Trail Blazers fans worldwide are mourning today as the news came out overnight that legendary broadcaster Bill Schonely has passed away at the age of 93. Schonely was among the founding members of the franchise: a fixture for its first three decades, a trusted ambassador of the brand and the city of Portland ever since. His voice was a clarion instrument, his charm undeniable. His ability to call games with passion and flair earned him a place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but that was no greater than the place he earned in the hearts of the Blazers faithful who always seemed heartened by his words, no matter what kind of game they described.
The highest moment in the relationship between Bill Schonely and his fan base came on June 5th, 1977, when Portland won its first and only NBA Championship behind Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, who came back from an 0-2 deficit to the Philadelphia 76ers to claim the title in thrilling fashion in front of their home crowd. The call of that event still sends chills up the spine of everyone who hears it.
In that moment, legions of Trail Blazers fans were not just born, but affirmed for life.
Schonely’s voice was at the heart of it, a wholesome, hometown welcome to gladness, standing in contrast to Brent Musberger’s slick delivery on CBS, a network that couldn’t even be bothered to broadcast the postgame celebration.
That’s the way it was done in those days. You turned on the TV to watch, but turned down the volume so you could listen to Schonely’s call on the radio. Momentary lag be damned, it wasn’t the same game without Bill calling it.
Broadcasting conventions had something to do with this. NBA games as a whole weren’t broadcast often, Trail Blazers games even less. The vast majority of fans had no access to the team, or its games, save radio broadcasts and write-ups in the daily papers the morning after. If you wanted to know what was happening live, if you just had to root along, you listened to Schonely.
Listeners quickly found Schonely’s golden voice and descriptive terms addictive. “Rip City” is the enduring example, one of the finest turns of phrase in all sports history. But fans soon came to visualize Portland guards going “through the Cyclops at midcourt, lickety-brindle up the middle, Bingo Bango Bongo!” Schonely cheered victories without overselling, mourned losses without his own grief occupying the central space. Unlike many modern broadcasters, he didn’t take the place of the listener, interpreting the action through his own expertise and telling you what to think or feel accordingly. He described the action, opening the door to the game—and team—through his eyes, words, and heart, letting the audience experience it instead of just him. He wasn’t present instead of us, but alongside us, even though most of us were miles away, hopelessly scattered across the Pacific Northwest.
Modern listeners will never understand the effect this had. It doesn’t translate into an era where everyone has their own access, seeing every game with their own eyes. Many viewers turn off commentary entirely nowadays, able to rely on their own perceptions, content that their neighbors will do the same as they wish.
The radio-only generation depended on Schonely utterly. They came to trust him like a member of the family. If your household had “X” members, the number was X+1 when the Blazers were on. In the living room, around the dinner table, in the car, or listening in the dark at bedtime, his descriptions pulled people together, uniting them. Having not seen a moment of actual action, we all knew exactly what happened because Bill Schonely said so. We agonized over substitutions with Jack Ramsay, winced as Bill Walton was hacked without a foul call, charged down the court with Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins on a devastating fast break that would surely change the momentum of the evening.
Schonely tuned Blazers nation like the finest piano, then allowed us to make beautiful music together.
Through Schonely, we met Ron Brewer, who leaped so high that defenders descended in front of him while he was still rising. We came to know Steve Colter, small and quick and always trying hard. Schonely introduced us to the majesty of Clyde Drexler, soaring through the air as a wiry rookie to bring rim and house down with unbelievable dunking power. Even if we couldn’t touch them personally, he let them touch us. Long before he took on the emeritus ambassador role in 2003, Bill Schonely was a diplomat, negotiating good relations between listeners and nearly everyone who donned Portland’s uniform.
United and embraced by that kind of goodwill, the Blazers community was able to come together. Strangers on the street would strike up discussions easily, for they had both heard the exact same description of the action the night prior. Families found common ground: children with parents, siblings with siblings. Your divorced parents didn’t hold anything in common with each other, or even you, for that matter. But you could always talk about the Blazers, right? The fandom—and the storytelling around which it centered—united the community in the same way legends and myths portrayed in town squares and village campfires once did. Schonely was the playwright, the Village Elder, custodian of the great stories that made us more than we are.
For that, he was celebrated with devotion that transcended professional admiration into true affection. You could always find fans who didn’t like players or coaches. Even Walton, Lucas, and Ramsay fell afoul of the popular tide eventually. But nobody disliked Bill. Ever.
As someone who has dabbled around the fringes of broadcast work, I cannot even comprehend the level of talent it took for Schonely to earn and maintain that level of accomplishment for five decades. The voice was his “in”, but that’s not even close to enough. His graciousness and trustworthiness never wavered, nor did his ability to make each and every person feel like he was part of their family, and they a part of the Blazers’.
Back in 2015, we talked about the Most Influential Trail Blazers of All Time. This wasn’t just about on-court talent, championship rings, or shrewd franchise moves. We asked which figures defined the Trail Blazers identity...people without whom, our perception of the Blazers would not be the same.
Bill Schonely was at the top of that list.
Perception morphs over time. Schonely hadn’t been active in the franchise in a daily sense for years. Fans raised on his broadcasts are aging. Damian Lillard will probably assume the apex spot before too long, becoming the singular uniting point among multiple generations of Blazers fans who have celebrated the team since the change of the millennium. That’s wholly appropriate.
But if you look to the foundations of the franchise, and Blazers fandom, even Lillard’s great work is built on the bedrock of Schonely’s evangelism. Dame loves Portland, in part, because Bill Schonely taught Portland how to love their team.
Blessings, Bill, and godspeed. Thanks for all the years and memories. Thanks for making us family.
One of the humble ways we pass on Trail Blazers fandom is sending children and youth who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to a game to the Moda Center, to see the Blazers play. This year we’re collecting over 2000 tickets to Portland’s game against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, March 29th. Every ticket you donate goes to someone who wouldn’t have been able to see the Blazers play without you! You can get full details here or simply visit the Trail Blazers ticket site and click “Buying Options” to donate a ticket or two! It’s as easy as buying them for yourself, and it makes a huge difference in the lives of some amazing young people!