'The Schonz' looks back -- and forward

July 27, 2011

Bill Schonely travels around the state as Blazer ambassador, and is widely known as "The Schonz," a childhood nickname ingrained as a professional broadcaster.

In Hood River Friday, he returned to his childhood roots, learning tongue twisters from Aunt Gertrude, in service of Start Making A Reader Today literacy program. (See page A1 for full article.)

Schonely, with the most famous voice in Oregon, served as emcee of the first Tongue Twister Tournament for SMART. (Full disclosure: I am chairman of the SMART committee, organized the tournament itself and am the one who called up The Schonz back in April to ask him to participate, a decision that took this gentleman all of three seconds to agree to.)

Schonely is the lone remaining original employee of the Blazers from its founding in 1970.

He is a member of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and has been called "the most important man in the history of Oregon sports" by Blazer great Bill Walton.

Schonely regaled guests at a pre-tournament dinner with stories such as the time in 1970 when Blazer Jim Barnett jumped onto the back of 7-2 Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain, who flung Barnett 30 feet into the first row.

Schonely has spent more than 60 years in broadcasting, dating to the late 1940s on Armed Forces Radio while serving in the Marines in the Pacific. He did local radio as a high school student in Norristown, Pa., and after getting out of the military he covered minor league baseball and college football in Baton Rouge, La., and covered wrestling - as well as doing ring announcing, serving as a referee and even competing in a tag team or two.

Schonz was never afraid of a dust-up; in 1957, voicing for the Seattle Totems hockey team, he punched an obnoxious San Francisco Seals fan who repeatedly blew a horn in Schonely's ear while he was on the air.

Schonely broadcast the Seattle Pilots games in its one and only Major League Baseball season, 1970, but the team moved to Milwaukee and while he had the offer to move with the team he preferred to stay in the Northwest. He got a call that year from Blazer founder Harry Glickman, asking him if he wanted to do NBA broadcasts for the newly formed Trail Blazers.

Schonely knew Glickman well as the owner of the old Portland Buckaroos of the Western Hockey League.

Schonely had broadcast hockey and just about everything else from professional football to rodeo to wrestling to roller derby, but never basketball.

"I said it sounded like a pretty good deal so I came down and met with Harry.

"We shook hands, talked about an hour, and that was 42 years ago. I am really so blessed," Schonely said.

"One of the jobs he wanted me to do first and foremost was to set up a Blazer radio network. So I went around the state, on bended knee, trying to get those local stations to participate and carry our Blazer games. One of the first stations to sign on was KIHR, right here, and they've been with us for a long time."

Schonely, who wore his 1977 NBA Championship ring, said he had been asked by the team not to discuss the current labor impasse between the owners and players and other team business, but there was no shortage of conversation around the table at Cornerstone Cuisine at Hood River Hotel.

"Do I have a favorite Blazer player? Not really; I still see a lot of those guys, and they're all friends of mine," he said.

Many former Blazers still live in the Portland area and are still involved in the Blazer organization and work closely with Schonely.

Walton, who lives in California, is a close friend. Leg problems make walking difficult for the man who, as center, led the Blazers to the title. But Walton is still an avid bicyclist, including a long-distance day trip into the Gorge when he was in Portland for a recent event.

Schonely recalled the theft, and later return, of the bicycle Walton rode in the June 1977 victory parade.

Contrary to popular belief, Bill Schonely is not retired. He lives in Charbonneau with his wife, Dottie, and the Hood River event was his fifth appearance that week.

"I keep saying I'll retire when they get another ring," Schonely said. Given the "gag order" on discussing Blazer business, Schonely could not speak to whatever personnel moves might enhance the chance of a new title. But the benign sense of resignation evident in his expression and gestures suggested that Schonely might be looking at several more years of Blazer ambassadorship.

If it means he never retires, the Blazers' loss is the Oregon sports community's gain.

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