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Extensive Interview with Portland Trail Blazers Radio Voice Brian Wheeler

Peter Fornatale of 50 Licks and the 50 Licks Blog fame interviews Brian Wheeler, the radio voice of the Portland Trail Blazers. Blazer's Edge carries the proceedings, including his thoughts on the team, how he came to Portland, replacing Bill Schonely, and what makes a good broadcaster.

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Folks, we have a special treat today. Peter Fornatale, author of 50 Licks and proprietor at the 50 Licks blog, got a chance to sit down with Blazer Broadcasting radio play-by-play man Brian Wheeler. Peter went through a comprehensive interview and has turned it over to Blazer's Edge for publishing. We hope you enjoy and we thank Peter and Brian Wheeler for this opportunity to get to know the radio voice of the Blazers a little bit better.

NBA teams are all streaky to one degree or another. But man, this Blazer team sometimes looks like a top team and sometimes looks like a lottery team. What accounts for that?

I think some of that might be the relative youth and inexperience of the squad, both in terms of how many years they've been in the league, and also, in the case of guys like Batum, Mathews, and Hickson, how they've adapted to playing more important roles than what they've been asked to do as Blazers up to this point. Collectively, though, they've had a very good year. Maybe a bigger part of the problem has been the bench. They've been very inconsistent night in and night out. On some nights, the Blazers have gotten more from the bench and looked like a pretty good team. On other nights, the bench hasn't come through. The team has had a maddening tendency at times to play to the level of its competition. They've had some great wins against quality teams and also some losses against some teams you'd expect them to beat. Those are the ones they'll look back on as the reason why they didn't make the playoffs.

How good is Damian Lillard?

I saw him play at the summer league in Las Vegas last year after the Blazers had picked him, and he looked like he was the best player there. But I tried to temper my enthusiasm a little bit by saying it was just the summer league and maybe that's just how he was supposed to look. But as time has gone on, he looks like a guy who has really made the transition from college to the pros look easy. His temperament, poise and composure are the kind of things you want in a point guard. He clearly has qualities that are well beyond his years. When other teams try to throw him off by defending him differently, he's quick to make adjustments. And if he's struggling at all in any part of a game, he doesn't get too down; he normally responds and adjusts his play accordingly. This is a guy who cares about how he plays and cares if he wins. That tells me he wants to be great and won't settle for anything less. He is the best rookie now and has the potential to be one of the best players in the entire league.

How did you first think you might get involved in broadcasting?

I was astute enough early on to know that, while I was never the last guy picked when playing sports, I wasn't going to excel enough at any one sport to take it to the next level. So I thought: what's the best way to stay connected to sports? And my mother said to me, "Well, you like to talk a lot. Maybe you can do something with that?" And that set me on the path to being a broadcaster. I told my friends and we'd be playing in pick-up games and they'd say, "Announce the game while we're playing." And so I did that. I practiced at home as well. I grew up an only child and I had a nerf basketball hoop set up in bedroom. And if the ball was in my left hand, Smith had it. If it was in my right hand, Jones had it. And I'd play these make believe games and announce them. My Mom would come by and knock on the door and say "Quit talking to yourself!" And I told her, "No, it's OK, I'm just doing the game." It was something that I had a lot of training for early in life.

Talk about your transition to the Blazers job. How did that happen?

I went to Loyola of Chicago for college and from the first day I knew I wanted to be a Communications major. Basketball was always my favorite sport and I got the job calling Loyola basketball games. I did that for four years. After college, I tried to get a job with an NBA team and I finished second four times, losing jobs sometimes for crazy reasons beyond my control. I thought I was going to get an opportunity to be the voice of the Toronto Raptors when at the last minute someone on the board of governors decided that the radio voice of the Raptors needed to be Canadian.

Tough beat. Did you ever consider giving up?

I had some well-meaning friends, who after maybe the third time I lost out on a job said to me, "Are you sure this is the right thing? Maybe you want to try something else?" But I decided to keep trying and knew I needed to stay confident. I knew I was getting close and just needed the right opportunity to win one of these jobs. Maybe somebody else would have been a little less stubborn and moved on.

How did the Blazers job come about?

I was working for Sacramento in the WNBA and keeping my eyes out for jobs that might become open. I spoke to Harry Hutt, the VP in charge of marketing for the team. He told me that Bill Schonely would be leaving after that season. He was very open and honest that this was the end for Schonely as the announcer.

How did the meeting with Hutt come about?

That's a good lesson in making connections. When I worked on sports radio in Seattle, they brought a guy in to co-host the morning show called New York Vinny. He was a cab driver in San Francisco and an "everyman" type of fan. At the time, not all the other hosts on the station gave him much respect because he didn't have a broadcasting background, but I was always friendly with him. He was a nice guy. Vinny, over time, became the voice of the fans in Seattle, and got to know some important people, including Bert Kolde, the right-hand man of Paul Allen who owned both the Seattle Seahawks and the Blazers. Vinny mentioned my name to Bert as a possible replacement for Schonely. That's how it started. Bert put me in touch with Harry. If I'd been as disrespectful to Vinny, I don't think I would have gotten that opportunity.

Were you intimidated by the idea of trying to follow a legend like Schonely?

Bill was very resistant to the idea that this was his last season. And he had some friends tell him to let the fans know that his leaving wasn't his idea. And that's what he did. He told the fans and they rose up. Harry Hutt even got some death threats. Sponsors were upset. When I read about this, I said to myself, "Whoever gets this job is going to be walking into a real hornet's nest." And I'd become convinced that the only way around it was for them to bring in a high-powered big name that the fans couldn't possibly object to. I couldn't imagine me being that guy. But I still put my hat in the ring. And as it turned out, some of those high-powered guys, they were reluctant to step into that situation replacing Bill. Their attitude was, "We'll let you hire somebody else, and then when he doesn't work out, we'll replace him."

And they're still waiting! How did you find out you got the gig?

I was on a road trip with the Sacramento Monarchs in Detroit, Michigan. This was back in 1998 and I didn't have a cell phone yet. So I was using a calling card to call back to my home answering machine to check my messages. Sure enough, there was a message from Harry Hutt. So I called him thinking he'd be calling me in for an interview. I was nervous because we were on the road and I couldn't come in for a week and was worried that might cost me the job. But as it turned out, he offered me the job there on the spot over the phone, "Who do we talk to, you or your agent?" I was so stunned that I said the worst thing I could have possibly said, "Don't you even want to meet me first?" But fortunately, he was ready to move forward. I was obviously very excited and I had no one to celebrate with. So I used my calling card and called basically everyone I'd ever said hello to in my life to tell them the good news. The next morning my calling card wasn't working. I called AT and T and they told me that my account was shut off because it fit the pattern of a stolen card - so many calls made to so many different parts of the country! But I explained the situation and they congratulated me and turned it back on. It dawned on me that after all these years of job interviews and reading about how to win the job in an interview and how to dress and all this, I got an offer for the job of my life and I never even had to interview for it!

How did you address the Schonely situation?

I wanted the fans to know that in no way was I going to come in and try to replace Bill Schonely in the hearts and minds of Blazer fans. I just wanted to maybe try to carve my own little niche beside his. I was very respectful of him and I think that helped. People asked me, "Are you gonna say ‘rip city' like Schonz's did?" but I didn't want to do that. I thought it would come off as a cheap imitation.

How did the fans react to you?

We had the first lockout then, and I think that helped because I got out in the community and was able to meet some people. I remember there was an 80-something year old season ticket holder that came up to me at one of these luncheons and she said, "So you're the new guy?" And I said, "Yes." And she said, "I'll give you two games." And I saw her again later in the season and she came up to me and said, "You know, we really didn't want to like you too much. But you're OK." And I thought to myself, coming from her, that's probably the nicest compliment I could get.

Talk to me about the balance in your calling between journalistic objectivity and your desire to empathize with the fans.

I think that has to do with the influences I had along the way. Growing up in Los Angeles when I did, it was a great time for listening to radio announcers. Back then, the Dodgers had maybe 25 games out of 162 that were available on television so radio was often the way you followed your team. Then, as now, Vin Scully was doing the Dodgers. Bob Miller was there then, he's still doing games for the L.A. Kings. We had the late, great Chick Hearn doing the Lakers. Dick Enberg was the local announcer for the Angels and the Rams. They were terrific people to pay attention to for someone who thought he wanted to do sports on the radio. These were guys that were all very objective. Years later, I got to know Chick Hearn and I asked him about that and he said, since it was Los Angeles, if he was doing a game between the Lakers and Celtics, he might have as many Celtic fans listening as Laker fans because of all the transplants. So he felt they needed to be objective. You'd never hear those broadcasters say "we" or "us" or "them." They might get more excited when the local team was doing well but that was about it. I used to get mad at Chick. He had the title of Assistant GM at one point, to accentuate his importance to the franchise, but on air he tried really hard - sometimes too hard - to be objective. I told him, "Sometimes it seems like you go out of your way to be critical of the Lakers. You'll say ‘remember, the Lakers often have trouble in these situations. . .and I'd say to the radio, ‘Shut up! They don't have trouble. . .'" As a fan, I wanted him to be more of a homer. But he had so many great teams to call, maybe he felt he could be a little harder on them.

Did you consciously try to pattern yourself after those guys?

I always admired Vin Scully's storytelling and Chick Hearn could talk faster than anybody I'd ever heard. I really liked both his passion for the action and the speed at which he called a game. And I tried to pattern myself after that. Dick Enberg always had humor in the way he did things.

But then you moved from Los Angeles to Chicago. Where you presumably gained access to a different type of broadcaster I imagine?

In Chicago, we had Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, people who said "we," "us," and "them." I was amazed by that. I was visiting back in LA and told my friends, "You wouldn't believe what the announcers do back there. It's wild. And I played them a tape of Harry Caray singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

And I think I became a hybrid of the two styles. I told myself I'd never say "we," "us," and "them," on the air but clearly, I think anybody who listens knows that I want the Blazers to win. And I think I'm at my best when the team is doing well. I want to try to capture that excitement. The biggest challenge I've had over the years is to understand that when the team isn't doing well, to not let myself sound too down. I've had people tell me they can tune in briefly and without even hearing the score they could tell by the tenor of my voice if the team was doing well or not doing well. I've tried to understand that my first job is to keep people listening. So even if the team isn't doing well I have to think of ways to keep things interesting.

Can you think of an example of that?

We had a game recently at New Orleans right before the All-Star Break, easily the worst game of the year. And we'd given Miami all they could handle the night before, a tough loss after leading with four minutes to play after beating them already back in Portland. The Miami game was a great game but in New Orleans the energy just wasn't there and we were down 30 in the fourth quarter and I said on the air, "If you've been listening from the start of this game, you can consider yourself a true Blazers fan. There were moments where I didn't feel like talking any more, and yet, you're still here. And that's a great tribute to you." I had a few people tell me they really appreciated that.

How do you prepare for a game?

That's evolved over the years. I think I'm one of the few guys in the league who still keeps score by hand. We have a nice computer monitor in front of us that keeps a running tally of everybody's stats but it helps me to know extra bits of information, like how many points a player has per quarter, things like that, that aren't on the monitor.

I try to use numbers in the broadcasts when they help tell a story. When LaMarcus Aldridge hit a three against Dallas to tie the game earlier this year, it was great to be able to look down and say, "And that's the first three point field goal he's hit all season." The call wouldn't have been any less correct without that, but it was more to the point. I don't just want to be throwing numbers out there that don't necessarily mean anything. At the same time, I always want to know I have more than enough information about the game and the players where if something happened - like a rim breaking where there'd be a long delay - that I could talk for a long time and keep people listening. That's never happened to me and it probably never will but I want to be prepared for whatever might come up.

How important are catchphrases to a caller?

I used to work at a sportscasters camp in LA when the NBA had the summer league out there. I was one of the broadcasters who would offer critiques. And I could tell where in the country people were from by how they called the games. The New Yorkers would come in and do a Marv Albert "Yes!" The LA guys would do the Chick Hearn, "He put him in the popcorn machine." And I would tell all of them to be careful with that stuff because you don't want to be a cheap imitation of somebody else. You have to come up with your own. But at the same time I've found that most of those things don't work as well if they're contrived. Even Schonz's [famous catchphrase] "rip city" just happened at some point in his first season when he was describing a shot that went swish through the net, "That was rip city." And then after the game, the way people reacted to it, he knew it was pretty good and he should use it again. It became a legendary saying.

OK, I have to ask you about your own. How did "BOOMSHAKALA" come about?

It wasn't something I did in my first few years in Portland. It came from the movie Stripes where at the end of the movie, they were without their platoon leader and they had their final exam and they had to get themselves ready for it. So Bill Murray was leading the guys for the call and response as part of the final exam and at one point he said, "Boomshakalaka, boomshakalaka." And I always thought it was a funny thing. It was nonsensical but it sounded emphatic. And I thought about using it as my dunk call. And little did I know, and I really didn't know this because I hadn't played a video game since Pong or at least Ms. Pac Man, but there was a video game called NBA Jam where the virtual announcer said "Boomshakalaka" from around that same time. So some people thought I was copying NBA Jam but actually it was a pure coincidence.

People who know me know I'm a big rock and roll fan. I always assumed Sly and the Family Stone must be involved somehow.

I am a rock fan too. And I did think about that. But in "I Want to Take You Higher," it's "boomlakalaka," not "boomshakalakalaka" so for me, Stripes still gets more of the credit. I didn't want to be too predictable with it where every time a Blazer dunked I'd use it. And I wanted to come up with something different for a really, really emphatic dunk call, and that's where I came up with, "Oooh, that was nasty." But "boomshakalaka" ended up on a T-Shirt.

What about some of your other phrases?

I always liked English class. And I remember in one class being challenged by a teacher to come up with alliterations. I wanted to work that idea into a call. I was looking for something to capture the feeling of that moment in games where the head coach of the other team is forced to use what we call a "hot timeout," when the Blazers are really rolling. So I came up with three alliterative words to indicate the way the opposing head coach was feeling at those moments. I wanted to come up with words for as many letters as possible and I think I've got about 13 of them, "ashamed, astounded, astonished," "bewildered, befuddled, bemused," "confused, concerned, confounded," "dejected, deflated, devastated," "flustered, frustrated, fatigued," and on down the line.

What's your favorite one?

"Mystified, mesmerized, mortified" might be my favorite one.

How about your sign-off phrase? I love that one.

That came out a few years ago. I noticed that baseball guys often had a closing thing they would say. John Rooney, who I worked with at the White Sox for one year, would say "That's a White Sox winner" and I think he still does that now with the Cardinals. Marty Brennaman would always say, "This one belongs to the Reds." I thought, what's something that might work for me? And somebody asked me one day, "How are you doing?" And I said back, "It's a great day to be a Blazer," and I thought, "Well maybe that'd work."

What's the most important lesson you'd want to teach an aspiring broadcaster?

To be yourself. You're going to hear a lot of people you admire and maybe you'll remember how they call a game. And you can definitely borrow qualities from other announcers but if you copy them directly, that will always hold you back. You need to have your own distinctive way of doing things even if it relies on qualities other announcers' might have. That's the best of both worlds.

How do you want to be perceived by the fans?

I think the nicest thing that anyone could say to me is that I could take a game in the middle of February and make it still sound like it is very important. Hopefully then I'm doing my job, creating a sense of the moment and having people feel like they're not wasting their time by being a part of it.

Do you set goals for yourself as a caller?

You can always get better. I don't think I've ever called a perfect game but I'm always striving for that.


Thanks again to Brian and to Peter Fornatale. Check out Fornatale's Peter's book and blog for more entertaining stuff!

--Dave (