Years ago, I casually asked Marv Albert whether any NBA radio announcer caught his ear. He immediately mentioned Brian Wheeler, who by now has been the Blazers’ radio voice for 20 years.
I had heard snippets of Wheeler’s work through the years but hadn’t listened in a while. When I dialed up his audio late in the 4th quarter of game one of the playoffs, the Blazers were making a late charge at a big New Orleans lead. Wheeler held court rivetingly, connecting the dots with an artistic grip reminiscent of the greats. My educated guess is that Marv himself and one of the NBA’s all-time best, former Cavs’ announcer, Joe Tait would have given Wheeler a stellar grade.
I’ve never met Brian but had heard stories about his weight challenges, his health battles and the difficulty he faces traveling. I dug around and discovered that there’s a lot more to it. Wheeler had no ordinary upbringing.
Brian was adopted at birth and raised in Southern California where his adopted dad occasionally smacked him. When he was 13, the adopted dad died and his adopted mom married Brad, his adopted dad’s brother and whom Brian had always considered an uncle. So Mom and Brian moved to Illinois where they joined a family made up of Brad, now Brian’s step dad, and his five biological children from a previous marriage. Cousins quickly became stepsiblings and those not in the know needed a scorecard.
His new stepdad, Brad, the head of the household, espoused extreme beliefs. For starters, he felt that women shouldn’t talk at the dinner table. He also had suspicions about lots of other things including what happens to neutered cats. If leaving Los Angeles wasn’t a difficult enough transition for a young teenager, Brian now faced the daily maze of a dysfunctional home in Illinois.
Talk of a tough setting, Brian’s new home was made up of stepsiblings that included an alcoholic, a druggie, and a religious cultist. There was also an autistic busboy and a step-sibling who eventually died of untreated diabetes.
Through it all, the adopted mom Doris remained the rock of Brian’s life; always enthusiastic, talking baseball with him and keeping peace with his mercurial dad. Doris would occasionally pass near Brian’s room and hear him call a make-believe ballgame to himself, not an uncommon practice for a young, budding broadcaster. She encouraged him.
But Doris died when Brian was a sophomore in college and he coped by eating ravenously. Stepdad Brad also turned increasingly diabolical and neglectful. When he was asked to repair a shower that Brian used because it had no hot water, he said, “Let him freeze.” The house itself turned into an unfumigated and unmitigated pigsty, overrun by mice and roaches. It was then that Brian would no longer eat in the kitchen. He brought fast-food home and ate it only in his room. He did so constantly and the pounds kept increasing.
When Brad died years later, he left his children significant sums, all except Brian. To make some inexplicable point, Brad left Brian a stinking $5.
After finishing Loyola of Chicago, Brian pursued his broadcasting dreams. He bounced around which is not unusual. Eventually, he did pre and post-game programming for the Seattle Sonics and later play-by-play for the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs. There were a couple of near misses getting NBA play-by-play jobs, before landing the coveted Portland gig in 1998.
His hefty weight, began to weigh on his job. At one point, he hit the scale at over 450 pounds. He later suffered from scrotal lymphedema which in recent years has caused him to miss a chunk of broadcasts including most road games this past season. It’s a gaudy condition that can hamper mobility.
Brian opened up recently. We discussed his unsettling upbringing, his on-air career, his broadcast idols and his health challenges. He also shared the heartwarming story of tracking down his natural parents.
Q&A with Blazers’ radio play-by-play announcer, Brian Wheeler
Was there a point after your adopted mom died and much of the ordeal at home was behind you that you tried to track down your biological parents?
It wasn’t until I turned 50 that I decided to learn about my natural parents. I was born in Illinois which is an open adoption state. My natural father’s name was withheld on my birth certificate and my birth mom was a teenage girl, something that my adopted mom had shared with me.
The mother of my birth mom wouldn’t allow her to keep me because she felt she was too young for the responsibility. Once I had her name and deliberated a bit, I decided to pursue a search through an adoption agency. A month later, the investigator called, telling me my birth mom lived in Rockford, Illinois and provided me her telephone number. I noted that she was married, that her husband was still alive and that she had two daughters after I was born. One of them had passed and the other was alive.
When I reached her, we exchanged pleasantries and she asked me some personal questions to verify that I was who I told her I was. She chuckled, and said, “Well, I guess I am your mother!”
We talked for another hour or so. I asked her at one point whether she knew the whereabouts of my birth father. She laughed and then revealed the second half of the mystery. “Well, he’s in the other room and we’re about to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary!”
So beyond my natural mother, I also unexpectedly discovered my birth father and the one living natural sister I never knew I had. We now stay in touch regularly and see each other too. It turned into a heartwarming story. It doesn’t always turn out that way when children look for their birth parents!
You and your adopted mom were close. When she died, you started eating uncontrollably and put on tons of weight. Today, it’s the source of your health issues which among other things have forced you to miss Blazers’ broadcasts. It sounds like the loss of your mom really hit you hard?
We were very close. She talked more than just baseball with me. She helped me through difficult predicaments more than once!
My poor eating really started when she passed away and Brad, my step father, refused to call the exterminators when our house was overrun, first by roaches and then by mice. I stopped eating in the kitchen and my relationship with fast food became unhealthy. I packed on the pounds but I’ve been a great weight loser, not a great weight maintainer.
It’s one of the reasons that this summer I hope to attend an extended weight loss medical center like the one at Duke University. The reason I missed Blazers’ games this season is not really weight related. For the second time in 4 years, I developed scrotal lymphedema. It’s a condition only men can get.
When I had it four years ago, I missed four games, and it got better through physical therapy, aqua fitness, and weight loss. This time around, the condition has been much more stubborn, despite the same therapy. I’ve missed more broadcasts than I ever have in any one season. The team felt it’s best that I don’t travel, even though I feel I could have. Since the all-star break, I’ve only been doing home games. It’s been a very disjointed season and I’m determined to do whatever’s necessary this off-season to make sure I never have another season like this one!
When you were young in Southern California, you heard a trio of great broadcasters; Vin Scully, Dick Enberg and Chick Hearn. What did you pick up from each?
Also throw in Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Kings’ announcer, Bob Miller. With Vin, I appreciated his unique art of story-telling and pacing. With Dick, I loved his enthusiasm and versatility, doing many sports. Chick had the greatest influence on me because basketball was my favorite sport.
Chick had the art and skill to talk quickly and clearly. He also developed his ‘Chickisms” of clever phrases. As for Bob, I always appreciated his sense of humor which was very much needed then because the Kings weren’t very good. I have a photo of Vin, Chick, and Bob together. It’s a photo I have framed proudly. I only wish Dick had been in the photo as well!
Which broadcasters did you like when you moved to the Midwest?
Funny, the LA guys were objective. When I got to Chicago, Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse said “we,” “us” and “them.” It was a bit shocking at first but I grew to appreciate their work. I also enjoyed the longtime Bulls’ voice, Jim Durham. Another talented play-by-play guy was Joe McConnell, the Bears announcer when I got to town.
You had near misses, trying to get a big-league job. Finally, you were hired by the Blazers. Did you ever think of giving up?
I actually finished second, four times chasing NBA jobs. I lost the Toronto Raptors’ opportunity because the team’s Board of Governors wanted a Canadian born broadcaster.
No, I never thought about giving up on my dream. Oddly, when the Blazers offered me the radio job, the Heat were about to do the same. I thought after years of waiting that I might actually have TWO offers! But the Heat couldn’t move quickly enough so I was delighted to get the Blazers job.
When you miss Blazers’ games, do you listen to the radio broadcast, watch the game on television or do so with the sound down?
I usually catch the pre-game and post-game coverage on radio, but then listen and watch the TV broadcast. Kevin Calabro, our TV voice, has been a great friend and mentor since our days in Seattle. It does feel strange not to be there but I’ve just accepted the fact that this is a strange season for me, yet I remain positive.
How have the players treated you through this health ordeal?
Fortunately, the players have always been good to me. In their own way, they’ve asked how I’m doing when they see me. I’ve been very humbled whenever they’ve taken the time to check on me.
When you started in the NBA, most broadcasters were on the floor in most buildings. Now radio is relegated to the nosebleeds. How hard is it to call games from these impossible vantage points?
It doesn’t surprise me that radio has been bumped given the dollar value of the floor seats. But now TV broadcast crews are also moving off courtside. If it continues, radio might get pushed even higher, which in some arenas might not even be possible! I’m glad I still have great eyesight. But there are times where it’s been easier to call games off a TV monitor than looking way down at the court.
I am saying this, not you. Matt Pinto, who does Thunder games on radio, is maddening. He’s always right on top of the ball but he spews so much data and pairs of double digit stats in rapid succession that he can make a computer dizzy. A human couldn’t possibly digest all his gibberish. How do you feel about the use of numbers on radio?
I’ve always treated numbers and stats to underscore the story. When broadcasters start talking about teams’ records on Sundays vs. Thursdays, or when wearing one colored uniform vs. another, we’re straying into some things that don’t really add to the stories. Now if a team is 0-10 on Mondays and they have a winning record every other day of the week, it might be worth sharing, only because of the strangeness of it.