The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 52 | Brian Wheeler
Joined Club: July, 1998
Departed Club: July, 2019
Place in History: Replacing anybody beloved and competent in a professional position is difficult. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you bring, you’re going to spend your first couple years wrestling with people’s glamorized memories of the past, coupled with annoyance that they have to adjust to a new present.
Replacing a legend whose name is synonymous with the organization just...doesn’t...happen. The person who follows the superstar is hired to be fired. They’re meant to absorb criticism, endure the lament, and focus everybody’s ire. When they leave, everybody says, “At least the next person won’t be as bad as that.”
Brian Wheeler, radio voice of the Portland Trail Blazers from 1998 to 2019, took that truism and turned it on its head.
The voice Wheeler replaced was none other than Bill Schonely, whose golden-throated narrations connected Blazers fans to the team in a era where radio was the only option for most. Schonely had called the franchise’s only World Championship. Schonely had become the team’s public ambassador, the only consistent face through every era the franchise had ever encountered. Nobody else had ever sat behind that microphone on a permanent basis. Bill Schonely was IT. And now Bill Schonely was gone...and not necessarily of his own volition.
Brian Wheeler walked into a bear trap, set up shop, and began dishing out honey. All the folks coming with torches and pitchforks to depose, or at least despise, him ended up taking a seat, grabbing a spoon, and saying, “Well, this guy’s not so bad.”
The mandatory vocal tones associated with radio play-by-play were just the beginning for “Wheels”. He had those in spades, but brought more to the table. He didn’t just create the topography to guide listeners through the game, he inhabited it. When the Blazers started losing, he ate the dirt. When they excelled, he rose to the skies. If the theater became outlandish, well, what fan’s heart ever remained entirely sane? Wheeler dug at the core of fandom, expressing what his listeners were feeling and wished someone would say for them. He didn’t show the game as much as he showed people themselves, making sure they knew that somebody was along for the ride with them.
All of a sudden the guy who wasn’t supposed to last past the year 2000 was calling games into the 2010’s, and nearly to 2020. Schonely’s tenure was longer, but only marginally, not by order of magnitude. A new generation had their classic voice and stories to tell, stories which stood up just as well as the originals. And then there were two voices in Trail Blazers radio history: Schonely and Wheeler.
Though health issues would eventually catch up to the long-time broadcaster, “then there were two voices” stands on its own in testimony. Being named in comparison with Schonely isn’t the honor, rather being able to shine on his own in a way that was completely different, but just as good. Seriously? You gotta pinch us; we must be dreaming.
For more than two decades of service and becoming the new classic voice that fans remember calling games, Brian Wheeler earns the 52nd spot in our Top 100 list of Portland Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Share memories of “Wheels” below and stay with us as we crack the Top 50 and continue on to #1!