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It’s been a quiet spring for Robert Portnoy, something the “Voice of the Lobos” has rarely experienced.
Typically his last few months would have included wrapping up the University of New Mexico’s basketball season, calling a slew of baseball games and logging various coaches’ shows – to say nothing of helping to operate the trampoline/fun park Portnoy co-owns with his wife, Tamara.
This spring, not much.
The same coronavirus pandemic restrictions that brought NCAA spring sports to a jarring halt have the Portnoys’ Cool Springz facility still under shutdown orders. So what’s a normally busy sports broadcaster to do?
“It’s weird,” Portnoy said. “A week ago I was preparing to rebroadcast a basketball game from 1988. It was fun but I’d much rather have been talking about a possible baseball regional. This is the first year since 1998 I didn’t call any baseball games in April. Everything feels off right now.”
Portnoy’s voice has become a staple on New Mexico’s sports airwaves since his family relocated to the state in 2006. He covered Albuquerque Isotopes baseball for seven seasons, then moved across the street to become UNM’s play-by-play man for baseball, football and men’s basketball. The seasons overlap, which can make for an exhausting schedule.
“Crazy but awesome,” Portnoy said.
But for all the time he spends on the air, Portnoy logs more in preparation. He makes it a priority to get to know the coaches, players and programs he covers and then shares revealing anecdotes with listeners.
“He always overprepares,” Tamara said, ” – 10 pages of game notes when he only needs one.”
Portnoy believes it’s the only way to do his job properly, and he’s determined to give UNM followers his best effort.
“When I came over from the Isotopes there were two factors,” Portnoy said. “First, the opportunity to do three sports was incredible. Second, it gave me a chance to connect with the Lobo fan base, which is so passionate and invested in its teams. As a broadcaster, what more can you want?”
Portnoy enjoys letting coaches and athletes tell their own stories in interviews. He’s less apt to talk about instances when a broadcaster becomes part of a team’s lore, which has happened in Portnoy’s case.
The 53-year-old Portnoy has long borne a striking resemblance to TV personality Stephen Colbert, something Tamara says has been coming up for nearly 20 years. UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham eventually decided to capitalize on his lookalike broadcaster.
Prior to a 2018 baseball game, Portnoy donned glasses, suit and tie and posed as Colbert for photos inside the Lobos’ clubhouse. Birmingham posted one on Twitter and was blown away by the response.
“I tweeted that out without a name and people freaked out,” Birmingham said. “Almost everyone thought it was Colbert and I didn’t correct them. Even some of the kids in our locker room bought it. Robert did a great job.”
Portnoy played the gag out, even visiting a local optometrist to get frames similar to those worn by Colbert.
“Ray had been after me for years to do that,” Portnoy said. “His team was struggling a little that year, so we decided to liven things up. It was fun.”
Portnoy receives less acclaim for a singing performance he delivered on a baseball bus trip to Texas Tech.
“It’s an initiation thing,” Portnoy said. “They make first-timers on the bus sing a song.”
Portnoy surprised the captive audience with a rendition of the KISS ballad “Beth.”
“You’re supposed to sing a drinking song or something upbeat,” Birmingham said with a laugh, “and he sings ‘Beth?’ Robert’s not off the hook if he rides with us again.”
Portnoy’s willingness to have fun with the teams he covers in no way detracts from his professional approach. A St. Louis native who grew up in Palm Springs and later Phoenix, Portnoy set his sights on sports broadcasting early.
“I wrote one of those ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ papers in third grade,” he said. “I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster.”
The dream eventually led to a six-year, coast-to-coast tour of jobs covering minor league teams. Portnoy, who grew up idolizing broadcasters like Vin Scully and Dick Enberg, shared the experience with Tamara and their young daughter, Dana, who accompanied him on trips.
In 2006 the road led to Albuquerque. Portnoy took over Isotopes play-by-play duties and collected seven seasons’ worth of memories.
“ESPN interviewed me on SportsCenter during the whole Manny Ramirez circus in ’09,” Portnoy recalled of the star slugger’s brief, highly attended rehab stint. “I got doused in the champagne celebration when the ‘Topes won a division title in 2012, too. That was a blast.”
Portnoy said his fondest Isotopes memories are of the way he was welcomed by general manager John Traub, the organization and Albuquerque fans. The latter acceptance, he says, hasn’t changed since he started calling UNM sports.
Former Lobo Hunter Greene, who has worked with Portnoy as a men’s basketball analyst for seven seasons, counts preparation and passion among his partner’s strengths.
“He genuinely loves what he does,” Greene said. “Robert gets so excited sometimes that people say, ‘Man, he was going crazy over a simple layup.’ That’s just him. He’s always upbeat and never complains. I’m the deadpan guy who complains, not him.”
Portnoy’s first love and broadcasting roots are in baseball, but he claims to have no preference between the games he covers.
“My favorite sport is the one in season,” he said. “That’s it.”
At the moment Portnoy is missing baseball because UNM’s season was dashed after a promising 14-4 start. The absence is that much more pronounced because the Portnoys have been unable to focus on operating Cool Springz.
The idea of opening a trampoline park came after the family visited one during a trip to Phoenix. The two children, Dana and Alyssa, loved the experience.
“Dana wanted to have her birthday at a trampoline park,” Tamara said, “but there was nothing like that in Albuquerque. That’s how it started.”
The Portnoys opened Cool Springz in 2012 and moved to their current Northeast Heights location in 2018. Unfortunately, the business remains closed under COVID-19 restrictions.
“Gyms and rock-climbing facilities reopened, but we can’t,” Tamara said. “I don’t see the difference.”
College sports this fall also remain up in the air as the pandemic drags on, but Portnoy remains hopeful. A quiet 2020-21 campaign is simply not on his agenda.
“I’m very lucky to have the job I have,” Portnoy said. “You develop emotional attachments to the folks you cover and the fans you see all the time. It’s hard not being around sports.”