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Legendary Portland Trail Blazers announcer Bill Schonely dead at 93

Bill Schonely calling a Blazers game.
Courtesy of the Portland Trail Blazers
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Bill Schonely calling a Blazers game.

The legendary on-air voice of the Portland Trail Blazers, Bill Schonely, has died. He was 93 years old.

Schonely called games for the NBA team for nearly three decades, including during the team’s historic championship win in 1977.

Portland sports journalist Kerry Eggers announced Schonely’s death around 2 a.m. Saturday.

Know to many as “The Schonz,” his more than 2,000 broadcasts carried the team through wins and losses, year after year — some that still resonate today.

The Schonz famously coined the phrase “RIP City” during the team’s first season when the Los Angeles Lakers, lead by Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, came to town for the first time.

As Schonely told it in a 2015 interview with OPB, the crowd was into the game, despite the fact that the Trail Blazers were down by more than 20 points.

“All of the sudden the game changed,” he said.

Before long, he said, the tide had turned in Portland’s favor. The next basket by the Blazers would tie the “mighty Lakers.”

“The crowd was going crazy. I was excited myself, a little bit more than usual,” he said.

Former University of Oregon player Jim Barnett was a member of the first team back in the 1970s.

Schonely said Barnett had the ball.

“He was coming up court – I brought him out of backcourt,” Schonely said. “He stopped in front of me. He turned around and looked at me, gave me a wink, and low and behold he let it fly…. And as it was in the air I guided it, and it went through the net. For whatever reason, I said, ‘RIP City, all right!’ That’s the beginning of that.”

Schonely was born June 1, 1929 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was the oldest of three boys. Schonely described a happy childhood.

“Norristown was a tree-lined town of probably 35,000 then, clean as a whistle, apple pie, the American flag, Father Knows Best,” Schonely told Eggers in his 1999 biography, The Bill Schonely Story. “Everything was perfect.”

After graduating from Norristown High in 1947, Schonely worked for a year at his uncle’s photography shop.

In July 1948, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he spent three and a half years in Guam. While there, Schonely met Barbara White. They eventually married, and had their first son.

During his time in the military, Schonely also got into broadcasting with Armed Forces Radio.

He was discharged from the service in 1952, but continued his broadcasting career, moving first to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and eventually to Seattle.

In Seattle, Schonely worked at KOMO and announced everything from Husky football to hockey, and even the Seattle Pilots, the precursor to the Mariners.

Schonely’s marriage with his wife Barbara ended in 1967. In 1970, he moved to Portland for a job offer with the Trail Blazers.

“The most memorable game would be that Sunday afternoon on June the 6, 1977, when the Blazers won the world’s championship in just the seventh year of their existence,” Schonely said. “History was made that day.”

Eggers became close friends with Schonely when he co-wrote the broadcaster’s memoir. The two bonded after years of covering Blazers games.

“He’s an interesting mix of ego and humility,” Eggers said. “The man has accomplished so much it’s hard not to have an ego, and Schonz loves the attention. But he also has a genuineness about him that is endearing.”

Schonely eventually got remarried to his high school sweetheart Dottie Kehr. The two reconnected before he went to his 50th high school reunion.

“I called Dottie and I said, ‘You don’t know who this is do you?’” he said, recalling the conversation.

“She says on the phone, ‘How can I ever forget that sexy voice?’ Bingo, bango, bongo,” Schonely said. “We finally put it together. So, we started together and we’re going to end it together.”

In 1998, the Trail Blazers decided to replace Schonely after nearly 30 years.

“People around Portland then remember what a disaster – public relations disaster it was for the Blazers,” Eggers said.

Ultimately, Schonely and the Blazers repaired their relationship. He became an ambassador for the team, even retaining a desk at their main office in Portland.

Schonely’s final broadcast in 1998 ended with an emotional sign off.

“Wherever you may be – good night everybody,” he said in his memorable style.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.