If you're a Portland Trail Blazers fan, I can't imagine a sweeter way to spend 12 minutes of your life than listening to the audio call above. The recitation of the Blazers winning their first and only NBA Championship on June 6th, 1977 against the Philadelphia 76'ers in Portland's Memorial Coliseum stirs primal emotions nearly 40 years after the fact.
Behind the microphone for that call was the Trail Blazers' first radio play-by-play announcer, Bill Schonely. Recent generations of Blazers fans probably know Schonely as franchise goodwill ambassador and occasional commercial pitch man. To those who grew up listening to his radio work, he will always be the person who taught an entire city to love the Portland Trail Blazers and NBA Basketball.
When Bill Schonely wore the sideline headset, televised games were rare. The most important NBA playoff games got national airtime. Locally-televised games were infrequent, limited to big matchups that would sell out an arena by default...matchups on which money could be made by airing commercials around the action. Putting too much of your product on free TV was seen as a quick way to kill your rake at the gate. In that environment, the only access millions of Pacific Northwest residents had to their favorite team came via the radio airwaves...and Bill Schonely.
3 seconds listening to The Schonz will demonstrate his melodic voice. The cadence of his delivery was impeccable and precise, yet inherently artistic. He could drill you down into a single moment on the court, making you feel the pain and worry of a player twisting his ankle, for instance. In the next breath he could lift you up to view the sweeping panorama of a court bearing large men in constant motion working in concert to achieve lofty goals.
No matter the opponent, no matter the situation, Bill Schonely had the gift of making the moment seem important. A third quarter play in November against Kansas City often felt as grave and exciting as a playoff game against the Lakers. Because of Schonely's descriptions, what happened to the Blazers mattered in the hearts and minds of listeners.
That gift of knowing the audience, empathizing with them, seeing the action and being able to translate it into terms they can latch onto--yet terms that take them beyond themselves into another world--cannot be taught. It has to be learned and experienced first-hand. It's the Holy Grail of broadcasting, making listeners feel like they're traveling and evolving, but still safe and welcome. Few broadcasters achieve it. Schonely made it seem effortless.
Listening to Bill Schonely call a game was the aural equivalent of parasailing. At the beginning of each game Bill would drive his boat up to the listener's home dock and throw them a rope. When the ball tipped, the throttle opened and he'd whoosh them into the air for a grand tour of the surrounding environs. When the trip was over he'd deposit his charges back home, bid them goodnight "wherever they may be", and promise to be there next time to do it all over again. It was quite simply the best...ride...ever. Hundreds of thousands of Blazers fans grew up experiencing it and became one with the team--and each other--by doing so.
Bill Schonely hasn't manned the play-by-play position for the Trail Blazers since 1998. His 17-year absence in that capacity and the growing importance of television broadcasts have robbed a couple generations of Blazers fans to experience the Schonely-like ride their forebears enjoyed. Like modern-day WWE fans watching Ric Flair, folks today know Schonely by his legendary status but can't feel the awesome gravity and importance of his life's work.
Here's a little reminder of that gravity. You may not have learned your Trail Blazers fandom from Bill Schonely, but the person you did learn your Trail Blazers fandom from got it through him. That's why even in 2015, Schonely remains the single most influential figure in the history of the franchise.
Today we'd love you to share your own thoughts and memories about Bill Schonely in the comment section. There's no particular reason other than it's been too long since we've done so. Have at it!
Blazer's Edge author Peter Sampson opens us up with his thoughts:
I don't know that I would have ended up the diehard Blazer fan I am today without Bill Schonely. For a few reasons, going to games wasn't an option for me growing up. But no matter what was happening at home or school, I knew that I could lie in bed with my clock radio and that once I heard those iconic trumpets followed by the immortal phrase "Good evening basketball fans, wherever you may be", all was well. I was with a friend. The mayor of Rip City.
It's that feeling of camaraderie that draws me to the Blazer community, and it's that feeling that I've been chasing ever since he left the broadcast booth. I'm a season ticket holder now, but in a way, nothing is as good as listening to the Schonz.
We'll have more to share in this afternoon's podcast. For now, go ahead and regale us with all your Schonely memories!