Visual Arts — June 26, 2019 16:05 — 0 Comments

Former Portland Trailblazer Announcer Bill Schonely Talks The Team’s Early Years

Bill Schonely is the beloved former voice of Portland Trailblazer radio. Today, he speaks fondly of the team, of its first season and its championship season seven years later. I spoke with Bill (aka “Schonz”) for a story on the Blazers’ upcoming 50th for the Alaska Airlines in-flight magazine. The story will run in October.

What was the team’s first season like for you in 1970?

Of course, coming down from Seattle after doing the Seattle Pilots and AAA Baseball and Major League Baseball, it was quite a challenge for me. I’d been involved in so many other sports but all of a sudden the Pilots depart and go to Milwaukee. I could have gone to Milwaukee with the ball club but I stayed in Seattle. Things were going pretty good for me then. Then Howard Glickman, who I had known from the old Western Hockey League days, he found out I was available and he called me and said, “Schonz, how would you like to do NBA basketball?” I said, “That sounds good to me!” And I went down to Portland. We spoke for about 5 or 6 minutes, shook hands and that was 50 years ago.

He said, “One of the first things I want you to do is put a radio network together.” So, I went all over the state and into Southwest Washington, had to beg some of these smaller stations to carry our games, I think I had about 13 or 14 stations right off the bat to be in the pilot Blazers season. It took off from there. We had to put a crew together and a stat crew together and we finally did. That first year, they only won 29 games but we had a lot of fun. It was a building time for everybody.

Now, of course, the Blazers, because of this Rip City phenomenon that I created with that phrase many, many years ago – I can remember the opening game at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, I think we had about 4,600 people there. That was just an awakening and we were off and running and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. Television wasn’t as big back then as it is now. It was all about radio and I just loved to do the games and it went on and on and on. The nice thing about it, the franchise grew rather in a huge hurry because in the seventh season, the franchise was able to win the world championship. They were #1 here just after seven seasons in the NBA. And that was terrific.

The team has had its ups and downs ever since and I use a phrase a lot, “You’ve got to make your free throws” and I think the Blazers over a period of time, since they came into the league in 1970, they have made their share. And in the last few years, each and every year the team has gotten better and better and it’s been a terrific franchise. Now, of course, their games are carried all over the world. The city of Portland is known as Rip City. I could go on and on!

Do you have a favorite memory from the 29-win season?

We had Jeff Petri, for one thing. He was our first draft choice, our first player ever signed and I spent a lot of time with him. I have been very, very fortunate over a long period of time to become friends with each and every player who has come through here. To single out one person is very, very tough. We had Walton and Maurice Lucas, Terry Porter, we could go right on down the line. But I spent a lot of time in the early days with Jeff Petri. He was a rookie and came out of Princeton highly regarded and he and I grew up together in the NBA game and we have gone on from there. It’s just been the most exciting time for me, I can’t believe that it’s coming up to 50 years. But now they are making their free throws and that’s terrific.

When did you notice the city first fall in love with the Blazers?

The first year everybody was curious all over the state. And that franchise in 1970 came to the Pacific Northwest and Portland and Seattle included, when something had to happen, everybody, we had all the riots in those days and the country had gone to pot and it was just terrible and this was a shot in the arm to have a major league franchise and the people have embraced this franchise, the Portland Trailblazers, ever since that day. And obviously the championship year – ‘76-‘77 – it just blossomed and it has never waivered since then.

When you think about the term “rip city,” which you coined, what comes to mind now when you think about it 50 years later?

I am absolutely flabbergasted that the way the phrase has taken over. Back in 1970, I was trying to come up with a phrase that would help my broadcast. You do a basketball game and there’s certain phrases that you use because basketball is basketball. I wanted a little caveat in there and I couldn’t figure it out. The Los Angeles Lakers with Wilt Chamberlin and Jerry West and Gale Goodrich and all those folks came to Portland’s Memorial Coliseum for the first time and we had one of our first big crowds, 10,000, or so. It was a typical night for the Blazers. They were down to the Lakers. Wilt and all the rest of those guys, down by 26 or 27 pointes. But all of a sudden, the tenor of the game changed. And we get to the point in the game when the next basket by Portland would tie the mighty Lakers!

Jim Barnet, who is now a broadcaster for the Golden State Warriors, was on our first year team out of the University of Oregon. It was Blazer ball. In those days I was sitting right at center court. We didn’t have too many people to my right or left. We had the stat crew and a couple of writers and Barney – Jim Barnet – stopped in front of me, turned around, looked at me and gave me a wink and then turned and fired from practically mid-court. I followed the ball through the air because I did not know what the guy was doing, why he took that shot I’ll never know. But when it went through the netting, I came out for whatever reason, “Rip City! Alright!” Lakers call for a timeout. I do my timeout thing. Sit down, take a couple of deep breaths at my chair and the guys to my left and to my right said, “Rip City?” And I said, “Yeah.” And they said, “Leave that in.” So, that turned out to be a phrase. It took a little while before it really caught on but now the organization is Rip City Incorporated. Wherever you go it’s Rip City all over the country and all over the world now and that’s the birth of that phrase – it just took off.

Do you have a favorite memory from the championship year?

My favorite time of course is the afternoon against the Philadelphia 76’ers in the Finals. The Blazers lost the first two games to Philadelphia. Coming back to Portland, they tied the series and won the next two games. It went back to Philadelphia, knocked them out, came back for the sixth game and won the championships that Sunday afternoon 109-107. That is the highlight of the franchise to this time. The town and the state and Southwest Washington and Northern California, everybody around this part of the country, it was a good thing at the time. They had something to cheer about and they just loved it. That’s the highlights.

Do you have a favorite Bill Walton story?

Bill Walton, of course, we’re still friends. He calls every once in a while. He could do it all. He was a strange guy off the floor and he had a stuttering problem. The year before, Lenny Wilkins was our coach before Jack Ramsey came on the scene. And Walton was not playing. He was hurt in those days. He made the championship season the next year and he was healthy and was and still is one of the most fabulous that basketball has ever seen. But he had a stuttering problem. And we were back in Philadelphia and Lenny Wilkins at the shoot around the day of the game, I happened to be there when he said, “Walton, are you going to be able to play or not tonight?” And Bill said, “Uh, uh, uh, I don’t think so coach. Maybe when we get back home.” And Lenny blew up. He’d been waiting for this and he said, “Alright! Walton, I don’t want you near the team. You’re not going to play tonight, I don’t care what you do, you can sit in the stands, but do not get with your teammates. You’re not playing tonight. If you want to do anything, sit over with Schonz.” Well lo and behold he sat with me that night and he had a tough time getting it out but his nature of describing the game and what was going on was terrific. And that was the beginning of a new career for Bill. He worked very, very hard and took voice lessons, how to speak and now I often say, “Now that Walton can talk, we can’t shut him up.” That’s my Bill Walton story. The franchise has been terrific to me, it’s been terrific to the fans and to think it was 50 years ago, it feels like it was yesterday. It went so fast.

What are your hopes for the future for next year?

I think it’s coming on. The Blazers had a terrific year last year under Coach Terry Stotts and his coaching staff. They were just sensational. They’ve done a marvelous job since Terry has been here and one or two moves for this coming year, I think they’re going to have a better record. I believe they’re going to make the Finals. I have no idea who they will play in the east. But they’re getting close. I wear a championship ring. They gave me one after 76-77 and people always want to see it. So, I say, “I want to stick around until they get another one.” They say, “That’s great!” And I say, “Yes, because they better hurray! I’m turning 90.”


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

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