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Lori Spencer, the Blazers' 'Swiss Army knife,' celebrates 40 years
On Oct. 9, employees of the Trail Blazers gathered at Dr. Jack's restaurant in the Rose Quarter to celebrate Lori Spencer's 40th anniversary with the club.
Coach Terry Stotts said a few words in tribute to Spencer, who now serves as the club's internal ticketing director. Chris McGowan, the team's president and CEO, also spoke to the group.
"I've been at a lot of celebrations after someone has been with an organization for 10 or 20 years," McGowan says. "But 40 years? That's just remarkable. It was cool to be a part of toasting Lori's big day."
"All through (the party), she was worried about tickets and making sure everyone has what they need," he says. "I told her, 'Stop worrying about tickets. This is a celebration for your anniversary. Let's just have some fun.' But that's just Lori."
Spencer, 69 but youthful enough that she can pass for at least a decade younger, goes way back with the franchise. Besides Bill Schonely, who still works as an ambassador and broadcaster emeritus, she is the last remaining link to the glory season of 1976-77, when the Blazers won their only NBA championship.
Spencer didn't become a full-time employee until October 1978, but she began work as an "usherette" at Memorial Coliseum in February 1976.
"That's how I met (president and franchise founder) Harry Glickman," says the Fairview, Montana, native, who arrived in Portland in the early '70s with her first husband. "The first Blazer game I worked, I asked him to leave the arena because he was smoking, and it wasn't allowed.
"I said, 'I'm sorry, but you can't smoke.' He politely walked down the stairs and went out the door. I came back a few minutes later and he was standing in the stairway, still smoking. I had to tell him, 'You can't smoke in the arena.' My boss (of the ushers) said, 'Don't you know who that is?' I said, 'Does it matter?'"
Spencer ushered the final couple of months of the 1975-76 season and worked every game of the 1976-77 campaign. It was the end of the Lenny Wilkens era as coach, and the Blazers finished with a 37-45 record.
"Not many people were attending games (at the end of the 1975-76 season)," she recalls. "If we got 4,000 or 5,000, we were doing pretty well."
That changed in 1976-77, after Jack Ramsay was hired as coach and the Blazers had a healthy Bill Walton, along with acquisitions such as Maurice Lucas, Dave Twardzik and Johnny Davis.
"Our first preseason game was a doubleheader," Spencer says. "When I walked into the arena, I was like, 'Whoa.' The crowd was excited. It was a whole different atmosphere. By the end of the season, there was a waiting list for season tickets."
Spencer had also been working part-time for ticket manager George Rickles beginning in the fall of 1976. She continued to usher, and will never forget Game 6 of the NBA Finals, when the Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers to wrap up the title at the coliseum.
"That day was a whole lot of fun, though as an usher, I wasn't thinking that at the time," she says. "It was so crowded. The capacity was 12,666, and the box office statement showed 13,211. I don't know how they got the extra tickets.
"It was chaos from the get-go. The arena was sweltering hot. I'm not sure the thought that we would win that game entered in until the game started. They always had ushers to hold the ropes to keep people off the court after the game. By the end of the game, when they knew we might win and the fans would storm the court, they had us trying to rope off both ends of the court — not just where the players would exit, but where the baskets were. They didn't want to lose the nets.
"With two minutes to go, we were standing there with our ropes. Then the head ushers and security came by and told us, 'Don't even attempt to go there.' When the game ended, everybody stormed that floor. I don't know how the players got to the locker room. I got whacked in the face by some guy who accidentally caught me with his hand. I thought he'd broken my jaw."
Before the 1977-78 season, Berlyn Hodges, then Glickman's administrative assistant and the office manager, hired Spencer full-time.
"I was employee No. 13," she says. "If you count the three basketball staffers — Ramsay, (assistant coach) Jack McKinney and (trainer) Ron Culp — I was No. 16."
People such as Glickman, Rickles, Hodges, director of player personnel Stu Inman and PR director John White were among those already on board.
"Lori had done some work for us, and I'd gotten to know her pretty well," says Hodges, 86, now retired and living in Marana, Arizona. "She was my assistant. She did everything I needed done, and she was just fabulous."
In those years the Blazers were headquartered in the 700 Multnomah Building, where they would stay until 1993.
"There was room for only three chairs and a desk when I started," Spencer says. "It was a skeleton crew. We all wore multiple hats to some degree."
Spencer spent time as a receptionist. She served as photo manager, digging through contact sheets for photos to be used in marketing. She helped White type up press releases. She spent time working in accounting, and eventually began working with Rickles, helping with ticket sales. She even helped out as assistant producer for Steve Jones' radio talk show.
When Jon Spoelstra came aboard to handle the Blazers' business side in 1979, he created a customer service department, which Spencer headed for a year and a half, handling season ticket renewals and group sales. By 1986, she was attached permanently to ticket sales, which she has focused on since.
In 1993, the Blazers moved their customer-service department to the basement of the coliseum in preparation for the opening of the Rose Garden (now Moda Center) in 1995.
"Lori was in charge of setting people up for tickets in Rose Garden, moving them from the tickets they had at the coliseum," says Hodges, who retired in 1998. "It was the toughest job for anybody in the ticket business to deal with. To move all those people is almost impossible.
"Lori and her staff worked until midnight a lot of nights. There just wasn't enough time in the day. Lori and I worked very closely for all those years. She was a marvelous employee. She was the best."
Since 2007, Spencer has been the club's internal ticketing director, supporting demand for tickets from the likes of employees, sponsors, visiting teams and owners, national TV and the league.
The early years, says Spencer, were much different than they are with the Blazers today.
"Those years were very nice," she says. "You knew all of your co-workers very well. When you'd get together, the kids would be there, too. You watched your co-workers' children grow up.
"You put so much of your life into a sport team. It's not just a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday. Our hours and schedule are so determined by the Blazer schedule. After the championship year, with the team being such a hot commodity, you couldn't say you worked for the Blazers without, 'Wow, can you get me tickets?'
"It was fairly casual, definitely a family atmosphere, even with the players. They would come in and pick up their fan mail and spend time with us — especially if Harry and Stu were out of town. Our Christmas parties and holiday get-togethers, the players and their families would come, too. Now, we don't ever see them. They're out at the practice facility."
Spencer loved Larry Weinberg, the Los Angeles real estate developer who owned the Blazers from their inception in 1970 until selling the club to Paul Allen in 1988.
"Mr. Weinberg was a very accommodating owner," she says. "When he would come to Portland to visit, he would come in to the office and stop at every desk and get to know you. I still get a Christmas card from him every year. I have his personal number. We chat every once in a while. If he hears something about one of the players when he was owner, he'll call and try to keep in touch with them, too.
"He's a kind, remarkable man. He still asks me about my son. He was very aware of the direction the NBA was going. Though he hated to sell the team, he knew we needed someone with deeper pockets than he had."
Glickman was "the boss," Spencer says. "Harry was an amazing guy to work for, even for as gruff as his voice was if you needed to do something for him. He had a rule: If we receive a letter or a phone call, we were to respond within 24 hours. If they took the time to contact us, we needed to respond. There were some times where that was difficult.
"It was a lesson we all learned. The better the customer service, the better the customers were to deal with. He was very aware of developing a good routine for taking care of people."
After Spoelstra arrived, he changed the organization of the business side.
"He would do annual 'think tanks,' where we would get together in groups based on our particular responsibility," Spencer says. "We'd have a goal session, where we would discuss what we could accomplish going forward in the upcoming year. Then we'd meet as a total staff and say, 'This is the plan. This is what we're going to.'
"That went away after Paul bought us. Everything got so much bigger so fast, it was difficult. Now Chris has things coming back a little like that, though not to the extent to what it was. But Chris is good at letting us know where our direction should be, which makes it so much nicer. If you know what you're working toward, you're not just punching the clock in the office."
Spencer has survived, and thrived, through an evolution of technological changes in the industry — from hard tickets to mobile tickets, for instance. What hasn't changed is her impact on her co-workers, as a representative to the community and as a Swiss Army knife inside the organization.
"Lori is incredible," says McGowan, in his seventh season with the Blazers. "She has been a part of the organization for so long, and she works with every aspect, from people on the business side to the basketball side. She has great relationships everywhere. She knows every key person. If you need things done, you know they'll be taken care of with Lori, because she's really good at what she does.
"She has a great personality. She's super warm, kind, always helpful no matter what the situation."
How much longer will Spencer work with the Blazers?
"I stay too busy to get old," she says with a laugh. "I don't feel like I should retire. It seems like I still have more to offer. Then I think, 'Well, how much longer?'
"You don't know how life will treat you, but I enjoy the people I work with so much. They make being there enjoyable in itself. I really miss working with the season ticket-holders. I did that for so many years. But it's always been a lot of fun for me, and it still feels that way."
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