In May of this year, Portland Trail Blazers radio play-by-play announcer Brian Wheeler visited Oregon State University and did a Q&A with OSU student media. Wheeler answered questions and talked for an hour.
He was mesmerizing. As every Blazers fan knows, Wheeler is a supremely gifted broadcaster. His commentary jumps out of the radio and into the room in which you are listening. Wheeler’s prose pops and crackles with such an ease and pace, it’s immensely easy to listen to the Blazers.
Wheeler’s voice tells the story of the game he’s calling – the unrestrained excitement and joy when the Blazers are playing well are as easy to love as the disgust and deflation when Portland is playing poorly. Wheeler’s talent is such that he is cut out to be a lead play-by-play announcer on a national level, but the man is such a homer, local radio is where he belongs. Part Vin Scully, part Harry Caray.
Wheeler has an incredible story, both personal and professional.
Given up for adoption by a teenage mother at birth, Wheeler grew up in Los Angeles under the roof of a physically abusive stepfather, who died when Wheeler was in high school. Then, his adoptive mother married his stepfather’s brother, Brad, a man who could only be described as a pure evil.
When Brad Wheeler died, he left substantial amounts of money to his biological sons, and two of his three stepsons. To Wheeler, he left five dollars.
That only so the will couldn’t be legally challenged.
Wheeler’s tumultuous upbringing led a once skinny boy to escape a hellish house both literally and figuratively through fast-food and other unhealthy outlets, a life-long battle with obesity was born.
The journey from 170 pounds in college to 455 pounds 30 years later contains no roses. The emotional scars, lack of discipline and a family to rein things in linger for Wheeler. But it would have ruined many others.
Professionally, Wheeler was beaten back time and time again. He came in second for four NBA play-by-play jobs, before getting the poison assignment in Portland.
No one wanted the job in Portland, after the Blazers sickeningly and inexplicably retired the sainted Bill Schonley. Wheeler wasn’t the first choice. He might not have even been on the first page of choices.
But when Harry Hutt finally called in 1998 to offer him the job, Wheeler was so ecstatic he called everyone in the country he’d “ever said hello to”.
The next morning, Wheeler had to call his agent to work out the contract, but the call wouldn’t go through. So Wheeler called AT&T to ask why he couldn’t get a call through – as Wheeler clearly noted, he’d called practically everyone in the United States just hours before.
Turns out, Wheeler made so many calls, AT&T thought his phone had been stolen.
And it also turns out, Wheeler was the possibly the only man who could have replaced Bill Schonley.
When Wheeler turned 50, he started out on a long and scary journey to find his birthparents. He found his birthmother and father, living in Chicago, ready to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They welcomed him into their family, the kind of family that Wheeler could only use to read about in fairytales.
And yet even in this storybook family, tragedy was lying all around. Wheeler had a sister who died, and a nephew who accidently shot himself through the neck with a gun that was in the house.
This guy has had an awful life. And yet he has made the lives of others so much better on so many nights.
Wheeler wouldn’t tell you he’s had an awful life, mind you. He considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth for getting to do the job he does, the job he does so well.
At OSU, Wheeler, entering his 16th year on the job in Portland, gave the impression early on that a story worth remembering was about to come out of his mouth every time he opened it. In fact, it seems like Wheeler knows how to do nothing but tell stories, in real time in a basketball arena, or recalling past moments.
Wheeler waxed about how he berated God through the Blazers’ team chaplain Al after Portland blew that 13 point fourth quarter lead against the Lakers in 2000, how he demanded to know why God would reward a man like Phil Jackson – in Wheels’ eyes, all Phil ever did was cheat on his wife with his boss and act aloof and cold.
While Wheeler waited for Al to put a break on things, the play-by-play man exhausted his rant and the religious man said, “Brian, I’ve been wondering the exact same thing.”
Wheeler talked about why Zach Randolph failed in Portland, and if you want to hear a story involving Wheels, Z-Bo, Cialis, Charles Barkley and a terrible game, you’ll just have to watch the Q&A.
He talked about Schonley, JR Rider, and shoes.
Listen to Wheeler this season. He cares and he’s gifted. You can see more listening to his radio broadcast than watching the game on television. If you’re at all jaded by what’s going on with the Blazers management and ownership, Wheeler is the man to turn you into a fan again.
He’s had his share of memorable moments in Portland, and if you just get one game-winning call at the Rose Garden this year, it’ll be worth 30 losses.
I’ll tell you why I’m jaded today, and why I wanted to highlight Wheeler: The Blazers have introduced a promotion with McDonalds in which all fans at the game will receive a voucher for a free Sausage McMuffin with Egg if the Blazers score 100 points.
This replaces the popular Chalupa promotion from Taco Bell that the Rose Garden has carried in years past. While it’s all disgusting, and while it’s all part of the corporate, loud, fake NBA I hate, a passage in the Blazers’ official press release got to me.
Beginning Nov. 2, as the team nears the 100-point mark fans will be encouraged to chant "MICK-E-DEES, MICK-E-DEES" until 100 points is reached. Scoreboard signage and videos, and rhythm through the sound system will keep the crowd in sync.
How terrible is that? What have we come to? A bunch of robots chanting for McDonalds in the middle of a tight basketball game in the fourth quarter? One of the biggest draws of the Portland Timbers and soccer is the overwhelming authenticity of the experience, and the awareness of the Timbers Army to combat any nonsense like this.
Merritt Paulson would never allow it. Paul Allen is all in for it. What if the Blazers are getting blown-out? What if it’s a one-point game? Are we still supposed to be directed like robots by a blaring jumbo-tron and chant MICK-E-DEES? Are we going to a basketball game or a commercial this year at the Moda Center?
Needless to say, this is a bad start for the new Moda Center. And even if you like fast food and the Blazers are rolling as they approach 100, this would remain a sickeningly stupid idea.
So listen to Wheels this season. That’s what’s right about the Blazers in a time when so much is wrong, and it makes some sense that we got Wheeler by firing Schonley, one of the worst things this organization has done.
Listen to Wheeler and get lost in true, real fandom again. Listen to Wheeler and feel lucky. Listen to Wheeler and rediscover what the Blazers should be all about. Listen to Wheeler because he’s come all this way, and in spite of everything, he shines.