Bill Schonely, legendary Trail Blazers broadcaster who coined ‘Rip City,’ dies at 93

Bill Schonely, the Trail Blazers’ original radio broadcaster who coined the iconic phrase “Rip City” that became synonymous with Portland and its basketball team, has died. He was 93.

A cause of death was not immediately known.

With his deep voice and memorable catchphrases like bingo-bango-bongo, and lickety-brindle-up-the-middle, Schonely broadcast games for the first 28 seasons of the Blazers, including a two-year stint from 1992-94 as the team’s television play-by-play man.

During a game in the team’s inaugural season, in February 1971, Schonely blurted “Rip City, all right!” after Jim Barnett made a long shot during a comeback against the Los Angeles Lakers at Memorial Coliseum. Writers and statisticians looked at him in wonderment, but eventually told him “Leave it in.”

By the time Portland roared to the 1977 NBA championship, “Rip City” could be seen on T-shirts, shoes and even coloring books.

Since 2009, the team used the phrase on one of its uniform options, with “rip city” in lowercase letters replacing Blazers on the front of the jerseys. Its debut marked the first time the uniform had said anything other than Portland or Blazers.

Schonely got the phrase from his days of calling baseball in Seattle, where players would refer to line drives as “rips.”

“That night, I got caught up in the excitement and it just came out of my mouth; it wasn’t something that was planned,” Schonely said in 2009.

“It took a little while for that phrase to catch on,” Schonely said of “Rip City” in April 2022 as the team honored him at halftime of its season finale against the Utah Jazz. “I had no idea that all of this was going to happen, but it did and wherever you go… it’s humbling to me, but it’s ‘Rip City.'”

The staying power of “Rip City” spoke to the popularity of Schonely, who annually traveled the state promoting the team to radio affiliates and fans. He went to Astoria, Klamath Falls, Pendleton and everywhere in between. Even when players accompanied him, they said he was often the bigger draw.

Team founder Harry Glickman once called him “one of the most recognizable guys in Oregon,” and long after Schonely stopped calling games in 1998, he remained one of the most popular and lasting personalities in Blazers history. For two seasons he did sideline reporting and features for the television broadcast, and from 2003 until April 2022 he remained with the team as an ambassador.

After his broadcasting career, he was a fixture at home games. Before games, he mingled with fans at “Schonely’s Place,” a bar named after him in the arena concourse. As tipoff neared, he habitually shook the hand of the head coach as a good luck gesture. And on several occasions, he performed his rendition of “God Bless America,” urging fans to sing along.

Bill Schonely in an undated photo.Oregonian file photo

In 2012, he was recognized by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the Curt Gowdy Media Award, which recognizes those who have made a significant contribution to basketball. His 28 years calling games, and two years doing sideline reports and features, made him the second-longest tenured announcer at the time, next to the late Chick Hearn of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Schonely called 2,252 games, missing only 28 games during his career, 26 of them in 1981 when he recovered from a heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery.

He coined lasting nicknames for players, such as Dave “Pinball” Twardzik and Jerome “Mercy, Mercy” Kersey and his broadcasts include staples such as “You’ve got to make your free throws!” and “Good evening basketball fans, wherever you may be.” He also used catchphrases such as “Cyclops” for the center circle and “the equator” for the half court line.

The irony in Schonely’s career is that he grew up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, with a stutter, but he coached himself past the speech impediment by reading aloud the newspaper and by singing.

The oldest of three sons, Schonely figured he was 6 when he fell in love with broadcasting, listening first to children’s shows such as “Uncle Don.” But he was drawn to sports, first by the voice of Fred “By” Saam who did the Philadelphia Athletic/Phillies games, and Bill Stern who called Notre Dame football.

When he was 12 and 13, he took voice lessons for singing, and in high school spent two summers at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.

After high school, he enlisted in the Marines and in 1948 was stationed in Guam with the Third Marine Division. He joined the Armed Forces Radio and read news and sports reports while also conducting interview shows in addition to being a disc jockey.

In 1952, he secured his first job at station WAFB in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where one of his duties included calling some LSU football games. In summer 1955, he moved to Seattle and was hired by KOMO, where he once teamed with Keith Jackson to call hydroplane races.

But he first made his name in hockey, when in 1957 he became the radio voice for the Seattle Totems. He spent 11 years with the Totems and was known for his “He scoooooooores!” call

Trail Blazers vs Nuggets preseason

Bill Schonely speaks to the crowd before the Portland Trail Blazers open preseason against the Denver Nuggets at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday, October 8, 2019. Sean Meagher/Staff

By 1965, he was also dabbling in University of Washington football games, the Seattle Angels minor league baseball, and some West Coast games for the National Hockey League.

He hit the big leagues in 1969 when at age 39 he was named one of the broadcasters for a Major League Baseball expansion team, the Seattle Pilots, working behind veteran Jimmy Dudley.

The Pilots lasted only one season, moving to Milwaukee for the 1970 season, but just when Schonely thought his career had hit a lull, he got a call from Portland.

Glickman, who had just been awarded an NBA expansion franchise, knew of Schonely’s work from the days when Glickman owned the Portland Buckaroos hockey team, a rival of the Totems.

On July 1, 1970, the two struck a deal for $25,000 a year and Schonely became the voice of the Blazers. Thirty years later, there was a rocky breakup between Schonely and the Blazers — he still wanted to call games, the team told him he was too old — and fans protested.

For nearly four years, Schonely was not associated with the Blazers, broadcasting Portland Beavers Triple-A baseball and once filling in for five games in Corvallis for Oregon State men’s basketball.

In 2002, he was elected into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2003, the Blazers brought him back as an ambassador and raised a banner with a depiction of a microphone to the rafters of the Rose Garden in a pregame ceremony. And in 2009, he broadcast the third quarter of an exhibition game at Memorial Coliseum as part of the team’s 40-year anniversary.

Schonely is survived by his second wife, Dottie; two sons, Rick and Billy; daughter Linda; and seven grandchildren.

— Jason Quick and Aaron Fentress

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