The Return of Snapper
On Sunday night the Trail Blazers will host a special Steve “Snapper” Jones Tribute Night when the Blazers host the Minnesota Timberwolves. Steve will be in the house, and will join us on the television broadcast during the second quarter. The following is a brief background on Steve, and my personal thoughts on what he meant to me, and all Blazer fans, during his time on our airwaves, as and my broadcast partner.
In the NBA, team broadcasters are the messengers, the voices, and personalities you become attached to as you follow your team. If you’re an avid fan, like I was growing up, the team announcers become a huge part of your life.
I’ve often shared, on the air and off, the stories about my childhood, and how my game-night ritual was so dependent on a couple of different people. One was Bill Schonely, of course. I was that kid who took a radio to bed with me, and soaked up every word and every phrase, and always dreamed of the day I would perhaps be blessed with the same opportunity to get behind a microphone and be next to the action.
The other voice, and face, that simply meant “Blazer basketball” to me was Steve Jones. He had this large, commanding presence on the air, and seemed to always know what to say, how to explain, and how to relate everything to the listener. It was a smooth cadence, never hurried, and never overly emotional, during good nights or bad.
It was a different time when I was a young fan. There was no Internet, no League Pass available, and sports-talk radio to speak of. Just about everything I learned about the Blazers and the NBA came from the newspaper, magazines, and to a larger extent, from Snapper Jones. I was the son of a coach, so it was in my blood, and Snapper provided the perspective and vocabulary to completely connect all of the dots in my basketball-crazy mind.
I knew that Steve had won an Oregon State high school basketball championship playing for Franklin, and then went on to play at the University of Oregon. I also knew that he was a huge star in the ABA, where he became an all-star and ended up scoring over 10,000 points. He was an elite three-point shooter, when the NBA didn’t have a three-point line. What I didn’t know, at the time, is that he spent just one season playing for the Trail Blazers, and was the last player cut from the 1976-77 Portland team that went on to win the NBA title. I learned about all of that later.
It was clear at the time, however, that Snapper had other options. That he would make an indelible mark on the NBA in another way – in the broadcast booth. The minute his playing days were over, he was moved behind the microphone, and started working on Blazer broadcasts. CBS loved what they heard, and used him in the playoffs and NBA Finals that very season. Think of how unusual that would be in today’s world.
As fate would have it, his first assignment to cover an NBA Championship series would be for his hometown team. Steve was on the sidelines for CBS when the Blazers beat Philadelphia in game 6, and watched the town go nuts.
His role with the Trail Blazers was just beginning, and he would become a fixture over the next 26 years.
Snapper not only helped call the games on TV (and even was the play-by-play man for a time), but hosted Courtside Monday Night on the radio, and hosted an hour-long Courtside broadcast, by himself, that preceded each Blazer game. That was always must-hear radio for a young fan like myself. I still remember the theme music to that show, as the anticipation built for another night of NBA basketball. I still remember getting frustrated when the show went to commercial break, as that was simply time away from Steve. Not all the games were on TV then, and this was always still a chance to hear the great Snapper preach to the masses.
Fast-forward (a long way) to 1999, and my first season working with Blazers Broadcasting. Jones was still hosting Courtside Monday Night, along with his many other duties. He was doing the show then with Mike Rice. Since most of these broadcasts turned into two-hour wrestling matches between two strong-willed basketball personalities, I was selected to host, or basically, moderate these contests. Talk about a humbling and frightening experience. I had been a Blazer fan, and had been covering the team for years, but now was completely tossed into the fire against two guys who scared the heck out of me, for different reasons. One would fire daggers at you with his eyes and make you squirm in his silence, and the other would shout you completely out of the room. It made for interesting radio, to say the very least, and I usually drove home with my head spinning.
After the 2001-2002 season, the Trail Blazers were making a change on the TV broadcasts and were planning to bring in a new play-by-play broadcaster to work with Snapper. I still remember the summer afternoon when Jones threw open the door to my small office at Blazer headquarters. He said, “okay kid, the door is cracked open for you and I think I can kick it all the way open – if you’re ready. Now, get your keys, you’re taking me to get a haircut.” I flew out of my chair, still trying to digest what he had just said.
I’d love to say that I had a ton of confidence as a young broadcaster, but working with Steve Jones, who at the time was on NBC’s number-one broadcast team, as well as being, in my mind, the authority on Blazer basketball in our area? Talk about baptism by fire.
To say that Snapper was into “tough love” was an understatement. To say I feared the man is an understatement. If I had been from somewhere else, and didn’t have such respect for him, and hadn’t always regarded him with “hero status” during my formative years, it probably would have been easier. But, I did realize what an opportunity this was, so off we went.
I prided myself then, and still do, on being overly prepared. I come armed to every game with these sheets with little scribble all over them. Stats and storylines I could never possibly get to in one single game. Snapper would show up for games with a pencil, and stroll across the court just before we went on the air (I’d arrive at 3pm and pace for three hours). He’d look at my stuff and just shake his head. As I would set up my end of the table for the broadcast, he’d turn my stats monitor away from me, or just unplug it. He’d say, “kid, you’re making it too difficult.” He was always into simplicity. The game, he’d say, was simply “passing, cutting, movement, and scoring the ball.” My job, in his mind, was about “score, time, situation, and who’s on the floor.” That’s it.
Snapper had a knack for making the game incredibly interesting, while always taking his own personal emotion completely out of it. He was the complete opposite of a “homer.” I would ask him at times if he cared if the Blazers won or lost. I think he did, but he just didn’t think it was his role to put that on display. He had this deep and well-thought out perspective that I couldn’t get my head around. If I wanted to get him completely mad at me I’d make a comment about a referee’s call. Steve, who never got a single technical foul in all of his years playing, saw no purpose in ripping a ref during a game.
My favorite memories of my years of doing games with Snapper were our rides together to and from the games. He never rode the team bus, like we do today, but instead rented his own car. He invited me to ride with him that first year, which I was told by others was quite an honor. I never knew why, at the time, that he chose to separate himself from the players and coaches like he did. I think it was because he never wanted to develop emotional relationships with the players – something, for better or for worse, I have always done. He figured that got in the way of him staying unbiased. It makes perfect sense, but for me has always been very difficult.
On the way to games he would say, “kid, what’s your approach tonight? What kind of game are you going to call if the team wins, or if they’re getting pounded?” After the games he would pepper me with questions, make me think about everything I said on the air, and constantly challenge me. It was an education and an experience I’ll never forget.
During those years the national assignments started coming more and more frequently for Snapper. He would start out with us on a road trip, and then would break off to cover other games on the national broadcasts. NBC was at its best when Snapper was doing games with Bill Walton. The odd couple thing worked so well. When ABC took over the national contract, it started using him more and more in New York. Neither side was getting enough of Snapper. The time came for the Blazers to get something more permanent, and for Steve to stop living on an airplane.
Snapper was gone from Blazer broadcasting, but will never be forgotten. His mark on this franchise, and what he meant to fans has long since been etched in stone. It was a privilege for Blazer fans to hear him each game, and an absolute honor that I got to be involved in a small part of his broadcasting legacy. Even though it lasted 26 years, it ended too soon.
We’ve all got people in our lives who have made such an impact, that finding the words to properly explain just how deep an impact, don’t come easily. I remember each and every compliment he gave me. In fact, I clearly remember them both. One was after a game in Denver in 2003, when a huge referee’s call helped decide the outcome. I actually stayed fairly composed, which was rare. The other was after a game at Golden State, a game Portland won 94-93 (I still remember the final score, because of the compliment). He patted me on the back after we boarded the team plane and said, “good call tonight kid.” I probably have never told him how much that meant to me, or how much he meant to me.
I’m not sure if Portland has ever told Steve how much he meant to the fans, and to the franchise. He’s never been properly recognized by the organization for all that he gave to Blazers fans over the years.
Now is our chance.
Welcome home Snapper.
I invite you to share your Steve Jones memories below.