Bill Schonely, who coined the phrase ‘Rip City’ and is affectionately known as the Schonz, has officially retired at age 93 after an association with the Portland Trail Blazers spanning 50 years. But that’s just half of his story. Schonely was in broadcasting before the Trail Blazers existed.
Schonely’s love affair with broadcasting began in high school when he worked on an informational radio show for his hometown radio station in Norristown, Pennsylvania. That led to broadcast gigs at nearby Philadelphia radio and television stations. His early on-air success was even more impressive because he overcame stuttering as a young child.
When Schonely graduated from high school, he enlisted in the US Marines, He was dispatched to Guam and later joined Armed Forces Radio, serving as a disc jockey, newsman and sports reporter. His first play-by-play experience was calling military football and baseball games. Eventually, Schonely was assigned to Quantico, Virginia where he worked on the base newspaper and as a press sherpa for military dignitaries headed to New York, Washington, DC and Philadelphia for radio and television interviews.
Schonely’s first post-military job was for a radio and TV station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He called Baton Rouge Red Sticks minor league baseball games. He got a side hustle calling wrestling matches, and he gamely participated in a tag-team match.
He came to the Pacific Northwest in 1956 to work for KOMO radio and TV in Seattle, where he met legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson and became the local voice for professional wrestling and roller derby. Restless, Schonely convinced the player-coach of the Seattle Totems minor league hockey team to televise its games – if Schonely could recruit sponsors. The games were carried live on Sunday nights, thanks to a funeral home director, optometrist and restaurant owner.
The Totems gained a popular following and Schonely began earning his distinctive reputation. While calling a Totems game at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, a boisterous fan seated behind him blaring an air horn got under Schonely’s skin. He announced on air he was going to give the fan a ‘knuckle sandwich’ and during a commercial break, Schonely took off his headset, turned around and slugged the fan. He returned to his broadcast as security guards escorted out the fan and deadpanned, “He got his knuckle sandwich, folks.”
Schonely is the most important figure in the history of Oregon sports, with all due respect to Phil Knight and Maurice Lucas. Bill Schonely is the man who convinced people that sports are worthwhile.
While in Seattle, Schonely also called Washington Husky football and short-lived Seattle Pilots baseball games. He almost became the voice for the Seattle Supersonics, but a sponsor insisted on someone else. He also was rumored as the first choice as broadcaster for the newly franchised Seattle Mariners.
In early 1970, Schonely got a fateful call from Harry Glickman who asked him to be the voice of the newly minted Portland Trail Blazers. Schonely was the sixth person on the team’s payroll. His first game was during preseason in September 1970 and 2,522 games later, Schonely was broadcasting a playoff game. Along the way, he was courtside for the one and only Blazers’ NBA championship in 1977. He was so much part of the team, players chucked him into the locker room shower as they celebrated their victory, leaving him unable to do the post-game show.
His iconic ‘Rip City” line appeared unrehearsed in the first Blazer season in 1970. As Schonely tells it, he had something more prosaic in mind, but “Rip City” just popped out after guard Jim Barnett sunk a shot from just inside the midcourt line. Schonely’s ritual of opening Blazer broadcasts with “Good evening basketball fans wherever you may be” began when he called baseball games in Baton Rouge, at the start of his professional career.
A heart attack followed by bypass surgery interrupted Schonely’s play-calling for the Trail Blazers. However, he returned in 2003 as a move by new management to improve the team’s community relations during the ‘Jail Blazer’ era. His title was “Ambassador”.
In 2000, Schonely signed on as the announcer for Portland Beavers baseball, which had returned to the Rose City after a few seasons in Albuquerque. He repurposed some of his famous broadcast calls, such as ‘bingo, bango, bongo’ for double plays. Rip City even echoed when there was an outstanding play by the home team.
While Schonely never gained national fame, broadcasting professionals compare him to Chuck Hearn, the legendary voice of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Johnny Most, who called Boston Celtics games. Bill Walton, a member of the 1977 Blazer championship team, called Schonely “the most important figure in the history of Oregon sports, with all due respect to Phil Knight and Maurice Lucas. Bill Schonely is the man who convinced people that sports are worthwhile.”
Governor Brown dedicated last Sunday, when Schonely was feted at the last Blazer home game of the season, as Rip City Day. The phrase first burst from Schonely’s mouth as the Blazers mounted a ferocious comeback against the Walt Chamberlain-led Lakers in front of a packed house. On Rip City Day, the Blazers, with a decimated lineup due to injuries, lost by 31 points in front of a full house. No one cared about the score.