The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 7 | Bill Schonely
Radio and Television Broadcaster, 1970-1998
Team Ambassador and Video Talent, 2003-present
Place in History:
If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The classic philosophical conundrum invites us to ponder the nature of reality. Obviously things happen apart from us and our perception, but how can we define their essence abstractly when everything we know come through our perception?
The same question could be applied to the Portland Trail Blazers and NBA Basketball. If a team played in an arena but nobody heard about or saw it, would it still be the game as we know it? Can we define the sport apart from our impressions of it?
The Trail Blazers would never play without observers, of course. From their inception, up to 12,888 people would crowd tiny Memorial Coliseum to watch them play. That was the biggest audience of eyewitnesses possible...the maximum number who could claim to interpret the game through their own lenses.
Any fans beyond that—and there were hundreds of thousands—probably owed their understanding of the team to play-by-play broadcaster Bill Schonely.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1929, Schonely took to the vocal trade early. He was a high school choir member and radio broadcaster. Joining the Marine Corps, he honed his chops with Armed Forces Radio. After his discharge, he worked in Louisiana covering minor-league baseball, college football, and professional wrestling. In 1956 he moved to Seattle, working for KOMO radio and TV.
A year later, Schonely would make his permanent move into sports broadcasting, picking up play-by-play duties for the Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League. He helped build a television network around the club, calling their games for a decade. During this time he drew the attention of promoter Harry Glickman, head of one of Seattle’s rival teams, the Portland Buckaroos.
In 1970, Glickman stepped up to the plate as one of the co-founders of the Portland Trail Blazers. The club needed a good play-by-play radio broadcaster. Glickman talked Schonely into giving Portland a try. This began a relationship that would carry Schonely through more than 2500 Blazers broadcasts over the next three decades. He was the very first voice of the franchise. He remains, by general acclaim, the best.
To understand Schonely’s contributions, you first have to understand his talent. He combined the three key ingredients needed for broadcast superstardom: professionalism, accessibility, and a clear, golden voice.
Schonely always treated the game and its players with respect. Listeners never got the sense that they were there to hear him. They were there to experience the Blazers. The game unfolded through Schonely without being about him. Far more Walter Cronkite than Jimmy Fallon, Schonely kept his subjects in a place of reverence, as if he felt lucky to observe them, as if we were lucky to be along for the ride.
Professional distance did not cause Schonely to retreat into staid formality, however. His delivery was dramatic. He didn’t just describe the events unfolding before him, he conveyed their emotion. When he said, “Jack Ramsay is struggling to find a lineup that works, folks” or, “Clyde Drexler with the slamma jamma in your face!”, you knew just what he was talking about.
Schonely was never overbearing. He didn’t do the emoting for the listener. It always seemed like he was peeking through a doorway, saw something really cool (or sad, or amazing), and said, “Do you want to come over and see it with me?” Thousands did.
Schonely was an awesome mix of favorite uncle and tour guide. He described 82 straight games of, essentially, the same thing, but somehow made it seem fresh each time. He beheld a remote and distant world full of millionaires and legendary athletes, then made the listener feel like they were right there alongside.
Radio talents are only as good as their instruments. Schonely’s was superb. He wasn’t afraid to explore his entire vocal range. Most will recall the baritone glissando that characterized his classic sign-off, “Goodnight, evvvvvvrybody.” He made those two words sound like a passage from an aria without seeming the least bit affected or ostentatious. The way Schonely described games, he might as well have been singing your favorite songs to you each night.
If Schonely’s broadcasts were extended songs, the lyrics were impeccable. He had a nose for phrasing like no other. Watching in amazement as guard Jim Barnett sank a long-range shot in 1971, Schonely uttered the immortal line, “Rip City!” That alone would earn him a high place on this list. He had more. “Lickety-brindle up the middle” for a clever drive from a guard, dribblers taking the ball “across the cyclops at midcourt,” shots from “the coffin corner”, and the always-entertaining, “Bingo Bango Bongo!” after fast breaks quickly found their way into listener lexicons.
To understand Schonely’s true impact, one also needs to understand the environment in which he operated. Outside of the deep playoffs, few games were televised in the 1970’s. Local stations had a small slate. National networks covered the league, but barely ever touched the Blazers. Unless you bought a ticket, Schonely was the only option if you wanted to experience the action and keep up with the team.
In this way he became part of the lives of families gathered around tables or on long car rides, of children huddled under their blankets with radio in hand, of assisted living communities and hospital recuperation wards, of everybody who didn’t have the desire, time, or money to see a game in person.
More people got to see games in the late 1970’s through Paramount Theater simulcasts. The 1980’s and 1990’s brought Blazer Cable packages to people’s homes. The percentage of the fan base taking advantage of these was still comparatively small. A funny thing happened, too. Whenever the Blazers were broadcast, people would turn down their television sets and turn up their radios, watching the action while listening to Schonely. In-arena participants could be seen in their seats with headphones on, doing the same thing. Thousands would remain in their seats after the game was complete to watch Bill do the post-game interview live. The experience just wasn’t complete without him.
Of all the calls Schonely ever made, the most famous was the conclusion of Portland’s 1977 Championship run. That moment imprinted the Blazers—and his voice—onto the DNA of every fan who experienced it. You can still get chills listening to it 43 years later. It shows everything Schonely: exuberant passion, disbelieving wonder, yet still giving credit to the team by using “they” instead of “we” when describing them, simultaneously pulsing with joy and lending technical gravity to the moment of victory by citing the exact second it happened.
This video contains Schonely’s call of the last ten minutes of that game, memorialized via a vinyl record that was put out after the season. (How about that? The play-by-play guy gets his own album.) The famous final five seconds begin at the 11:19 mark in the video.
After calling games for six seasons prior, Schonely’s reign of iconic greatness began at that moment. It continued for two decades after on radio, on television simulcast, on television proper, then back to radio. For 28 years, through nine coaches, seven general managers, two owners, and hundreds of players, Schonz was the constant, the immortal touchstone of Blazers Basketball that would not change.
The end of Schonely’s run came in 1998 when lead executive Bob Whitsitt, never afraid of change, dismissed the then-69-year-old from his position. The grind of in-season radio had become steep. Schonely’s calls weren’t as crisp or accurate as they once had been. Nevertheless, the move was made over Schonely’s objections. He didn’t want to go. The exit didn’t befit a legend.
Here is where Schonely’s greatness truly shone through. He was not the only old-school figure to depart during Whitsitt’s regime. Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Rick Adelman, Bucky Buckwalter, Harry Glickman...neither name recognition nor past accomplishments kept them safe. When the axe came, there was no appeal. The process was like a machine, efficient and seemingly uncaring.
But unlike his legendary colleagues, Schonely came back. He was the one figure the Trail Blazers could not do without. When Whitsitt departed in 2003, one of the first moves the franchise made was to welcome back their original spokesperson. By then Schonely was of advanced enough age that regular play-by-play duties were too taxing, but he became a talent on television segments and studio pieces, a role in which he continues to this day. The feeling of warmth that envelops him, and emanates from him, at age 91 is every bit as profound as it was in his prime. Though his voice has aged and no longer resonates with the vibrancy of youth, it still carries the echoes of great calls and great memories.
In 2012, Schonely was recognized nationally, winning the Curt Gowdy Media Award, inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
There will never be another figure like Bill Schonely. It’s not possible in an age where every game is broadcast on demand, where everyone who wants to say something has access to microphones and keyboards.
This is a better time to be an NBA fan than any other in history. We’re able to do things that couldn’t be imagined at the beginning of Schonely’s career. Still, there’s a sadness. You wouldn’t want to be wholly dependent anymore on one man, one set of descriptions, for access to the sport you love. By modern standards it seems oppressive, almost barbaric. But if you had to be, you’d want that man to be Bill Schonely. He took such good care of everyone, conveyed the action so brilliantly, and brought all his listeners into one family.
The dependence may never come that way again, but neither will the sense of togetherness that Schonely’s ubiquitous and glorious voice created. Whether trees fell or grew in Portland’s forest, everybody heard them and everybody loved it because of Bill Schonely. His legacy remains unforgettable.
For all the years, all the calls, the enormous talent, and knitting a huge community into one, The Schonz shines as the 7th selection in our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers. Hear once more his voice, and people’s impressions of him, through these videos.
For more on Schonely, see Kerry Eggers’ biography, “Wherever You May Be”.
Share your thoughts and memories of Schonely below, and stick with us as we continue towards #1.