Commentary: Hickey was Blazers’ biggest fan, and they were his

By Brian T. Smith, Columbian Sports Writer

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photoBrian T. Smith

Ray Hickey just gave them away.

He never told anyone. Never bragged or shined a spotlight. Part of him didn’t even want anyone to know. Like every good, righteous and true act that Hickey performed throughout his life, the former Washougal resident just felt it in his heart, so he did it.

Hickey had courtside seats. Four of them. Right next to the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench. Right next to coach Nate McMillan, All-Star guard Brandon Roy, and the rest of the team that he followed, cherished and loved since the birth of the franchise in 1970.

For 40 years, Hickey was a Blazer — maybe the best Blazer fan of all time. For 40 years, he was a season-ticket holder. Through Bill Walton, Clyde Drexler, Rasheed Wallace, Roy and the rebirth and resurgence of Rip City.

In the last few years, Hickey started giving his tickets away. To non-profit charity organizations. Anonymously.

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There are 41 home games in an NBA season, and Hickey would giftwrap his seats for at least 30 of them, sometimes more.

And these weren’t cheapos. These were the best in the house. Seriously: The Best In The House. $1,500 a pop; $6,000 per game.

Sightline: the Blazers, Portland’s coaches, and then the four seats in Hickey’s name.

They’re called preferred-client seats. Legend seats. They don’t come around. They don’t show up on the secondary black market. You basically have to be born into them. And they sure as heck aren’t given away for free.

But that’s exactly what Hickey did for years.

“It was something that brought him a lot of joy, because he could see the immediate reaction,” said Hickey’s daughter, Linda.

Lynda Walker saw that reaction up close. Every time that four kids from St. Mary’s — a treatment center in Beaverton, Ore., for abused and at-risk children — came within an arm’s reach of touching their heroes on the Rose Garden floor, Walker heard the same thing: It was the greatest day of their lives.

But Walker had no idea who was donating the tickets. So she did a little digging. Called around. Contacted the Blazers. Pushed nicely. Finally, she found out.

It was Ray Hickey.

But who was Ray Hickey?

“I said, ‘I’ve got to meet this guy,’ ” said Walker, director of development community relations at St. Mary’s.

So Walker sought Hickey out. It wasn’t that easy, though. Hickey was known, but he didn’t want to be found.

But Walker had leverage — a thick pile of straight-from-the-heart, life-changing thank-you notes. And she had a message: “Ray Hickey, whoever you are, you’ve brightened some really dark lives.”

At last, Walker discovered him.

Hickey rolled out in a wheelchair. Then the anonymous giver spoke: “I’m Ray Hickey, and I want a hug.”

It went straight to the moon from there.

Soon, Hickey was visiting St. Mary’s. He took in picnics and barbecues; he told the children his life story inside a chapel, doing so in a pure, gentle way that bridged each child’s mistrust and disillusionment with hope and faith.

Hickey, one of 10 children, grew up poor in Montana and Idaho. When he was 5, he started working, hauling coal in a bucket.

Later, Hickey went to trade school in Chicago. There, he peeked through the holes in a fence that bordered Wrigley Field — he saw magic.

And when Hickey somehow went from being a tugboat deck hand to a multi-millionaire, in-the-blood Blazer fan, he wanted to give the magic back.

So, Hickey passed on his tickets. But he didn’t stop there. He owned a luxury suite, too. That was also giftwrapped. St. Mary’s kids, Friends of the Children, New Avenues for Youth, the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Oregon and Southwest Washington — they all bathed in Hickey’s glow.

“He was a saint,” Walker said.

Hickey’s light faded out Wednesday. He died at the age of 82 from a heart-related illness.

By early Thursday, tributes to Hickey had started showing up on in Twitter postings. Later that day, a message was passed to the Blazers’ head coach: That man who sat right next to you through all those victories and defeats; who gave his courtside tickets away to the St. Mary’s kids you love? He’s gone.

“It is so sad,” said Traci Rose, Blazers vice president of community relations and corporate communications. “But his legacy will live on.”

It already is.

One of the first things Hickey’s daughter, Linda, did when she learned about her father’s death Wednesday was to call Walker at St. Mary’s. Not to break the news. Linda just wanted Walker to know that she might not be able to make it out Thursday for her weekly mentoring session.

Meanwhile, Walker said she was still trying to figure out the best way to tell her St. Mary’s kids about Hickey’s death.

“They’re going to be crushed,” Walker said.

The second-biggest Blazer fan of all time is.

Bill Schonely could barely speak Thursday. The legendary, longtime voice of Rip City was in shock.

Schonely knew Hickey from the start. When Blazermania was born, Hickey was there. When the Blazers seared 1977 and the NBA championship forever into the heart of Portland, Hickey and his young daughter were inside the Memorial Coliseum. And even when the Blazers became the Jail Blazers, burning and pillaging everything in sight, Hickey was still there — but he almost wavered.

“He was down in the dumps and ready to pull the plug,” Schonely said. “But I told him: ‘It’s going to get better, Ray.’ And he said, ‘Schonz, if you tell me that, I believe it.’ ”

Hickey never stopped believing. His close friends said he was overjoyed at the rebirth of the franchise; overwhelmingly excited about the prospects for this season’s unbelievable playoff run.

The game always keeps going. Sometimes life stops. Hickey’s did Wednesday. But what a life it was. And, by God, did he hand out some magic.

“I think I like the world a little better with Ray in it,” Walker said.

Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or brian.smith@columbian.com.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column had an incorrect age listed for Ray Hickey. He was 82.