Bill Schonely only saw one Trail Blazers championship. But no one championed the team like the gentle man who coined the phrase “Rip City!” and whose voice connected the team and its players with the community for three decades as the team’s radio voice.
Schonely died Saturday, Jan. 21, at the age of 93. He is survived by his wife, Dottie, his three children and several grandchildren.
Next to Trail Blazers’ founder Harry Glickman, it’s safe to say that there has never been — and likely never will be — a more impactful Trail Blazer than The Schonz.
The sixth employee hired by Glickman when he landed an NBA franchise for Portland in 1970, Schonely was the team’s radio voice for almost three decades.
His call of the final seconds of the Blazers’ 1977 championship-clinching win over the 76ers is etched in the memories of so many of us who grew up listening to so many losses.
For budding sports fanatics in Portland in the 1970s, Bill Schonely’s voice was more than just our connection to a basketball team. His was a featured voice on the soundtrack of our childhood.
Long before the Internet and social media and even cable TV, signature catch phases such as “bingo-bango-bongo,” “dribbles through the Cyclops” and “lickety-brindle-up-the-middle” put us in Schonely’s front-row seat at a time when any win for the home team deserved a celebration.
Portland journalist and former Portland Tribune sports columnist Kerry Eggers broke the news of Schonely’s death early Saturday morning. You can check out Eggers’ book on Schonely’s life by heading here: kerryeggers.com/store.
On Saturday, Eggers told the Tribune that some of his favorite Schonely stories, recounted in his book, include Schonely’s days involved with pro wrestling and roller derby in Seattle and the time he played goalie at a Seattle Totems hockey practice.
Schonely, Eggers said, enjoyed being a foil for jokes from the likes of Jack Ramsay, longtime Blazers trainer Ron Culp, and from players.
“He could take a joke and he could give a joke. We shared a lot of laughs,” Eggers said.
In the first years of the franchise, a game at Madison Square Garden, the Boston Garden or against the Los Angeles Lakers was a big deal. The Schonz knew that, and through his descriptions took listeners to those storied venues. Schonely’s exact words when the team won at Madison Square Garden for the first time are lost from my memory, but not his excitement as he put the significance of a win in New York City into perspective for fans in little old Portland.
Schonely was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and in 2012 received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Marshall Glickman, Harry Glickman’s son, called Schonely an icon who the Glickman family and the State of Oregon will never forget.
“My father loved this man and Bill loved Harry. Together, they put Portland on the global map,” Marshall Glickman said in an email.
When you went to a Blazers game in the 1970s — for me that was a rare treat — you wanted to stay to watch Schonely do his postgame interview from center court. If the Blazers lost, which they did quite frequently until the breakthrough 1976-77 season, Schonely’s guest would often be an opposing player or coach. Whether it was one of the Trail Blazers or an opposing player, these postgame interviews, only a few minutes long, usually came off as a casual chat between friends.
That’s the way so many will remember Schonely — as a friend. Even for those who only interacted with The Schonz a few times, his genuine love for people, especially those from Portland and fans of the Trail Blazers, was obvious.
Except for a period of about five years between 1998 and 2003 — Schonely, against his wishes, was replaced as the team’s radio voice at the end of the 1997-98 season — Schonely has been the one constant for the Trail Blazers, including in his role as an ambassador for the team that continued until last April.
“Aside from the catch phrases that popularized Bill, what I remember most was his voice coming across the scratchy transistor radio. His descriptions were filled with imagination, inflection and warmth,” Marshall Glickman said. “As a person, he was loyal to the end, in spite of being shown the door far too early. He lived, bled and breathed Blazers red, even when calling Beavers baseball in the late ’90s.”
In a statement from the Trail Blazers, Dewayne Hankins, the team’s president of business operations, said: “Our hearts go out to his wife, Dottie, and the entire Schonely family during this difficult time. Bill was a warm, engaging and sharp person — always up for a joke, a keen observation or a kind remark. His mark on the organization, the state of Oregon and all of sports broadcasting will be felt for generations. No one loved Rip City more than Bill did and we are all forever grateful for his contributions to the community.”
Terry Porter, a key player for the Blazers great teams of the early 1990s and now an alumni ambassador for the team, said: “The Schonz was a cornerstone of the organization since Day 1. He was the ultimate Trail Blazer — the voice of the Trail Blazers. He was someone that Blazers fans grew up listening to for many, many generations. His voice will be missed, his presence will be missed, but his legacy will not be forgotten. It’s intertwined with every part of this organization.”
Second-year Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups understandably didn’t have much time to get to know Schonely, but said Saturday he will remember the moments he did have with the Rip City icon.
“Mr. Schonely is obviously an icon, a legend, not just in this area either,” Billups said. “I was lucky enough just to spend a little time with him last year ... he would come around quite a bit. He was always very kind to me and very encouraging, optimistic with me so I was lucky I got that little time with him.”
Current star Damian Lillard didn’t have his games called by Schonely, but after spending the last 10-plus years in Portland, the Schonz is certainly someone Lillard got to know well.
“When I first got here, he was one of the first people that I met and anybody that knows him knows he immediately told me that he was the person who came up with Rip City,” Lillard said. “I’m sure his voice will be remembered, what he represented will be remembered and I’m happy I’ve been around long enough and spent enough time around him to call him a friend and to get to know him. It’s a sad day, and I send my condolences to his family, his wife.”
Schonely’s “Rip City!” catchphrase was a spur-of-the-moment call during the team’s first season as he described a long shot by Jim Barnett swishing through the hoop.
Schonely likely never would have come to Portland had the Seattle Pilots lasted more than one season. Schonely was part of the Pilots broadcast team, but turned down an offer to move with the major league baseball club to Milwaukee.
Harry Glickman, who brought Buckaroos hockey to Portland in 1960, knew Schonely from his time calling Totems games and hired him to build a network of radio stations to carry games when the Trail Blazers joined the NBA for the 1970-71 season.
Commenting after Glickman died in June of 2020, Schonely told me the story of his arrival in Portland:
“I thought I was going to be in baseball for the rest of my life. Well, Harry found out that I was available so he called me. In his big, basso profondo voice he said, ‘Shonz, how would you like to do NBA basketball?’”
At the end of a meeting that Schonely said lasted all of “five or six minutes,” Glickman said he wanted Schonely to be the voice of the Trail Blazers.
“We shook hands — we had nothing in writing — and I went from baseball to NBA basketball because of Harry Glickman, who in essence sent my broadcasting career onward,” Schonely said.
Schonely’s influence was felt well beyond the friendly confines of the Memorial Coliseum or Moda Center.
He was an advocate for Providence Child Center and the Center for Medically Fragile Children, serving on the board of the Providence Child Center Foundation for more than 20 years.
In 1988, Schonely received the Providence Heart of Gold Award, and in 2009 Providence established the Bill’s Kids Fund for which Schonely helped raise millions of dollars, according to a statement from Providence.
“Bill said on several occasions that if he ever had a bad day, a visit to ‘Bill’s Kids’ at the Center for Medically Fragile Children would change that day for him,” said William Olson, chief executive for Providence Oregon. “On behalf of all the people of Providence, we send our love and prayers to Dottie and Bill’s family, and we will be holding them in our hearts.”
“Bill’s commitment to the children we serve at Providence was boundless. His passion never wavered, and we are deeply grateful for his decades of service, his giving spirit, and his generous heart,” said Kelly Buechler, chief philanthropy officer for Providence Foundations of Oregon.
Among the many social media posts honoring Schonely was this statement from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden:
“My friend Bill Schonely provided the soundtrack for generations of @trailblazers fans and forever made our beloved Portland into #RipCity. I join all of #RipCity in extending condolences to Bill’s wife Dottie & his entire family. RIP to a true Oregon legend.”
One of Schonely’s first broadcasting jobs was as a host of a sports show for Armed Forces Radio while he served in the Marines. A native of Pennsylvania, Schonely’s path to Portland was through Seattle. He worked in various roles in the Seattle market for almost 15 years. Schonely was the voice of the Seattle Totems hockey team, rival to the Portland Buckaroos in the old Western Hockey League. Other work in broadcasting included for Washington Huskies football, Seattle minor-league baseball and the NHL’s Oakland Seals.
After he was forced out as the Blazers’ radio voice at the end of the 1997-98 season, Schonely called games for the Portland Beavers Triple-A baseball team from 2000-02. He also was in demand as an emcee.
According to the Trail Blazers, there will be a private service and public celebration of life. Details will be announced at a later date. The team said that, in lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Schonely can be made to Providence Child Center and the American Heart Association.
In addition to Schonely, John Curry, who worked for four decades as a camera operator for the Trail Blazers, died on Jan. 19. Curry, a veteran, often was on the baseline for Blazers games and took the hits down low to get the up-close shots for the fans at home.
“(Curry) knew I was a huge fan of boxing, so every day that I came into the locker room, he would always point the camera at me because he wanted me to face off with the camera,” Lillard said. “Being with the organization for 39 years, the way he supported me, he always wore my shoes, we always had little side conversations, he was a (veteran), what he did for vets knowing what they go through when they return home and the struggles that they face, him taking initiative and being responsible from his own experience and taking the time to do something like that I think speaks to who he was as a man.
“It means so much more than being the person behind the camera.”