Behind the Wheels: An all-too-real Cinderella story

The life of the voice of the Blazers is a story of its own

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 
photoBlazers broadcaster Brian Wheeler with fan Mitchell Taylor. Last February, Wheeler got All-Star Game tickets and an All-Star event pass for Mitchell, 10.

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Spare Tires: More from Brian Wheeler

Fun and frustrations

Brian Wheeler’s struggles with obesity have yet to pose a serious risk to his heart.

The same can’t be said of the Blazers.

When Brian hosted a Super Bowl party a few years back, his guests did not watch the halftime show. Instead, a studio engineer played a collection of the profanity-laced tirades Wheeler spewed against the refs, Blazers, or their opponents during timeouts.

Wheeler is also notorious for banging the table on press row whenever a critical play fails to go Portland’s way. Hoping to curtail the clamor, he vowed to give up $10 every time he did so this year ... and was up to $50 by game 10.

Catchphrase origins

Wheeler pulled his catchphrase “Do it ’til you’re satisfied!” from a funk song by B.T. Express.

“It’s a great day to be a Blazer!” is a variation of John Rooney’s “That’s a White Sox winner!”

And contrary to popular belief, “Boom shakalaka!” was taken from the Bill Murray movie “Stripes” — not the video game NBA Jam.

“The only video game I ever played was Ms. Pac-Man,” Wheeler said.

The villain

Obviously, Brian’s relationship with his late stepfather has served as a source of distress in his life. But some of Brad Wheeler’s antics were so absurd, Brian can’t help but laugh.

Wheeler recalled a time that he needed to take a shower when the house’s water heater was broken.

But when one of Brian’s stepbrothers asked Brad to fix it for Brian’s sake, Brad responded “Let him freeze!”

“I didn’t hear him say it,” said Wheeler with a smile, “but the way it was told to me, it sounded like he said it like a Batman villain.”

On the inside

Wheeler’s romantic life has not been ideal, but it’s been far from non-existent.

Over the past year and a half, he’s had an on-again-off-again relationship with a former model from Los Angeles named Leah — who did not want her last name disclosed.

Leah, 35, said she was attracted to Brian because of his fun-loving nature and “addiction” to making everyone around him happy.

Would she prefer him to be thinner? Yes. But she’s disgusted when people judge him based on his exterior.

“Everyone’s got their demons, it’s just that his are visible,” Leah said. “That’s not fair.”

— Matt Calkins

First came the dead stepfather. Then came the part that hurt.

A few weeks after emphysema had claimed the life of Brad Wheeler — stepfather to Brian Wheeler — Brian got a call from his stepbrother to discuss the will.

Brad had bequeathed a substantial amount of money to each of his five biological sons and to two of his three stepsons, but to Brian, almost 30 at the time, he wanted to give nothing.

Bob White, the stepbrother who was acting as Brad’s attorney, explained to Brad that omitting Brian entirely could open the will up to a court battle; that Brian could argue a mistake was made and receive a sum equal to that of his siblings.

So naturally, Brad asked just how little he could leave.

“I told him it could be five dollars,” recalled a flabbergasted White, Brad’s stepson from a previous marriage. “He seemed to like that. He was like, ‘Oh, that will humiliate Brian!’ ”

And that was that. Five stinkin’ bucks — for the man with the million-dollar voice.

• • •

How do you tell the story of Portland Trail Blazers radio play-by-play announcer Brian Wheeler?

Do you do it with Chick Hearn-like staccato, knowing the only way to cram in his abusive past, 20-year struggle with obesity and professional tumult is to spit it out like an auctioneer?

Do you employ Vin Scully-like narration, figuring his relationship with his predecessor and his search for acceptance requires a voice that guides the listener through every emotional crevice?

Or do you approach it with Harry Caray-like homerism, reasoning that, with Wheels, there is no need to focus on anything but his talent and boundless generosity?

Well, maybe you don’t zero in on any one style. Maybe, just like any play-by-play man would, you simply start from the beginning.

• • •

Wheeler, now 50, never knew his biological mother or father. He was adopted by Don and Doris Wheeler as a newborn and raised in Hollywood, Calif.

Doris was the parent who bought Brian toys, explained that Tommy Lasorda likely had a good reason for pulling his starting pitcher, and offered constant reassurance that Batman would escape his current predicament.

Don was the parent who sometimes smacked Brian in the face.

But all physical violence ceased when Don died of kidney failure a few months after Brian turned 13. And even though he was an only child now living in a fatherless household, Wheeler’s disposition was generally as sunny as his hometown’s skies.

Sometimes, Doris would walk by Brian’s room and wonder why he was talking to himself, only to discover that he was calling an imaginary game. Wheeler got more concrete practice when he doubled as the announcer while playing touch football with his friends.

The plan was to attend USC and pursue a career emulating SoCal sportscasting legends like Hearn, Scully, and Dick Enberg. Then, Doris married her late husband’s brother, moved Brian to Chicago, and put him under a roof with five cousins-turned-stepbrothers.

Few quotes have been less necessary than the following.

“It was very weird,” Wheeler said.

As of today, two of those stepbrothers are dead — one from alcoholism and the other from untreated diabetes — while the living three are composed of an alcoholic, a religious cult member, and an autistic busboy (this does not include White, the aforementioned lawyer, who never lived with Brian). And when Wheeler moved in with them in 1976, the quintet was nodding in agreement as their father, Brad, explained how FDR started World War II and that women shouldn’t speak at the dinner table.

Brad, you see, wasn’t really accustomed to being questioned. So when Brian would challenge certain opinions — such as television being humanity’s worst invention, or male cats turning into females after they’re neutered — Doris had to intervene to keep the peace.

But when Doris died of stomach cancer in 1981, everything fell to pieces.

• • •

Brian first started gaining weight when a cockroach-infested kitchen forced him to eat out more. He claims he was responsible for Orkin’s strangest request when he asked that they exterminate the mice in his room and his room alone.

With Doris gone, sanity had fled that Midwestern house like a fugitive facing 25-to-life. And it seemed the only thing Brad neglected more than insects or rodents was his future sportscasting stepson.

Wheeler eventually moved out but was accused of trespassing when he came home to retrieve his mail one day. Brad’s reasoning was that he wasn’t actually family — a notion he reinforced by cutting Brian out of all the photos from his son’s wedding.

Wheeler, of course, was smart enough to know that his stepfather’s words had the credibility of a 900-number psychic. Still, if a man stabs often enough, even the dullest of knives can break the skin.

“When you get told you’re a bad person over and over, even if it’s coming from a complete idiot, you internalize some of that,” Wheeler said. “It can make you emotional.”

Listen to Wheeler for so much as five seconds and it’s clear that he channels most of his emotion toward broadcasting. This was no different during his youth.

After calling play-by-play for an array of sports in college, Wheels landed jobs hosting pre and postgame shows for the White Sox and Bulls, then a talk-show-hosting gig with the Sonics in the early 90s.

But kind of like those Blazers teams of that same era, his shortcomings were just as prominent as his triumphs.

Four times in a seven-year span, Brian finished second for an NBA play-by-play position. Then one day in 1998, while on a road trip with the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs, Wheeler spoke on the phone with Blazers executive Harry Hutt, who offered him the team’s radio play-by-play job.

Brian spent the rest of the night calling so many friends that AT&T presumed his calling card was stolen and cut it off.

In two years, Wheeler would broadcast live from the Western Conference Finals. In six years, he would log his 500th consecutive game.

And in eight years, he would weigh more than 400 pounds.

• • •

For the better part of two decades, it seemed that when words weren’t coming out of Wheeler’s mouth, food was going in. A svelte 170 pounds his freshman year of college, Brian ballooned to as high as 455 in 2008.

The weight gain was partially due to a Blazeresque left knee — which is on the cusp of replacement and prevents him from playing the sports he enjoys. But a single lifestyle, emotional scarring, and a lack of long-term discipline have clearly factored in, too.

The thing is, up until the mid-90s, Wheeler never really viewed his rotund figure as anyting but temporary. It wasn’t until a colleague in Seattle said the words “big guys like us” in a casual conversation that he crossed the turnstile into reality.

“I was like ‘big guys like us?’ I don’t feel good about that. It’s not how I think of myself because I wasn’t like that growing up. But clearly I became that way and still am,” said Wheeler, who has tried more than 20 diets and had lap band surgery in 2008. “I never would have thought there was any way in the world I could be 455 pounds. I wouldn’t have thought that was remotely possible. But to some degree, I guess you have to be in some sort of denial to let things get to that point.”

Sometimes, in a moment of weakness, Wheeler will peruse the Blazer message boards and spot a poster calling him a “fat (expletive).” Last year, a matchmaking service set him up with a woman who canceled the date when she saw him on TV.

Commenting on his radio partner’s confidence, color analyst Antonio Harvey said that, off the air, Wheeler can be “sheepish” in certain situations. But then he puts that headset on and it’s “Boom shakalaka!” or “That was naaaaasty!” or “It’s a great day to be a Blazer!”

Any broadcaster can double someone’s pulse rate during overtime of a playoff game. But Wheeler’s one of the few that can make a 24-point lead vs. the Raptors pop.

In addition to a hummingbird’s pace and a coach’s insight, Brian has the raw emotion of a fan who just smashed the TV after another missed free throw.

Sometimes, these visceral ties to the team can turn Wheels into a virtual mute for hours after a Blazers loss. But that enthusiasm is also what allows him to hook the listener and never let him loose.

Walking through the Rose Garden concourse a couple weeks back, Blazers fan Doug Baughman said that “whenever I turn Wheels on, I want to keep listening.”

Longtime Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler added that Wheeler is widely regarded as one of the best in business, “and that’s a tribute because there a lot of really good people.” Harvey stated pithily that “when Wheels picks up the mic, he’s unreal.”

But there is one man from which Wheeler says he is still awaiting a compliment.

• • •

It is entirely possible that the most iconic figure in Trail Blazers history is not named Drexler, Walton or Lucas. It is entirely possible that such a title instead belongs to former play-by-play announcer Bill Schonely.

Hired before the Blazers’ inaugural season, “The Schonz” serenaded the City of Roses for 27 years before his unexpected ouster in 1997. And even though Schonely now serves as an ambassador for the team, he finds that the pain still makes an occasional cameo.

“When I think about it deep down, it does (still hurt),” Schonely said earlier this month. “When that particular episode happened, I was devastated.”

The firing was widely considered the organization’s worst ever public relations gaffe. To this day, there are fans that swear off Wheeler out of loyalty to Schonely.

Brian remembers an elderly season-ticket holder approaching him before his first Blazers broadcast and saying “I’ll give you two games.” When she returned at the end of the year and said “you’re all right,” Wheeler received what he still considers his greatest praise.

But by Wheels’ account, similar acclaim has yet to come from the mouth of his predecessor. It’s not as though he feels that Schonely is slapping him in the face, but he doesn’t think that figurative hand is patting him on the back, either.

“I’ve been disappointed at the times that he had an easy opportunity to say ‘hey, he does a great job, he’s a great service to the organization,’ but he never really did,” Wheeler said. “Even if it was to be untruthful — even if he was in a position where he could have just made it look good for appearances and said something nice. It’s never really bad, but it’s never really nice.”

In Schonely’s defense, when asked about Wheeler a few weeks back, he responded “the guy’s doing a great job.” He did add that he was opposed to “all the screaming” when it comes to today’s younger broadcasters, but generally expressed great contentment with life.

The question is: Can Wheeler do the same?

• • •

In September of last year, Wheeler uttered three words he hoped would finally release him from his stepfather’s grip: “I forgive him.”

No matter how high he climbed within his profession, no matter how wide his circle of friends grew, there was always a part of Brian that felt tinges of Brad Wheeler’s condemnation.

But in so many ways, Wheeler has proven to be the very opposite of the waste of skin his stepfather labeled him. As Blazers strength and conditioning coach Bob Medina said, “he’s the most giving man I know.”

When Wheeler was hosting his talk show on 95.5 FM, he bought 50 Mariners tickets for low-income listeners and paid for the bus to Seattle. He did the same for Ducks and Beavers football games later in the year.

Last February, Wheeler found out that 10-year-old Portland resident Mitchell Tressler, a basketball fanatic with severe epilepsy, was heading to Los Angeles with his father for NBA All-Star weekend. Unable to afford tickets, their plan was to lurk around the Staples Center in hopes of scoring an autograph or two. But after Wheeler made a phone call, the pair not only had tickets to the All-Star Game, but passes to a pre-game event in which Mitchell took pictures with Chris Paul, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant.

When his mother, Rachel Taylor, got word, she couldn’t help but weep.

“What Brian brought to our son can never be taken away. It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Taylor said. “Brian’s wonderful. He’s honestly gotta be the best person in the world.”

Antonio Harvey said that Wheeler is constantly striving to be seen as an equal, but that he tries to convince him that “he is not only an equal, but above 90 percent of the people around him.”

Wheeler may be starting to figure that out.

Yes, the man still seeks love.

Yes, the man still wants a family.

Yes, the man still has major weight issues despite having lost 40 pounds since starting a liquid diet last month and getting down to 307.

But when he looks closely, he sees that just about every time he wakes up in the morning — it’s a great day to be Brian Wheeler.

“There’s good and there’s bad, but it’s mostly always good,” Wheeler said. “I think of all the friends I have, that I always have some place to be on the holidays, and it reminds me of that scene from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where Jimmy Stewart reads the inscription on the book and it says ‘No man is alone if he has friends.’ Yeah, by and large, I feel pretty darn lucky.”

Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blazerbanter.