Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Rest In Peace Bill Schonely
Legendary broadcaster dead at 93.
I went to see Bill Schonely last week. The legendary Trail Blazers broadcaster hadn’t been doing well. So I parked in the lot outside his senior living center and rode the elevator to his suite on the third floor.
There’s a potted ivy plant outside the door. Two small garden statues of rabbits are positioned on the floor beneath it. A placard to the left of the door reads: “Bill & Dottie Schonely.”
Bill Schonely died in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
He was 93.
It’s a sad day. Our city lost its best friend. The legendary Trail Blazers broadcaster was so much more than a voice, wasn’t he?
Schonely was a husband, a father, and a Marine. It was his voice that called every twist and turn in the only world-championship season the Blazers organization has ever enjoyed. He became THE ambassador for our region, not just coining phrases, but naming a city — Rip City.
“Those two words just came out of my mouth,” Schonz liked to say.
Once, during a playoff run long after his retirement, I sat with Schonely inside Moda Center. The franchise had printed “Rip City” T-shirts and placed them over the backs of all 19,980 seats in the home arena. Schonely looked around and loved it.
“I would have never imagined,” he said.
I’d like to tell you that I found Schonely doing well and smiling during my visit last week. But I can’t. He’d had a rough night. Didn’t sleep well. His lower back was bothering him. His left forearm and wrist were swollen and his legs had stopped working.
“I’m ready to go,” he told me.
Dottie, his wife, sat in the adjacent room at the kitchen table with a close family friend, Kevin Fode, eating breakfast. Bill and I sat in the living room, talking. It was like old times for a while.
He spoke of the late Harry Glickman, the franchise’s founding father, who gave Schonely the broadcasting job of a lifetime. He talked, too, of all the Trail Blazers who had visited or called him in recent weeks.
Bill Walton telephoned his old friend to check on him. Terry Porter and Chris Dudley had popped in the prior day. Cheri Hanson, a long-time franchise executive who grew up around the team, visited frequently.
While I was there, Porter followed up with a phone call, making sure that the living-center had swapped out a malfunctioning cable on Schonely’s television.
Said Schonely: “I’ve heard from so many former players. I have such good memories with so many people.”
I bet you have a Schonely memory, too. Maybe you listened to him call games on the radio while sitting on carpet of your parents or grandparents living room floor. Or maybe you ran into him on the concourse of the arena and snapped a photo. Or honked when you saw him driving his unmistakable red Cadillac — license plate: RIP CITY — down Interstate-5.
How do you say goodbye to an icon?
I tried last week. But I struggled to find the words. I told Schonely that we all loved him. I thanked him for his friendship. I asked him if there was anything he needed.
“Just my legs back,” he joked.
When I came into the room that day, Schonely was sitting in a giant cushioned chair in his living room. His TV was off. There were magazines on a table beside him. He sipped coffee from a paper cup.
“I’m just ready,” he said. “I talk to the Big Guy upstairs every day. I don’t get the answers I want, but I keep talking.”
Schonely’s body was failing, but his mind was still sharp. It surprised me when he shared, “I’m having a hard time getting the right words lately.” He found so many of them just fine when I was seated in the chair beside him. The guy always seemed to say just the right thing, didn’t he?
“Bingo! Bango! Bongo!”
“Lickety brindle, up the middle.”
“You’ve got… to make… your free throws.”
One of my favorite Bill Schonely stories involves the minutes just after the team won the 1977 NBA title. He hurried to the locker room of Memorial Coliseum with his radio broadcast equipment. When he walked in, Walton and Maurice Lucas saw their broadcaster friend, rushed across the room, picked him off his feet and threw Schonz in the showers.
“I was afraid I’d get electrocuted,” Schonely said.
He helped bury so many dear friends over the years, Lucas among them. Jerome Kersey and Schonely were particularly close, too. That one hit him hard. Kevin Duckworth, Dale Schlueter, Glickman — Schonely took the stage at all of their memorials and helped put them to rest. I keep thinking they’re all standing at the gates of Heaven today, waving their old friend in.
Schonely told me last week that his body was in pain. A couple of aspirin was the only relief he would take. I reminded him he was in his 90s. He repeatedly said that he couldn’t believe how fast his health had deteriorated. He pointed to his retirement as the team ambassador last April and said, “Right after that, I just broke down.”
He lived an amazing life. He brought so much joy to so many. I knew that one day I’d have to write those three terrible words — Schonz is dead — but even last week, with him in that chair, they felt so far away.
I asked Schonely if he had a message I should share with the rest of you. Was there something he wanted you to know? One last bit of wisdom from the biggest voice there ever was in our state?
He didn’t hesitate.
“I want people to know I miss them,” he said. “The people — was the part of all of this that I liked the most.”
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