This was written on March 13th, around about midnight, after the Bill Schonely memorial. It was a late addendum to an already busy writing day, but one which needed to be written lest the memory of the Schonely not be fully laid to rest. He means a great deal to more than just my own Blazermania, and that needed commemoration, even if I’m a slow poster.
Today, they held Bill Schonely’s memorial service at the Memorial Coliseum.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t go. Not so much for lack of time, but more for lack of notice; I didn’t know until a half-hour before it was slated to begin, and by that time, I was already on a writer’s frenzy. This is the terminus of that frenzy, and I wanted to spend it with these thoughts on Schonely.
The day the Schonz passed, I called my Uncle. He’s one of the first outwardly-expressing Blazermaniacs I knew in my life and a large inspiration for my own fandom (although the likes of Arvydas Sabonis and Scottie Pippen certainly did their part when Dad would take me to games), and we talked about the different Schonely-isms. My Uncle’s favorite call from Schonely was a fun one: “lickety-brindle up-the-middle.”
I was born too late to enjoy Schonely on the radio—Brian Wheeler, Mike Barrett and Mike Rice filled that void—outside of the various commercials for Standard T.V. and Appliance or radio spots for the Blazers radio broadcast. But my Uncle and his best friends, Patty and Dewey, often described the experience of turning off the T.V. sound and letting Schonely tell it all over the radio.
It’s a tradition that started in the arena when fans came to the game armed with portable sets and headphones, and it continued all the way until the Blazers dismissed Schonely in 1998. It was one of many unpopular decisions from team owner Paul Allen. Probably the least popular.
The moment the Blazers announced their return to the Coliseum for a preseason game prior to their 40th campaign, they also announced a guest spot for Bill Schonely. The fans picked up right where they left off and brought their radio sets with them. It was like he never left.
In many ways, he didn’t and still has not. Schonely has not passed away in my mind, as I’ve cultivated a massive Blazermania project since the team cooled off from their hot start to the season. Somewhere around late December. Particularly after the losses to Oklahoma City, it became more enjoyable to watch and listen to past seasons instead of the current one.
Thus grew a playlist of highlights, interviews, retrospectives, news stories, iconic moments and other fun nuggets from the Blazers’ 54-year history. After starting with a hard limit of 100 videos, it currently sits at just over 400 total videos. And the Schonz is a large part of that.
It helps when a collection of his calls carry nearly all of the action from 1970 until his dismissal. Listening to them is to be struck by three things.
Firstly, that voice. I don’t know if one could have designed a better voice for radio. It held from tip-off to the final buzzer and once could pick up the precise story of the game from the candor of that voice. Every broadcast would start every with a trademark salutation, “good evening, basketball fans, wherever you may be,” in such a way that would make anyone, Rip Citizen or radio tourist, feel at home. It was a catchphrase among catchphrases, and he had a trove of them.
Secondly, he’s a poet superimposed in a play-caller’s sportcoat. He used metaphor early and often to scale the giant features of a giant’s game. “The cyclops” or “the equator” were his go-to for the center court logo and line, respectively. Meanwhile, “climb the golden ladder” saw airtime for a high-rising rebound.
Even the smallest plays would take on an enormity. Schonely would rue every missed freebie with a prescription: “You’ve got to make your free throws!”
Rhyme and alliteration also both featured in his toolbox, a whirling dervish turning phrases for the possessions, pace and players. Popular play calls include “bingo-bango-bongo” for when the ball is on a string, resulting in a quick basket; “lickety-brindle up-the-middle” for a quick scoring drive into the paint; and the classic “mercy, mercy, Jerome Kersey” for any play that involved the Blazer’s talisman small forward.
His ability to improvise shows through in one of my favourite videos from the playlist, a news piece from the 1979-1980 season. Describing a jump shot from the Nuggets’ David Thompson, the Schonz elucidates that the ball “rattled with a hopper but stays in the cage.”
Thirdly, his signature entrance into the Blazer’s canon: “Rip City!” At this point, it’s so indelible to Portland sports history that it shows up all over the playlist long after Schonely’s time as the voice of the team came to an end. The story should be engraved on a plaque outside the Memorial Coliseum:
It was the Blazer’s first season. They were playing the Wilt Chamberlain-era Lakers. They were down bad. But then a comeback mounted. The team made it a game. Blazers’ guard Jim Barnett was on a hot streak. The Lakers missed their last shot. Barnett took the ball, dribbled thrice past half-court and launched an absolute heater in front of Schonely.
“RIP CITY, ALRIGHT!”
It hit nothing but net, but the Blazers still eventually lost. Yet it was that singular phrase that won. It became a rallying call for Blazermaniacs around the state. Rip City wasn’t a place. It was a spirit. And the figurehead of that spirit, the Mayor of Rip City, was none other than the Schonz.
None of these calls, however, compare to my memory of Bill Schonely the person.
During the time he was reintroduced to the organization as a team ambassador, he would walk the main concourse of the Rose Garden. I met him there twice, in a sea of Blazer fans during the Roy-LaMarcus era.
During the first time, I brought a basketball with the intent to get it signed, not by Schonz, but by Brandon Roy. But we talked about the team for a time. I gave him my thanks for his part in creating such a strong franchise, and my Dad, without missing a beat, asked him if he could sign the ball. The Schonz obliged without hesitation.
The second time, I was walking the promenade with Patty and picked Schonz out from the crowd. I made a beeline for the Schonz. Before Patty could figure out where I went, I motioned to him to come. He was dumbfounded. There stood the same man that voiced his Blazermania through nearly three decades. Once again, the Schonz obliged pictures and received our thanks.
That he did it once was incredible. That he did it twice was unthinkable. He was warm in a way people should not expect public figures to be. He was generous and graceful, indulging the whims of some Blazermaniacs ready to gush. And I came away thinking the same thing: players may come and go, but Bill Schonely is the epitome of everything cool about Rip City. In that way, he is eternal.
I never got Brandon Roy’s signature for that ball, by the way. But it still sits on the nightstand, waiting for the day the team parades down Broadway with a second Larry O’Brien trophy.
I will bring it if only to reaffirm: Bill Schonely is still here. The Schonz never left.