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The incredible shrinking Brian Wheeler

Brian Wheeler is a ghost of himself these days. And that's a very good thing.

The Trail Blazers' veteran radio play-by-play man has shed more than 200 pounds to give himself a new lease on life.

The 5-9 1/2 Wheeler, who topped out at 455 three years ago, is down to 245 and counting.

"It has been more than 20 years since I have been this light," says Wheeler, 50. "I want to get to 225, and I may keep going down to 185."

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Brian Wheeler, radio play-by-play voice of the Trail Blazers, weighed 455 pounds three years ago. He is down to 245, the lightest he has been in more than 20 years. Wheeler hasn't been at that weight since his days at Loyola-Chicago in the early 1980s.

"It's awesome," says Bob Medina, a close friend and the Blazers' strength/conditioning coach. "It has been a great lifestyle change for him. It's going to help him with the next 50 years of his life."

I've known Wheeler since he came to Portland to replace Bill Schonely in 1998 and have grown to appreciate him even more as a person than broadcaster. He is clever and genuine and has a heart of gold.

Wheeler picks up the tab for a luncheon at the end of each NBA season for friends and fellow Blazer employees, a final chance for everyone to enjoy one another before a long summer. Not long ago, when my son Drew - a fan - wanted to meet him, Wheeler joined us for lunch at a restaurant even though he was on a liquid-only diet. Wheeler sipped water as we ate.

But Wheeler has been a tortured soul as he has watched his body grow out of control throughout the years.

"I've been there with Brian for a lot of rock-bottom moments," Medina says. "I've seen him break down, get emotional.

"Finally he said, ‘I have to make some changes.' He ultimately made the decision he was going to change his life by getting his body right. He's an inspiration."

Nothing was effective for Wheeler in keeping the weight off until he underwent lap band surgery in July 2009.

"He has been through every diet known to man," Medina says.

Wheeler began to put on weight after he got into a fast-food habit during his college years, then injured a left knee that eventually required three surgeries and cut down on his physical activity. At age 24, he went on an 800-calorie-a-day liquid diet that pared 70 pounds and got him back to 182. But by the time he got a broadcasting job in Seattle in 1993, Wheeler was pushing 300.

"I wasn't able to play the sports I'd played so often that didn't feel like exercise," he says. "I could never get excited about elliptical or treadmill machines. I never learned how to cook or get to the point of a sound plan whenever I lost some weight to say, ‘How are you going to keep it off this time?' "

During his years in Portland, things gradually got worse.

"If anyone had ever told me I'd get to 455, I'd have thought that was inconceivable," he says.

There were many indignities to endure.

"I'd go to a game or a concert and have to have accommodations for a bigger seat, or sit in the handicapped section," he says. " I shopped at big-and-tall stores. I'd have to ask for a seat-belt extender on an airplane. Once a flight attendant came up and said, ‘If there is any trouble with the person sitting next to you, we'll have to ask you to pay for two seats.' Those are little reminders that you're not quite as normal as everybody else.

"I wasn't in denial about what I had become in terms of size, but what gave me some hope was I hadn't always been heavy. I wasn't resigning myself that this is the way I'm going to be forever."

Wheeler also tried hypnosis and psychotherapy, to no avail. Finally, he underwent the lap-band surgery, quickly dropping 100 pounds.

"When you eat, you can't eat as much," he says, "and it helps curb your hunger. It forces you to slow down."

Wheeler's weight gradually dipped under 300, but got back up to 347 last fall.

"I wasn't really changing the types of food I was eating," he says. "I was just hoping the lap band would not allow me to eat as much of it.

"It was hard to ignore there was a problem. The lap band got me out of the danger zone, but it wasn't going to get me across the finish line."

The final straw might have come when he enlisted a matchmaking service that set him up for a date. When the woman saw Wheeler's girth during a Blazer telecast, she canceled.

Water replaces cola

Wheeler wound up on a liquid-diet program - ironically, the same system he had used while in Chicago more than 25 years earlier. Five 160-calorie shakes or bars daily. He began on the opening day of the Blazers' truncated season in late December.

"He did it in the hardest part of the year in our business," Medina says, "during the season, where there are late nights and travel and a lot of temptations."

"I thought it would actually be better, because the work would give me some distraction," Wheeler says. "I wouldn't be able to think about it."

Goal-setting is an important component. Wheeler aimed high, er, low.

"I decided to give myself six months to get to 225," he says. "That way I would have lost more weight than I once weighed."

Wheeler will be close to that mark by the time he hits six months on June 30, mostly because of his dedication.

"I asked the doctors, ‘How many people don't cheat from start to finish?' " Wheeler says. "They said less than 3 percent. I said, ‘I'm going to be one of those.' I like to turn it into something competitive."

Wheeler's weight has gone from 339 on Dec. 30 to 245, a loss of 94 pounds. His body fat has dropped from 38.6 percent to 23.7 percent, his fat mass from 131 to 59.

"You see how many things food is associated with," he says. "Some of that cycle has to be broken. The first few days were pretty tough, but I've never cheated."

Exercise has been a key, too. He is working two or three days a week with a personal trainer, is taking aqua-fitness classes a couple of days a week and has dabbled with yoga. The knee feels better, and he says doctors have talked about the possibility of blood-placement treatment that could regenerate cartilage.

His habit of 100 ounces of Diet Coke daily has been replaced by 100 ounces of water.

"Now my body craves water," Wheeler says. "Your body wants to be healthy."

There have been many benefits. His sleep-apnea problem is nearly gone. He no longer has to take several medications - including one to control high blood pressure - and is able to handle more exercise.

"Every day I see signs," he says. "I no longer need a seat-belt extender. I can sit in seats normally. I can walk around more easily."

After a month on liquids only, Wheeler has begun to re-incorporate food into his diet. He is determined to avoid his old bad habits.

"I've never been in the dark about what healthy food is," he says. "It's been a matter of eating late at night and on the road. You have to plan. I can't get caught in a position where you're more apt to make a bad decision."

Wheeler has enjoyed that many friends and acquaintances who haven't seen him for a while have done a double-take at first glance. Some don't recognize him.

"I don't want to fall back," he says. "There are enough people now who have seen my progress, there's a level of accountability. You don't want people to say, ‘Oh, he did lose weight, but look, he is gaining it back.' "

Wheeler's level of determination, Medina says, "is unbelievable. It's been such a transformation. It's funny - he's a policeman now. He's not only more aware of what he is eating, but also what his friends are eating."

There is pride and optimism in Wheeler now that he hasn't had for ages.

"I'm mad at myself that it took as long as it did for me to have this jolt," he says. "I don't know how I let things get as bad as they did. You have two alternatives. You can let it get worse - and you can get overwhelmed, because it seems so impossible - or you can take care of it.

"I feel good about making the progress. I don't think I've done any long-term damage to my health. I was always hopeful, but I'm not sure I always believed it in the past.

"This time, it is going to be for good. I'm in a far better place than I was six months ago, and in a really far better place than I was three years ago. I'm firmly convinced I'll be in better shape in my 50s than I was in my 40s, and maybe my 30s. I'm in many respects turning back the clock.

"I'm not that crazy about turning 50, but now I'll be in better shape to feel like a younger person. It's not how many years you live, but the living you're doing in your years. The years from here on out are going to be lived much better than up to now."