Schonely on hitting 90: I must have made my free throws
Bill Schonely was planning to celebrate his 90th birthday on Saturday in quiet fashion.
It was to be spent with Dottie, his wife of 27 years.
"We'll go to dinner some place," he says. "We were going to have a small gathering at home, but we're not going to now. I just don't feel like being around a lot of people."
That's a bit unusual for Schonely, a centerpiece at any party and a magnet for attention wherever he goes.
But the legendary former radio voice of the Trail Blazers has had a couple of recent health setbacks that have taken some wind out of his sails.
After a check-up with his family physician two weeks ago, it was determined it was time for an update of the defibrillator that had been inserted in his chest "maybe six or seven years ago," Schonely says.
So he got a new combination pacemaker and defibrillator, "a smaller size than before," he says, necessitating a two-day hospital stay.
The biggest pain was having to miss the Blazers' final two playoff games of the season against Golden State.
"That just killed me," he said. "I wanted to be there."
Little over a week later, he awoke to pain in his chest and left side on Sunday night. Dottie called 9-1-1 and he was transported via ambulance to the hospital, where a fist-sized hematoma was treated, his medication adjusted and he clocked another two-day hospital stay before being released on Tuesday.
But you can't keep a good man down for long.
On Friday, "The Schonz" joined your favorite scribe and his biographer for lunch at Oswego Grille in Wilsonville, which we've done on or around his birthday for several years now. We sat at the Bill Schonely table in the bar area, talking over old times and how it feels to become a nonagenarian.
"I never thought I'd reach the age of 90, but I have," he says, sipping on a cup of clam chowder. "I'm coming up on 50 years with the Trail Blazers, too. I'm astonished and amazed. I guess I must have made some of my free throws along the way."
Schonz is the only one left from the franchise's start, "the only one still drawing a paycheck," he says.
He's proud of that. Proud, too, that he is the one who initiated the phrase "Rip City," now a synonym not just for a franchise but for an entire town.
"It's hard to put into words what Bill has meant to the organization," says Chris McGowan, the team's CEO and president. "We feel very fortunate to be able to work with him as much as we do. His love for the Blazers runs deep."
Now Schonely is not just a former broadcaster. He is one of the state's great treasures, along with Mount Hood and Crater Lake and coastal destinations and Central Oregon's wonderland and the mid-Willamette Valley wine country.
He was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania on June 1, 1929, a few months before the beginning of the Great Depression. The reason for his birth on that day, as offered by his mother, Juanita: "Bills always come on the first of the month."
Juanita died when she was 74 years old. His father, Walter, died at 72.
"They'd have been proud of me making it this far," Bill says with a slight smile.
He's the oldest of three boys. Dick is 85. Jimmy died five years ago at 78.
Bill has lived longer than them all, despite a serious heart attack suffered in Pendleton in 1981 that nearly took his life at age 52.
"Years ago, I'd say, 'I'm never going to be around at 90 — you kidding me?'" Schonely says, grinning again. "And here I am."
And doing well, considering. He's lost about 10 pounds over the past month, weight he can't afford to drop. His appetite hasn't been great, and the heart issues have taken something out of him. His left arm is limited in mobility, he's had a problem with balance, and he's not had his usual vitality.
"Fortunately," he says, "the voice still works."
The Voice of God, they used to say. His pipes are up there with Vin Scully and Jon Miller and Jack Buck and Dick Enberg as among the best to ever call a sporting event.
Schonely worked for 28 years as the Blazers' play-by-play radio man, from the team's inception in 1970 to 1998, when he was unceremonially dumped by general manager Bob Whitsitt and henchman Harry Hutt in perhaps the most unpopular and ill-advised move in franchise history.
Today, Schonely continues to serve as the club's cherished broadcaster emeritus and ambassador, shaking hands and signing autographs and kissing babies in and around Schonely's Ten Barrel Tap Room during games at Moda Center.
The Schonz always has a glass of Chardonnay during such occasions, a pleasure he has not been able to imbibe for the last three weeks as he deals with his current health issues.
"Miss it," he says. "I just enjoy my wine, that's all."
If there is one person who symbolizes the good feeling between the Portland community and its NBA team, it's Bill Schonely.
"I enjoy seeing him at every game as he helps with our fans, sponsors and VIP's," McGowan says. "I know our players and coaching staff all enjoy having Bill as part of the team as well.
"He is the ultimate ambassador for our organization and does so much to promote 'Rip City.'"
Last week, the Blazers threw a birthday party for former president/general manager Harry Glickman, who recently turned 95, and Schonely. More than 100 employees and former employees and players showed for the event.
"That was overwhelming," Schonely says.
Talk turns to the first year, and pardon if you've heard this before.
Schonely had been involved in sportscasting in Seattle through the 1960s, doing play-by-play work with the Western Hockey League Totems and the Pacific Coast League Angels while serving a variety of other functions. He shared play-by-play duties with veteran Jimmy Dudley in 1969 for the ill-fated expansion Seattle Pilots of the American League, who fled to Milwaukee after the season.
"I could have gone to Milwaukee, but I wanted to stay in Seattle, because I had a lot of things going," Schonely says.
Then Glickman called.
Glickman, a sports promoter in Portland in the 1950s and '60s, had arranged for financing and ownership of the expansion Blazers of the NBA. He needed a play-by-play man, and through the WHL Portland Buckaroos he had become familiar with Schonely's talents.
The job offer came quickly.
"We met for about five minutes," Schonely recalls. "We shook hands, and 50 years later, I'm still here."
The first thing Glickman asked of Schonely was to put a radio network together. Thus began an annual Blazers statewide junket in which Schonely visited with executives in every region of Oregon and Southwest Washington.
"I thoroughly enjoyed that," he says. "I got to go all over the state and meet thousands of people. I had to sell the NBA and the Blazers to the radio stations. Some of them said no, but I got down on bended knee."
The first year, the Blazers' radio network had 12 stations. It grew to about 25 during Schonely's heyday in the '90s. What was also to grow was the announcer's popularity. Since his retirement as the team's radio voice, he has been heavily involved in community activities, donating his time as emcee for banquets and lending his name to charitable causes.
"I've tried to give back to the community through all these years," he says. "If I can help some organization, I will. I've been all through the state, and it's been a great time. The fans have been absolutely sensational to me. I can't thank them enough."
Schonely's favorite player in Blazer history is the first one — Geoff Petrie, the original No. 1 draft choice out of Princeton, a sweet-shooting 6-5 guard whose career was cut short by a knee injury.
"If Geoff were playing today, he'd win the 3-point title," Schonely says. "He was sensational, but there were so many great players.
"I liked them all. I can say truthfully, I got along with all of them — even during the 'Jail Blazer' times. I had no problem with any of them. Rasheed Wallace was all right. I got along OK with J.R. Rider, too."
Schonely has enjoyed a good relationship with all the coaches, but his favorite was Jack Ramsay, who took the Blazers to their only championship in 1977.
"We spent 10 wonderful years together, me and Jack and (assistant coach) Jack McKinney," Schonely says. "I spoke at both of their funerals. Ramsay's personality was so good, and we spent a lot of time together. In those years, it was just Jack, Jack, (trainer) Ron Culp and me on the road together."
Schonely worked with Petrie, Larry Steele and Mike Rice as broadcast partners, but his favorite was Dave Twardzik.
"A pain in the ass," Schonely jokes. "Actually, a great guy, and a very funny, insightful analyst. He had some great comments. He'd say, 'What game are you watching, Schonz?' And sometimes, he was right. There were times when to try to make it exciting was a little tough."
Schonely wears his championship ring on his right hand.
"I tell people I want to get another one," he says, adding a line he uses often: "But they better hurry."
"I lost another chance this year," he says. "But they came close. It was a very good run. I didn't think they'd make the conference finals. I was pleased they got that far.
"I'm proud of Terry (Stotts). The coaching staff is sensational. The guys on the team are very good. I think they'll be better next year. They're getting closer and closer to a championship."
"I want to get another ring, dammit."
Next year, the Blazers will celebrate the club's 50th anniversary year. Only one employee from the original team is still employed by the team.
"That's my biggest goal," Schonely says. "I want to be around to help with that cause. That will be 50 years with one organization for me.
"I've not talked to Chris about my role, but I know I'm going to be involved. The franchise has lasted for a long time, and we've had a lot of fun. We've had our ups and downs, but it's been a terrific ride — the players and coaches, the media and especially the fans. I'm proud to have been a part of it."
The pleasure has been ours, Schonz.
And may the ride last at least a little bit longer. That would be good for everyone.
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