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Brian Grant driven to succeed in career as broadcaster

Even as he battles Parkinson's Disease, NBA veteran not holding anything back in new venture

Scott Howard-Cooper

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Parkinson’s Disease is advancing. Tremors once isolated to the left hand, a constant jabbing spasm at the wrist, spread six or seven months ago to impose the same cruelty on the end of the right arm. Walking has recently become a task. Brian Grant now literally needs to remind himself how to take a step.

And the short-term memory. It’s been getting worse the last year and a half.

“Like I can see it but I can’t say it,” Grant said.

The ruthless, unforgiving disease is ominously creeping more into his life by the day. And yet here is the former NBA power forward/center, excited that he will be calling Suns at Trail Blazers in a few hours as a rookie analyst on Portland radio broadcasts alongside veteran play-by-play man Brian Wheeler. Grant’s enthusiasm for the part-time job is practically bouncing off the walls of a conference room inside team headquarters in Moda Center, his passion at having a new purpose in life unmistakable.

“I’ve got to be a part of something. I’ve got to do something. Right now, this is probably the most excited I’ve been about being around the games (since retirement).”

Trail Blazers legend Brian Grant, on his broadcasting career

No matter the drawbacks.

‘Everybody loved him’ as a player

Grant approached the Blazers about the job after they changed both on-air spots on their TV broadcasts and the color analyst on their radio broadcasts in the offseason. He had taken broadcasting classes while at Xavier, was already in Portland as his adopted hometown, was with the organization anyway as a community ambassador, and one of the good guys of his NBA generation. It seemed perfect to him.

The personality was obviously part of it. Grant was a good player — All-Rookie with the Sacramento Kings in 1994-95, starter for playoff teams in Portland and Miami — but a star as a person, held in high regard in locker rooms and so connected with the real world that he won the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for community service in 1999.

“Back then he was the most popular guy on the team,” said Mike Elliott, the assistant trainer when Grant played for Phoenix in 2005-06. “Everybody loved him. He had the wisdom from playing for such a long time, but at the same time he could relate to the young guys and bring people together off the court.”

“He was a very well-liked and respected teammate,” said Jerry Reynolds, the director of player personnel for the Kings when Grant arrived as the No. 8 pick in the 1994 Draft. “He’s one of those guys who may not have been the leader, but he was highly respected not only because of his talent but how hard he played. If you go down through the years and really talked about legitimate tough competitors that brought it every night, he’d be at the top of about any list you’d want to put together.”

A great talker, personable, a former player, a big name around town — broadcasting seemed a natural next step. Grant eagerly accepted the chance to work 11 games, without any promise of future seasons but clearly hoping he could one day earn his way into all 82. The first of the 11 was Oct. 25, opening night, against the Utah Jazz, the second Oct. 27 against the LA Clippers. The third was Nov. 1 against the Golden State Warriors.

That was the night he needed to use the restroom during the game. Grant waited for a commercial and took off, from the radio booth in the upstairs press box, a few steps through the tunnel and out into the concourse. He tripped on nothing when the front of a foot caught the ground. Then again. The third time, he almost went down, into a full face plant in the concourse, before gathering himself. Gotta think about picking up the feet, he told himself.

Grant faces risks in taking on new career

By the evening of the fourth game, Nov. 8 against the Suns, it was impossible to avoid the obvious: The radio work, as much as he wants it, as much as he needs it emotionally, may make his symptoms worse.

The anxiety of wanting to do well while staring at a job he really wants will not accelerate Grant’s demise, said Dr. Ray Dorsey, a professor of neurology and director of the Center for Human Experimental Theraputics at the University of Rochester. Many people have continued in stressful fields after being diagnosed. But the pressure Grant puts on himself or the long hours and travel that could come if broadcasting turns into a new career, as he hopes, could hasten some visible effects of the illness.

“One thing you’ve got to know about Parkinson’s is any kind of stimulation will exacerbate your tremor,” Grant said. “Some guys have tremors like me and other ones freeze. Stress, being scared, being nervous — you can be medicated to the hilt but you’re still going to get some tremors.”

And he is stressed doing the broadcasts. He is nervous.

“I am,” Grant said. “I’m nervous that I’m going to mess up when I should just relax. All the advice that people like (president of basketball operations) Neil Olshey have given me, and other people, is ‘They just want to hear you be you on there. Talk about things.’ It sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s not that simple.”

He doesn’t duck from any of the serious implications, how there might be a medical drawback to the work (“There can be and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t”), that he didn’t talk to his neurologist before taking the job, and how he is noticing Parkinson’s starting to take a toll on his short-term memory (“I guess this is maybe exposing myself a little bit. But it is what it is”). The illness could eventually effect his speech.

Grant, now 44, does not seem to care. He retired in 2006, after 12 seasons with the Kings, Trail Blazers, Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Suns. He was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s in 2008 at age 36 while living in Portland. He started the Brian Grant Foundation in 2010 to raise money and awareness in the fight against the neurological disease that has no known cause or cure.

He needs this.

Even if it harms him.

“He really wanted to give it a serious try and see if it was something he could maybe make his next career. … That’s something that I’ve found to be true. He’s very interested in getting better and learning how to do it.”

Portland Trail Blazers radio play-by-play man Brian Wheeler

“It’s a possibility because stress, anxiety are really killers of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain,” Grant said. “But let me tell you something. I’ve been on my butt since 2006. If I got to lose a few brain cells to be able to live again and feel whole then that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to sit around for another six years or five years. I want to be a part of something. I’d like to be able to earn a living. I’d like for my kids to know — just these games that I’m doing right know I can already tell. My boys are calling me from college and they’re like, ‘Dad, way to go.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I suck.’ ‘It don’t matter. You’re doing things.’ Whereas before, when they were still here, I was just at home, trying to figure out what’s next.

“There’s more of a risk to me sitting home for six more years. I’m telling you. I’ve got to be a part of something. I’ve got to do something. Right now, this is probably the most excited I’ve been about being around the games (since retirement). As an ambassador, I enjoy it, but you don’t really get to connect. Where I’m sitting, you get to see the people coming and going, people saying hello, and then you’re right there watching the game, you’re seeing all the little jabs and it’s ‘He should have done this’ and that kind of stuff. I had to be a part of something. I can’t sit around for any longer. I need to do something. And if it’s going to go any farther than 11 games I’m sure they’re going to sit me down and they’re going to want to protect themselves and I understand that, as far as contractually or whatever.”

A rookie in new kind of game

The work, as Grant himself is the first to admit, has been a struggle. The smart, conversational person full of insight any other time in his professional life — the guy who still prides himself on standing up to the likes of Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal in the paint — has been replaced on broadcasts by a timid analyst with little to say. His comments are usually short and contribute little, often stating the obvious.

The game against the Suns, he came across as nervous and pressing. He was almost trying too hard rather than using his 12 seasons of NBA experience to provide insights. It was the same problem the three other games, followed by hours and days of beating himself up for not doing as well as he wanted. And on the occasions when he did assert himself, it was often while barging into Wheeler’s play-by-play.

After Al-Farouq Aminu scored on a driving layup: “Took it right to the basket.”

After a Miles Plumlee jumper: “We’ll take that.”

After CJ McCollum’s 3-pointer: “He’s got such a sweet shot.”

After Phoenix collected a defensive rebound and began the push downcourt: “Get back. Transition D.”

“I didn’t know exactly how it would go and I think we’re still working through it on timing issues,” said Jeff Curtin, the director of broadcasting for the Trail Blazers. “I think you just need to get reps. It’s tough. When you’re working with someone as great as Wheels, he’s got a terrific call, and knowing when to jump in and what to add is tough. It’s just getting the time with him. We would do some rehearsals. But for Brian Grant, you’ve just got to get time in the seat, I think.”

Said Wheeler: “I just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just something he was looking to do as a hobby, per se, but something he was really serious about. He reassured me from the very first time we spoke about that this wasn’t something that he was looking to do just to occupy his time. He really wanted to give it a serious try and see if it was something he could maybe make his next career. That’s all I wanted to hear, to make sure that he was committed to it. That’s something that I’ve found to be true. He’s very interested in getting better and learning how to do it.

“This is one of those things that you can try to instruct somebody about, but they kind of have to do it to see what it’s all about. I think he’s learned a lot and his eyes have been opened in terms of what it all entails. But I don’t have any doubt about his desire to do it, his commitment to try to make it work as a long-term career for him if at all possible.”

Can this be a long-term job?

The team has made it clear the 11 games are not a test run for full-time work. There is, the Blazers say, no opening after Antonio Harvey, another ex-Blazers big man, was dismissed in June as part of the sweeping changes on TV and radio. Wheeler is officially a one-man booth operation, with occasional contributors. Casey Holdahl, the beat reporter for trailblazers.com, will likely get some games. Dave Twardzik, a guard during the halcyon “Blazermania” days of the 1970s and a former NBA executive and assistant coach, has talked to the Blazers about sitting in when Portland plays closer to his East Coast base.

Grant is clearly hoping this leads to a full season of work, though. He finished his fourth broadcast, the one against the Suns, feeling better about his work than when the game began. To a man eternally hard on himself, this had been a good call.

He removed the headphones from around his ears and the long twists and strands of dark braid-like hair, the same look from his playing days. Grant called it his best night. He was a little more comfortable. It felt like progress.

“It does,” he said. “This was probably my best one as far as actually chiming in. I didn’t go dead for too long.”

Leaving seven more chances.

“Just try to finish out the 11 games — I think my last one’s in January,” Grant said in the booth during a break in the post-game show just before signing off. “Then see what happens after that.”

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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