Essays — October 1, 2019 15:10 — 0 Comments


Below is a story that appeared in Alaska Beyond magazine in October 2019

If you’ve ever walked through downtown Portland, Oregon, and wondered about the origin and meaning of the “Rip City” signs and banners, the answer is rooted in the city’s professional basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers. The term was reportedly coined by local broadcasting legend Bill Schonely during the team’s inaugural 1970-71 season.

The Blazers, founded by sports promoter Harry Glickman, were down more than 25 points during a home game against the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers, led by legends Wilt Chamberlin and Jerry West, when Portland mounted a major comeback, Schonely recalls.

“All of a sudden we got to the point where the next basket by the Blazers would tie the mighty Lakers,” Schonely says. “We came out of a timeout, and it was Blazers ball. [Small forward] Jim Barnett stopped in front of me and gave me a wink. Then he turned and fired from practically midcourt. When the ball went through the net, I said for whatever reason, “Rip City! Alright!”

While the team lost to the Lakers that evening, February 18, 1971, the term, “Rip City” became one of the nicknames for the city and the Blazers, which will celebrate their 50th season during the upcoming 2019-2020 season. The team will mark the occasion with a new court and floor logo at the Moda Center, an exhibition game on October 8 against the Denver Nuggets at the team’s former home (the Memorial Coliseum), and special “Decades Nights” throughout the season to honor former players and coaches, and to highlight major moments in the team’s 50-year history.

During the franchise’s half-century tenure, its most famous highlight came in the 1976-1977 season, when the Blazers won the NBA Championship. Led by future Hall of Fame player Bill Walton, and future Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, the Blazers finished the regular season a respectable 49-33. However, the team stormed through the Western Conference playoffs, and swept the Lakers to reach the NBA Finals. The Trail Blazers went on to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 4-2 in the best-of-seven series, to become world champions.

“We won the championship on a Sunday afternoon,” recalls Schonely, who retired as the team’s broadcaster in 1998. “It remains the highlight of the franchise to this day. The town, the state, Southwest Washington and parts of California, everyone around this part of the country celebrated. We had something to cheer about!”

One of the reasons the Blazers had such a regional impact was that they were the only big-league team in town until the Portland Timbers began playing in Major League Soccer in 2011. As a result, the city has developed a very close relationship with the Blazers, which sold out a record 814 home games in a row from 1977 through 1995, the longest such streak in American professional sports at the time.

In their storied history, the Blazers have retired the jersey numbers of many stars, including Walton, fellow Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and All-Star Terry Porter. Drexler and Porter helped lead the Blazers to the 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals. The Blazers also have remained a testament to consistency on the court. Since winning the NBA Championship, the organization has made the playoffs in 34 seasons. This past season, the team made it to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the Golden State Warriors.

The team’s outlook for the 2019-2020 season is bright. Over the summer, the team’s MVP candidate, Damian Lillard, signed a four-year, $196 million extension, and standout shooting guard, C.J. McCollum signed a three-year contract extension worth $100. The two deals should ensure that, in the era of constant player movement, the two guards will remain with the franchise for years to come.

Northwest basketball legend Detlef Schrempf, who went to the NBA Finals with the Seattle SuperSonics, and spent his final two seasons in the league with the Blazers, says the team’s bond with the City of Roses is special. “The Blazers have a wonderful history in Portland and have made a huge impact in the community,” says Schrempf. “Being a Blazer fan is a tradition.”

The franchise is a small-market team in a close-knit community. It’s a place where team stars are adored by the fans, but can still feel comfortable walking down the street with their families. And it’s a basketball town eagerly awaiting the chance to celebrate 50 years of superlative basketball.

“Our team has always been embraced by the city,” says Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Portland identifies with us. Winning takes a village.”


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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