with Blazer Broadcasting. “Joe has been like the older brother to me. Everything he embodies is so special. Every time I see him, it brings a smile to my face. There’s not a person around who doesn’t absolutely enjoy his company.”

Lynn recalls the years when he and Becker would get off the set at 11:30 p.m.

“Our family members were asleep,” Lynn says. “We’d sit around the station and BS for awhile, then head down Canyon Road and stop and have chili cheese dogs and Big Gulps and talk to the manager at the local 7-Eleven til 1 or 1:30 a.m. Some of the most fun times I ever had.”

“Joe is as real and genuine as they come,” Donlon — the long-time KGW anchor and fellow St. Louis native who worked alongside Becker for two decades — wrote on Facebook. “I often hear the question: ‘If you could have a beer with anyone, who would you choose?’ I’m here to tell you, Joe should be right at the top of your list.

“Joe will slide into retirement with the respect of an entire city. He has no idea how much he is loved. But that’s part of what makes him so special.”

“Joe is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” says Craig Birnbach, sports director at rival KOIN (6) who has been at the station for nine years. “He was nice to me on my first day here, when no one knew me, and nice to me every day since. Joe is the kind of guy you want to sit next to at a bar to watch a game, and I’ve been lucky enough for nine years to sit next to him on press row, which is just like that.

“I was sad for me when he said he was retiring. He’s always in such a great mood. He is definitely going to be missed.”

Becker cherishes the memories through his years in the sportscasting profession, interviewing such legends as Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Jim Brown, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe. He enjoyed covering the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers of the early '90s. Becker was there when Michael Jordan buried a barrage of 3-pointers in the NBA Finals against Portland at Chicago Stadium in 1992. He was at Yankee Stadium when Carl Yastrzemski ripped his 3,000th career hit for the Boston Red Sox. The seventh game of the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals in 1984 “might be No. 1 on the list,” he says.

Becker will have a lot more family time now. He plans to ride his road bike more, to do some traveling, to play the guitar and the piano.

“I’m just going to relax,” he says with a smile. “I’m sure I’ll miss being on the air. I had a great career. I loved the job. It was work, but it was always fun.”

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