Rip City: How the Portland Trail Blazers got their calling card
Sports teams can hold a unique grip on the hearts of the cities they call home, where the outcome of a game quite literally dictates the mood of countless thousands—a loss derails, wins revive, and entire conversations can sway in time with what happens on a field, a rink, a court.
The phenomenon is most common in college towns, where alumni and passionate teenagers run rampant. The bond feels deeper there, a love injected directly into the bloodstream, a tie that can seldom be described but can always be felt. It’s different in cities where pro teams reign supreme, where there may be multiple franchises for which to pull. The love, the passion — they feel more dispersed, less personal, even if a title brings out the crowds in camera-filling files.
Players come and go. Money and egos keep fans at arm’s length, and the roots — so vital to the passion of college sports — never seem to dig as deep.
There’s an exception to every rule, of course, including this one. You just have to know where to find it.
For more than 40 years, the Portland Trail Blazers have held their fans in their hand’s all-welcoming palm. As the city’s only major professional franchise (until MLS came calling a few season ago), the team held singular sway over the populace, capable of manipulating moods with every trade, draft pick or hot streak.
They were winners, then losers. Heroes before they were horror shows, and since heroes once again. They’ve been rock-steady and rocky, often in the same season’s breath. As the franchise has grown and matured, the Blazers have become a totem of the city that adores them — a town that stuck by through thick-and-thin, wavering but never leaving.
They call it Rip City, a moniker that, like so much of what Portland has come to stand for, came about naturally, even organically. The man responsible for the nickname, former radio play-by-play man Bill Schonely, is one of the principal figures behind the city’s fascination with the Blazers. Schonely is as tied to the team and the city as anyone, the sewn bond between the two spheres. He knows how and why fans feel the way they do. If it weren’t for him and the emotions he evokes, none of this — the frenzy, the fervor, the insane home crowds and peerless support — would’ve ever come about.
“The meaning of ‘Rip City,’ first and foremost,” Schonely begins, before taking a measured pause. “…Is it means something good, something positive.”
Jim Barnett doesn’t quite understand the fuss. More accurately, he doesn’t understand why the fuss involves him. But deep down, he knows. Before Damian Lillard hit “The Shot”— a game-winner to clinch Portland’s first-round series win over the Houston Rockets in 2014 — Barnett did it first.
That shot launched a basketball revolution, compelling Bill Schonely, the legendary voice of the Blazers for 28 seasons, to utter the phrase ‘Rip City’ for the first time. From those three meager syllables arose a kind of connective fan fiber far deeper and stronger than anyone could’ve imagined.
For the men above, The Shot 1.0 led to two distinct paths. For Schonely, that night yielded a lifetime of civic certainty. From that point forward, he became fully folded into the city, woven into the core of its being, and as much a paragon of Portland as river-spanning bridges or mantras of “Keeping It Weird.”
For Barnett, whose career became more tied to the Golden State Warriors, it was more of a fleeting moment — the sound of a train whistle faded forever into the night.
“Quite frankly, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Barnett says, before belting out a guttural laugh. “Now, some people get the fact that Bill Schonely referenced me in his book, and in different interviews ... but I was never recognized for [making the shot] for many, many years.”
In 1966, following an illustrious, All-America-capped career at the University of Oregon, Barnett ventured east to continue his basketball dreams in Boston. While he’d eventually suit up for six teams in 11 years, Barnett owes his biggest claim to fame to one fateful game in his only season in Portland.
That night, the Los Angeles Lakers — Portland’s biggest rival — were in town. As Schonely vividly recalls, for what seemed like the first time in the franchise’s young history, the fans had finally found a reason to cheer.
“Portland was down by 20, 25 points,” Schonely says. “Then, all of a sudden, it came to the point where the next bucket made would tie the Lakers. There was a big crowd, and we were all into it. Jimmy Barnett came over the midcourt line, and for whatever reason, he let it fly.”
“He was ready to criticize me on the shot,” Barnett recalls. “Like ‘What in the world is he doing?’”
Forty-five years later, Schonely’s voice still crests at the thought, the story’s pace quickening with each sentence.
“I was right there at midcourt,” Schonely says, “and he literally stopped in front of our broadcasting spot, and, why, I’ll never know … but the ball was in flight. I watched it all the way, and I came out with … why, I have no idea … ‘RIP CITY, ALRIGHT!’
“We go to commercial, and I sit down at my chair to relax for a minute or two, and the guys at press row said, ‘Rip City? I said, ‘Yeah’.
“They said, ‘Leave it in.’”
By now, with the memory’s floodgate unlatched, even Barnett starts to sound excited.
“I take a little pride, ya know,” he confides. “It’s nice to say I hit the shot.”
A Torch Is Passed
Perhaps no one outside of Schonely himself better understands the importance of Rip City — as classic radio call, as cultural calling card — more than the man tasked with following in his shoes: Brian Wheeler.
Wheeler has now been at the Blazers’ broadcast helm for 17 years. On a warm Oregon afternoon, we find ourselves fighting for words over the screeching chairs of restless kids inside a local Jamba Juice.
Wheeler, wearing a striped Blazers polo shirt, exudes a shyness at odds with his signature on-air intensity. He’s as pleasant a man as you could hope to encounter — polite and giving, his passion for the team evident within minutes. It’s as if I’m talking to a tried-and-true fan, rather than someone paid to paint pictures in the mind.
“I knew that 'Schonz' had been there a long time,” Wheeler recalls. “I started thinking of how I would feel if I were a Lakers fan, and Chick Hearn wasn’t with them anymore. I tried to be empathetic to what the fans were thinking.”
The night Schonely called his last game, it seemed as if an entire population — the fan base with which he’d grown up — had lost its emotional North Star. The passing of the torch is never easy, but taking over for Schonely carried with it a special burden: The Schonz was more than a radio announcer; He was Rip City.
When people started asking about how he intended to approach the booth’s most famous phrase, Wheeler knew he was stepping into a uniquely delicate situation.
“I would tell them ‘No, I don’t want to come off as a carbon copy,’” Wheeler says. “That’s his signature saying. Maybe in time I’ll have my own, but it just wouldn’t sound right. That’s his.”
Still, even Schonely acknowledges that, while he was the one who first uttered the words, it quickly became a kind of shared gestalt — something both borne from, and attuned to, the passion of a fan base.
“Year after year, the phrase became synonymous with not only the broadcast, but the team,” he says. “Now the organization has even gone [to Rip City Management], and it’s just phenomenal.”
As the years wound on, the team oscillating between great and ghastly, Wheeler has seen firsthand how Blazers fans — as passionate a lot as exists in sports — have come to truly embrace all that Rip City entails.
“I told [Bill], ‘You said it for the first time in 1970,’” Wheeler recalls. “But I’m not sure it’s ever been more popular than it is now.”
Now, nearly two decades into his tenure, Wheeler can look back on what he inherited and know — despite the league’s ever-changing economic and stylistic landscape — he helped crystalize a genuine cultural phenomenon.
“I love that for the Schonz,” Wheeler says. “It ensures that his greatest legacy … the greatest statement of his legacy will live on.”
It’s impossible to fully parse the meaning of Rip City. It can be a way to greet a family and friends or talk to strangers at a game. Most outside of Portland — or Oregon in general — probably wouldn’t understand it. Which, quite frankly, is how it should be.
“When traveling around the country during the season I get asked a lot, ‘What does Rip City mean?’” says Mike Barrett, now entering his 14th season as Portland's TV play-by-play announcer. “My answers probably don’t ever satisfy … I just say, ‘Go to Portland and you’ll understand.’”
When asked what Rip City means to him, Barrett has an answer that, in all likelihood, is indicative of many people around the state.
“I listened to The Schonz in bed every night, so I get it,” he says. “It’s just something I grew up with. I never really stopped to consider what exactly it meant, and I never saw a reason to. I just know.”
Mark Mason has been the chief PA announcer for the Blazers for 19 years. In that time, he’s suffered through half-empty arenas, disappointing teams, and contentious disconnects between fans and occasionally unruly players. But he’s also seen the highs, making him especially adept at keeping an ear to the crowd, to figure out what makes them tick — and what ticks them off.
Mason loves talking about his favorite Blazers memories. He mentions the tragic-fleeting brilliance of Brandon Roy, the tense overtime thrillers and postseason bow-outs. But when he brings up Damian Lillard’s series-winning shot—arguably the memory most likely to remain in all-time Portland lore— he doesn’t talk about the basket itself. Rather, he evokes a moment even more special.
“Minutes after the shot, the crowd would not leave,” Mason recalls. “There was something more they needed to hear, and they weren’t going to leave until they got it. That’s when I was able to catch Dame’s eye and point to the microphone. Without hesitation, he walked over, grabbed the mic, and yelled “RIIIP CIIIIIITTTTTYYYYY!!!!”
“My arms shot straight up in the air. Not only was it the perfect thing to do, it was the perfect thing to say.”
Schonely couldn’t agree more. When asked if he still gets the same goosebumps when he hears “Rip City” today, the long-retired broadcaster summons a response as impassioned as it is genuine.
“Oh my goodness, yes,” he exclaims. “And people with their signs, and their t-shirts … and when the team wears the jerseys. But it’s not just here. Around the NBA, this place is known as Rip City, USA.”
Jason Quick, one of the most respected beat writers in all the NBA, has his own thoughts on what makes Rip City — and Portland fans in particular — such a unique microenvironment within the greater NBA ecosystem.
“I think what makes Portland unique, and perhaps more passionate, is that [it was] the only game in town,” he says.
Still, Quick is fast to point out that, while unimpeachably passionate, Blazers fans still hold high standards for the franchise.
“They have shown they will support a team with bad characters,” Quick adds. “[And] they will support a team with bad talent, but they won’t support one with both.”
It’s not the wins and losses, nor the individual players that came and went, nor the baggage they brought with them, that define what it means to be a Rip City believer. It’s a feeling you get when you remember sports at their purest. Of being a kid and hanging on every hoop at the end of games, listening on the radio at the lowest possible volume so your parents wouldn't know you were still awake. Of sensing a city’s shift in mood through the playoffs' pendulum swing.
After all his years following the team — and the fans — Quick may have summoned the most succinct summary yet for what makes Rip City a true fan phenomenon:
"Rip City, to me, means Portland. There is no stronger feeling of community, of pride, than moments like Lillard’s game winner, or Roy’s fourth quarter against Dallas, or the first playoff game in any season. I love seeing people at a game who don’t know each other high-fiving. Or dancing. Or hugging. Same can be said at local bars. And when grandmas and wives and neighbors join the story and start following … well, that’s what community is about. And nothing in Portland unites us more often, or more passionately, than the Blazers. And the anthem for that citywide, and even statewide, is ‘Rip City.’"
On a cool, peaceful evening, one night before his birthday, Schonely lets out a sigh — a reflective exhale as he remembers fondly his days behind the mic. His voice is just as I remembered all those years ago, my head propped up on a pillow, listening along with all the other Rip City righteous around the region and throughout the state.
I say not a word because I know the importance of what he’s about to tell me — less the words themselves, than how they take me back. Because hearing Schonely is to hear history in bursts, in substance as in sound. Because, if it weren’t for him, we’d all be fans just like any other: Tethered to the here and now, with little more than memories to moor us to the past.
Because where most broadcasters are content to create a catch phrase, Bill Schonely came as close as anyone in his lot is liable to get to seeding something infinitely more durable: a culture, real and deep, with roots to rival the ever-budding branches.
“Sometimes I say I’ve created a monster, but it just happened” he says. “And that created something good.”