Commentary: Honoring the legendary Wheels and his 21 years as the radio voice of the Portland Trail Blazers, Editor Ken Vance

Team announced Friday that Brian Wheeler will not return next season

I will never forget the first time I heard Brian Wheeler call the action of a National Basketball Association game. I had met him years earlier and had developed a friendship with him but I never actually listened to him call live NBA action.

Our friendship had grown to the point that I actually met with “Wheels’’ the night before he was going to be introduced as the next radio voice of the Portland Trail Blazers. I was the first to report the news the following morning and prior to the press conference scheduled to announce his hire. 

Wheels had just arrived from Sacramento to take over the reins from the original voice of the Blazers, Bill Schonely, who I had grown up idolizing. Even though Wheels was my friend, I couldn’t understand how a relative unknown with limited NBA experience was going to follow a legend like “The Schonz,’’ but I kept that to myself because Wheels was my friend.

The man who hired Wheels, former Blazers executive Harry Hutt, did a very smart thing at the beginning of the press conference. Hutt and his staff put together a highlight reel of Wheels calling NBA action of the Sacramento Kings. I will never forget Wheels describing a dunk by a Kings player by saying something about the player “grabbing the basketball with one hand like it was a loaf of bread’’ before slamming it into the basket as if he was throwing it into “a shopping cart.” I thought it was an incredible image to describe an exciting play that the listener could only experience through Wheels’ eyes, not their own. It was just one of the many highlights of the montage the Blazers played prior to introducing Wheels, who emerged through an opening in a black curtain behind the stage. I was so relieved after hearing Wheels’ highlight reel because I knew my friend was going to successfully succeed the legendary Schonely, which he certainly did.

On Friday, 21 years after that day when I heard Wheels’ talent for the first time, the Blazers announced Wheeler will not return next season. It was a sad day for fans of the franchise and it was a very sad day for me. But, I took time on this day to celebrate a friend who has an amazing God-given talent.

Not only did Wheels become one of my closest friends over the past 21 years, but I had a very close professional relationship with him as well. For many years, I sat two seats away from him on the press table at the Rose Garden (now Moda Center) during Blazer home games. After I stopped covering the team on a full-time basis, I later spent close to a decade as Wheels’ statistician for Portland home games and we co-hosted a radio sports talk show together for a few years as well.

Like anything in life, if you experience something often enough, you can begin to take it for granted. I’m sure I did that at times with Wheels and his enormous talent, but there were always occasions that brought me back to the moment to make me remember how truly special he was at performing his craft. When those happened during a home game that I was working with him, I would share my compliments during the next commercial time out. There were also many times I would be listening when the team was on the road and something he did during a broadcast would compel me to call his voicemail immediately just to remind him how truly, amazingly, talented he is.

I was at his side for many of the biggest moments in Blazers’ history over the past 21 years. Two of the most memorable include Damian Lillard’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Portland a playoff-series clinching victory over Houston on May 2, 2014. The other was Brandon Roy’s incredible performance in the fourth quarter of a come-from-behind playoff win over Dallas on April 24, 2011. Here are some highlights from that game, courtesy of Rip City Radio 620 in Portland:

Early in this highlight, you can hear Wheels at one of his favorite moments during any game. When the Blazers would go on a run late in a game, forcing the opposing coach to call a timeout, Wheels would emphasize the moment with an alliteration, on this occasion twisting the knife in the side of Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, also someone I grew close to during my time covering the NBA.

I know each Blazer fan has his or her own favorite Wheels signature call. For me, it was always two separate regular go-to phrases. The first, he would use on a rim-rocking dunk, which he would punctuate with, “ooooh, that was nasty!’’ My other favorite was a little more subtle. When a player would skip to the hoop with a clever move, Wheels would describe it as a “little dipsy do and what have you.’’

Wheels accepted the fact that some people thought of him as the biggest “homer” in sports. He lived and died with Blazer wins and losses. When I tuned into road games already underway, I could tell by the tone of his voice if the Blazers were winning or losing, even before he gave the score. At home games, he was famous for violently slapping the table at his broadcast location when the other team would hit a lucky shot at the wrong time. On one occasion he even knocked a television monitor off the table and onto the floor below. Some of his rants during commercial breaks, which I can’t share in this space, were legendary and others were side-splitting comedy.

The last Blazer game that Wheels called was Portland’s magical win over Oklahoma City in the first round of this year’s NBA playoffs, which ended with Lillard’s 37-foot game winner at the buzzer. Wheels was professional enough to bow out of the broadcast for about 90 seconds, allowing the moment to speak for itself rather than trying to make it all about him. I’m confident it won’t be the last NBA game that Wheels will announce. He’s universally known as the best in the business.

Perhaps the best moment during the broadcast of any Blazer victory came after the final buzzer when Wheels would pronounce, “And, once again we can say, it’s a great day to be a Blazer!’’ For perhaps the first time in the life of this life-long Blazer fan, those words couldn’t be further from the truth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *