Return to ‘Rip City’: A conversation with childhood hero Schonely

BETWEEN THE LINES

Bill Schonely, shown with Damian Lillard, was the voice of the Portland Trail Blazers for the franchise’s first 29 years and is now the team’s “goodwill ambassador.” -- Courtesy of RICK SCHONELY

It’s not often that anyone gets to talk to one of their childhood heroes, but that happened for me this week.

Bill Schonely invented a phrase that nearly five decades ago captured the collective hearts of a city and region in the Pacific Northwest, and is now known around the basketball globe.

“Rip City” was first uttered by Schonely in a regular-season game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers nearly 50 years ago, during the Blazers’ first season.

“I’m very humbled about the entire thing,” said Schonely, who was the voice of the Blazers for their first 29 years. “You go back to when ‘Rip City’ was born. That was back in 1970 and I was trying to come up with a phrase that would work with my broadcast. You do a basketball game and describe it, a lot of people do it just about the same way. I wanted a little kicker in there and I couldn’t come up with one.”

That is, until the Wilt Chamberlain-, Jerry West-led Lakers came to Portland’s Memorial Coliseum for the first time.

Bill Schonely works a game. -- Courtesy of RICK SCHONELY

“It was in front of one of our first big crowds, but it was a typical Blazer game that day, we were down by 26 or 27 points,” Schonely said. “But all of a sudden the game changed. We get to the point of the game where the next basket by Portland would tie the mighty Lakers, Wilt Chamberlain and that crew.”

Then, it happened when guard Jim Barnett — now a broadcaster with the Golden State Warriors — brought the ball into the front court.

“Jimmy stopped in front of me, turned to me, gave me a wink, and then turned around and just threw it towards the basket for no particular reason,” Schonely said. “So, I followed the ball in the air and when it went through the netting, I came out — and why I’ll never know — ‘Rip City, alright.’ The Lakers call for a timeout, I give my commercial cue, I sit back in my chair, and the guys to my left and the guys to my right said, ‘Leave that in.’ And that was the birth of Rip City.”

Those two words mean basketball to any Blazer fan who ever heard any of the 2,522 broadcasts that Schonely did from the very first one through the 1998 NBA playoffs.

“It has grown and grown and grown and now the company is called Rip City Inc., and it’s known worldwide,” Schonely said. “I’m flabbergasted by the entire thing.”

Bill Schonely (center) poses for a photo with son Rick Schonely (left), a retired Maui County firefighter and Molokai resident, and Blazers broadcaster Kevin Calabro. -- Courtesy of RICK SCHONELY

With the help of his son and former stat keeper, retired Maui County firefighter and Molokai resident Rick Schonely, “The Schonz” and I spoke on the phone for more than 20 minutes on Wednesday.

The Blazers are down 2-0 to Golden State in the Western Conference finals, but that is not about to bring down the man who is now the 89-year-old “goodwill ambassador” for the team.

Schonely turns 90 on June 1 — “All Bills come on the 1st of the month, my mother told me that one,” he said — and he still sounds like he could carry a broadcast at any level.

The fascination with those two simple words — meant to simulate the tearing sound of the net on a swished basket — grew into a phenomenon that now includes Portland uniforms adorned with “Rip City” across the chest, a clothing line and the name of the parent company of the NBA team.

Heady stuff, especially when remembering the expansion team that began in 1970.

Bill Schonely stands with Hall of Famer Bill Walton. -- Courtesy of RICK SCHONELY

“I had no idea, that first year there were some real growing pains when they hired me,” Schonely said. “I had been doing a lot of things up in Seattle: baseball, the old Seattle Pilots, (University of Washington) Husky football, hockey. You name it and I was available.”

Schonely still wears his championship ring from the team’s only NBA title, in 1977. It is far from the bling that championship rings are today.

The whole thing engulfed a kid who grew up two hours down the road in Eugene, although I have to admit it didn’t really take complete hold in my mind until Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins and the rest of the 1977 Blazers captured the NBA championship in six games over Darryl Dawkins, Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Everything gelled that year, led by Walton and Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins,” Schonely said. “You go on right down the line.”

I was 13 when CBS decided to leave the telecast without a live post-game show on June 5, 1977, shortly after Walton tipped the final rebound out past half-court to ensure the Game 6 victory over the Sixers.

“For CBS, golf coverage was more important than the Blazers winning the world championship, so there was no post-game show,” Schonely recalled. “On this particular day we were going to go into the locker room because you couldn’t get near the floor because it was jammed with fans. I managed to get into the locker room and I was waiting for my cue, but as soon as I walked in Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, Lloyd Neal and Dave Twardzik picked me up and threw me in the shower. There was no post-game show there, either.”

Remember, this is a franchise that drafted Larue Martin No. 1 overall in 1972 (with Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving available), Greg Oden No. 1 in 2007 (in front of Kevin Durant), and, of course, most famously, the Blazers selected Sam Bowie No. 2 in 1984 (one spot in front of Michael Jordan).

“We didn’t have very good luck with big guys through the years,” Schonely said.

His current job is the “so-called goodwill ambassador. I work a great deal with a lot of our clients and do a lot of speaking engagements, my charity events. I’m still very, very busy. Yes, I miss doing the play by play, but it’s time for somebody else. I’m the only guy left who was on the payroll in 1970 and on the payroll today. I’ve been through them all.”

When the voice of your team is Bill Schonely, everything seems to turn out OK. While the SuperSonics left Seattle for Oklahoma City, the Trail Blazers remained all about being the biggest — really the only — game in P-town.

So am I worried down 0-2 to the mighty Warriors after blowing a 17-point second-half lead in Game 2 Thursday night? Nah, I’m good — I got to speak with “The Schonz” this week.

“It’s just amazing. I don’t know how to describe it other than this town and this state are going nuts over the Trail Blazers right now,” Schonely said. “I still wear my championship ring that they gave me and people ask me about it. I always tell them that I want to stick around until they get another one, but they better hurry.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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