Backyard dreams fulfilled

The scene was not unlike countless others that unfold on playgrounds, backyards and vacant cul-de-sacs across the United States. Neighborhood youngsters gathering for the game of the moment: fall was for football, summer was for baseball, basketball filled in the cracks.

The scene was not unlike countless others that unfold on playgrounds, backyards and vacant cul-de-sacs across the United States. Neighborhood youngsters gathering for the game of the moment: fall was for football, summer was for baseball, basketball filled in the cracks.

But if you had been so lucky as to stumble across one of these games played by guileless kids with youthful ambition in Southern California where Brian Wheeler grew up, you would have noticed a striking distinction.

“My friends used to always make me call the game, while I was playing. It didn’t matter the sport, I was always doing introductions, announcements, highlights or something. It was then that I knew that what I wanted to do,” Wheeler said.

Now, some 30 years later, Wheeler has continued endearing himself to his listeners as he just completed his 11th season as the play-by-play man for the Portland Trail Blazers radio broadcasts.

Though his stop in the Rose City is certainly not the first in his career behind the mic, Wheeler—affectionately known to Blazers’ fans as Wheels—got his start in broadcasting after taking some advice from his mother.

“When I told her that I wanted to be a sports broadcaster, she said, ‘Well, you do love to talk.'”

Replacing a legend
Wheeler’s mother could not have likely foreseen the daunting task that would beset her son some dozen years ago.

Wheeler, then working as a fill-in and studio host for the Sacramento Kings and the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs, placed his name in the hat for the two open lead broadcasting positions in the NBA: Miami and Portland.

“I knew that it would be a difficult task to replace Bill Schonely, so I wasn’t necessarily anticipating getting that job,” Wheeler said.

Schonely had been the Blazers’ only play-by-play announcer since the team’s inaugural season in 1970. Wheeler said that he had expected that the Blazers would look to hire a prominent NBA broadcaster, not someone seeking their first full-time gig in the league.

“I was probably not their first choice,” Wheeler admitted, now with the benefit of more than 10 years of hindsight. “And replacing ‘Schonz’ was a hornets nest at first. But, I tried to be myself, be humble about the situation and be grateful for the opportunity.”

Back to his roots
Perhaps more than any other member of the Trail Blazers organization, player or otherwise, Wheeler has seen the ups and downs of the team during his time.

“My first two years here we went to the Western Conference Finals. There were a lot of stars and exciting games. Obviously, it hasn’t been that smooth the entire time, but I think we’re headed back that direction.”

The transition back to a successful team has not only come at the delight of fans but also gladdened Wheeler, who said that when the team plays well, he sounds good.

“I try not to come across as a homer. I want to give the fans an actual account of the game but I also know that most, if not all, of the people tuning in are Blazers fans and that is the team that they care about the most,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler himself grew up listening to some of the most heralded voices in sports broadcasting history, including Vin Scully, Dick Enberg and Chick Hearn.

Hearn, who called Los Angeles Lakers games from 1965–2002, was one of Wheeler’s idols as he grew up within the range of his legendary calls. When Hearn passed away suddenly in the summer of 2002, Wheeler was among the names mentioned as a possible candidate to replace the iconic figure.

“I can safely say that I am very lucky with the career opportunities that I have had. I was happy as a clam when I was in college [at Loyola University Chicago] and had a chance to call soccer, women’s softball and basketball games.”

Wheeler’s style, a self-described mixture of homer-ism and downright honesty, stemmed from the promise he gave to Blazers management during his interview process: to call the game like a fan would call it.

His approach, while a stark contrast to the patriarchal style of Schonely, has since won Blazers fans over, including many Portland State students.

Will Porter, a first-year graduate student in the physics program, grew up listening to Schonely and still listens to most Blazers games on the radio, unless they are on a local television channel.

“[Wheeler] combines a considerable understanding of basketball and basketball players with a huge amount of passion and energy for the team,” Porter said. “You can always tell when a huge play goes down, because Wheels lets every ounce of excitement come through in his broadcast.”

Porter and many others have cited Wheels’ enthralling call of Brandon Roy’s buzzer-beating three-pointer against Houston as evidence of his fervor. In the months following the historic shot, Wheeler’s call was used heavily in the Blazers’ advertising campaign.

In it for the long haul
In addition to calling each of the Blazers 901 games since he was hired, Wheeler hosts an early-afternoon radio show on a local station, and the Blazers and the NBA earn the majority of the discussion on the show. Thus he spends the little time that he has away from the Blazers discussing the team with the loyal and often radical fans of Portland.

When asked about what he felt the team should do in order to continue their rise up in the standings of the NBA, Wheeler said it would be crucial that the team establish a more physical front court presence, possibly done with current personnel, but likely accomplished via trade or free agency.

Whatever the Blazers decide to do, Wheeler said the squad is in good hands, not only with tremendous management and coaching, but also with the assimilation of talent on the roster. This talent includes Roy, the Blazers guard who just completed his third season but seems poised for superstardom.

“What people don’t understand is that he is developing that confidence still that it takes to be one of the great players in this league. People forget that for most of his college career he was a role player, but his ability to knock down clutch shots will likely keep his name in the discussion as one of the league’s finest for a long time,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler’s position as the voice of one of the most talented teams in the league seems fitting.

“I am close to the action, but I don’t have any say in what happens on the court. For a fan, which is really all that I am, it’s a perfect fit.”