• Blazer voice Brian Wheeler talks about acting like a fan at a mike warmed by Schonz
Brian Wheeler is a sore loser. Readily admits it. Wishes it weren't such a strong trait. Says he is working on it.
'I was the kid who got mad when he lost and took his ball and went home,' the radio voice of the Trail Blazers says. 'Two days before I started college, I played in a touch-football game. There was a controversial ending, we won, a guy mouthed off, I challenged him, and I still have a scar from taking an overhand right.'
When the Blazers lose, Wheeler feels it from head to toe. He chuckles as he recounts a story of dejection after Portland's infamous Game-7 loss to the L.A. Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference finals.
'I was absolutely disconsolate,' Wheeler says. 'I was a little worried about myself, so I called (team chaplain) Al Egg the next day. I said, 'Al, the part I don't understand is, why does God allow Phil Jackson to be successful? Here is this egomaniac who doesn't treat anybody right, and he wins so many titles.' Al said, 'You know, Brian, I have been asking myself the same thing.' '
It has been five years since Wheeler took the seat alongside analyst Mike Rice on press row, replacing the legendary Bill Schonely. Blazer followers have taken their time becoming accustomed to the voice in the box and his style, but no one can question his loyalty to the team.
It wasn't always so. Wheeler, 41, grew up near Hollywood in Los Angeles, a sports fan (and Laker fan) who listened to the city's golden age of broadcasters such as Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, Dick Enberg, Bob Miller and Tom Kelly in the 1970s. At a young age, Wheeler already was practicing play-by-play.
'I would be shooting Nerf hoops and calling the game in my bedroom,' Wheeler says. 'Mom would pound the wall and say, 'Quit talking to yourself.' When I would get together with my friends, they would want me to announce while we were playing. I loved it.'
When he was 15, Wheeler's family moved to Chicago, and he got his broadcasting start as sports director at Loyola University Chicago's college television station. He called
the school's basketball games for four years as a student and after graduation served nine more years as the voice of the Ramblers on a commercial station.
By that time, Wheeler had the itch to work at a higher level. In 1993, he moved to Seattle to accept a radio job as an update reporter, fill-in talk-show host and weekend host of pre- and post-game shows for the Sonics. Two years later, he went to Sacramento, Calif., as the Kings' backup play-by-play guy, also doing pre- and post-game work. He also served as voice of the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs for two years.
'Don't you want to meet me first?'
By 1998, Wheeler had missed out after applying for a few NBA jobs and didn't hold out much hope when he submitted his tape to then Blazer Vice President Harry Hutt.
'They were going to be making an obviously unpopular change,' Wheeler says. 'I figured they were going to bring in a high-powered name so they could say to the fans, 'We know you're disappointed in losing Schonz, but look who we got.' As confident as I tried to be, I couldn't imagine myself being the 'look who we got.' I gave myself no chance.'
Hutt contacted Wheeler and said he would get back in touch. Four or five months later, Wheeler had heard nothing and wrote off his chances. Then one night he got a call from Hutt, who offered him the job.
Wheeler: 'Don't you want to meet me first?'
Hutt: 'No, so many people are saying good things about you, we are ready to move forward.'
Wheeler ran up his long-distance bill that night, calling friends and telling them of his good fortune.
'Of all the people who spend millions of dollars learning how to interview right, here is the job of my life and I never even interviewed for it,' Wheeler says. 'The first time Harry even saw me was when I came to town for my press conference.'
Wheeler arrived in Portland in a firestorm. Irate fans were turned off by the way Blazer management unceremoniously dumped Schonely, whose 29 years with the club made him one of the state's most popular sports personalities.
'I had followed the whole thing from Sacramento,' Wheeler says. 'I heard his last broadcast coming home from work. I couldn't get out of the car. It was surreal. I could hear the emotion in (Schonely's) voice. I can only imagine how difficult the whole situation was for him. I would have been as heartbroken as he was, not being able to leave on his own accord.'
Tension thwarts relationship
Wheeler was aware of the love affair between Schonely and Blazer fans and tried to tread lightly as his tenure began.
'I had great respect for Schonz,' Wheeler says. 'I know there were listeners expecting me to say, 'Forget what you heard in the past; you are listening to me now.' But I would never try to tear down the reputation he had built. The main reason the job was as attractive as it is was because he had made it that way.
'I tried to put myself in the position of somebody replacing Chick with the Lakers. I could understand how everybody felt. All I said was, 'I am replacing Schonz in job title only. Nobody is going to replace him in the hearts and minds of Blazer fans.' He is always going to be No. 1 for a lot of folks, and that is the way it should be. I knew there will be people who will always look at me as the symbol of 'Schonz isn't here anymore.' All I can hope for, in some small way, is to carve a niche alongside his.'
Because of the antipathy between Schonely and Blazer management, Wheeler never got the chance to forge a relationship with his predecessor.
'I tried to tell him how I felt about things when I first got here, but it was a lot harder for him to be friendly to me than me to him,' Wheeler says. 'It's something I can understand, but I regret. I wanted to tell him all these things but never had the opportunity.'
Rice, who had worked six years alongside Schonely and enjoyed a great relationship with him, watched Wheeler grow into the job despite the difficult situation.
'It would have been tough for anybody to replace Schonz,' Rice says. 'Brian was getting e-mails and voice mail from people telling him, 'You will never replace the Schonz.' That would get to anybody. I thought I would have to give him a pep talk every day, but I didn't.
'What helped Brian is he has so much confidence in his ability. He is a student of the profession and of the sport. I cheat off his notes for my talk show, because I know he knows everything that goes on. (Schonely and Wheeler) are similar in some ways. Both bring a great enthusiasm and love for the game. Schonz was a little more emotional; Wheels is a little more analytical. Schonz was the ultimate professional here for almost 30 years. I'll bet Wheels will be that way for 20 years here.'
'I am going to be a fan'
Wheeler has a big-league voice, strong and active, and follows game action well. The biggest criticism by some of his listeners is his lack of objectivity, which Wheeler readily acknowledges. He says any 'homer-ism' is not at the request of management.
'At the press conference (announcing his hiring), I said, 'I am going to be a fan. When things are going well, it is going to sound like Disneyland revisited,' ' Wheeler says. 'I am also going to suffer with the fans when things are going bad. I am going to sound frustrated. I would have trouble doing a team that was bad year in and year out. When you are with the same people every day and you see how hard they work to try to be successful, you want to see them do well.
'The weird thing is, listening to all the great announcers of my childhood, they were all very objective. I remember Chick would get sometimes to the point where I thought he was almost unfair to the Lakers. I would be mad he wasn't more supportive of his team. Then I got to Chicago, listening to broadcasters like Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse. It was 'us' and 'them.' They would rip the other team and rip the officials. É I couldn't believe it.
'I have become a hybrid of the two styles. I never say 'we,' but it is clear I want the Blazers to win. But there are times I feel like if I am not honest about (the Blazers) playing bad, the fans can see that. Sometimes people think fans are dumb, that they don't see things if you don't tell them. But they do.'
Style refines with self-critiques
Wheeler is mindful that some observers believe he and Rice come down too hard on officials.
'We are probably in the top five or 10 (broadcast teams) in the league in terms of abuse toward officials,' Wheeler acknowledges. 'Every year, we tell each other to be better in that respect. I have tried to balance it . I think I am doing a better job of it this year.'
Schonely had his 'Rip City' and 'bingo bango bongo' and 'you've got to make your free throws.' Wheeler has his own catchphrases, such as 'boom-chaka-laka' and 'bemused, befuddled and bewildered.'
Gradually, Wheeler is becoming more connected to, and accepted by, the community.
'Schonz was put on a pedestal by a lot of people,' Wheeler says. 'It was almost like he wasn't a real-life figure, he was such a celebrity. Not that he tried to portray himself that way, but he had become such a legend in so many respects. It has taken people awhile to get the message that I don't think I am any big deal.
'I enjoy what I do, I enjoy the people here and I enjoy being a part of the Trail Blazers. A lot of people weren't sure what to make of me at first, but fortunately, it has been a pretty positive relationship with the fans.'