Canzano: Bill Schonely can retire -- but he's not going anywhere in the minds of Trail Blazers' fans
Legendary broadcaster is stepping back.
PORTLAND — The first few minutes after the Trail Blazers won their only championship in 1977 must have really been something.
Bill Schonely waded through the celebration with his microphone and recording device and headed to the locker room. The team broadcaster walked in the room and encountered a jubilant Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, among others.
Schonely had become friends with the franchise’s star players. They sometimes ate dinners together on the road, sat beside each other on planes, and hung out at home away from games.
Walton and Lucas took one look at Schonely and rushed toward him. They picked him up and tossed him in the showers, equipment and all.
“The game and the times,” 92-year old Schonely told me this week, “have changed.”
Schonely is retiring. Not from broadcasting. He gave that up years ago. For the last couple of decades he’s served as an ambassador for the NBA franchise. He’s schmoozed with sponsors and walked the concourse of Moda Center on game days shaking hands and posing for photographs. He’s also popped up at never-ending line of community events.
“The body’s beginning to fall apart a little bit and at 92-93 I can’t do anything more,” he said. “I was there with the birth of the baby. I’ve been there all those years. It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
The “Schonz” retiring?
What does that mean, even?
No more community events, we understand.
No duty to be present at every home game, we get.
No paycheck, of course.
But I hope Bill Schonely understands that Blazers’ fans aren’t ever going to let him fade away and be forgotten. Schonely may retire but fans will still cry out, “Schonz!!” when they encounter him in public. When they see his cherry-red Cadillac — license plate: “RIP CITY” — on the road them they’ll still pull alongside and honk.
He can walk away and slow down, but Schonely must know down deep that fans will still approach at the grocery store, or in church, or walking down the street as they have for years. When he stops to greet them they’ll tell him something like, “I grew up sitting on the carpet of my living room floor listening to you call the games on radio.
“Thank you, Schonz.”
That’s really what this retirement signals for Schonely. He’s not going anywhere. He’s just easing up, focusing on his wife, Dottie, and dropping some obligations. Like a lot of us, the last couple of years gave Schonely some perspective. The arena, fans and franchise are all familiar, but the workload and even the team roster isn’t as connected to him as it once was.
“I don’t even know their names,” he said.
Schonely was the No. 6 employee in franchise history. Founder Harry Glickman knew Schonely from his days calling hockey and baseball. He summoned the broadcaster to Portland after landing the NBA expansion franchise in 1970.
“He put me up in one of the worst hotels,” Schonely said this week. “But it was OK. I went to his office the next day, we talked for five minutes and in that deep, booming voice that Harry had he asked me, ‘SCHONZ… HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO NBA BASKETBALL?’”
No contract. Just a handshake. Then Glickman sent Schonely on the road to build a radio network, signing on affiliates willing to carry Portland’s NBA games. He spent the next 50 years gluing fans and sponsors to the organization with his voice and personality.
Said Schonely: “It still wakes me up at night and I think, ‘My god Schonz, what did you do?’ and ‘How did we do it?’
“I just did it.”
Bill Schonely will turn 93 this summer. In the last 15 years he helped bury Jerome Kersey, Dale Schlueter and Kevin Duckworth. He’s watched too many friends, co-workers and ex-players fade away. But he and Walton have remained close.
“I love that big fella,” Schonely said this week.
I asked Walton about Schonely’s retirement. The Hall of Fame player turned broadcaster waxed poetic, as usual. Walton was both happy and sad about it, like a lot of us.
“(Ex-Lakers broadcaster) Chick Hearn and John Wooden are responsible for all levels of basketball in Southern California,” Walton said. “Bill Schonely is that guy in the Pacific Northwest.”
It’s wonderful that the Schonz is retiring. Be happy for him. I sure am. It must have felt like a grind in recent years. But in the minds of Blazers’ fans I hope Bill Schonely knows he’s not really going anywhere.
Legends never retire.