A Legend is Silenced

Robert Alt

August 1, 2002

I received a phone call from my mother yesterday, who was in tears. “He died.” The “he” was not a family member or personal acquaintance, but Chick Hearn, the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers. For those who are not from Los Angeles, it may seem odd that the passing of a sports announcer should evoke such an emotional response from someone who never met the man personally. But to generations of Los Angelinos, Chick was an old trusted friend who visited us in our homes, bars, and this being L.A., in our cars from October through (God-willing) June for the last 42 years. He was a true legend in broadcasting, and with the likes of Vin Scully and the recently departed Jack Buck, among the last of a dying breed.

For someone who grew up well after the glory days of radio, Chick Hearn was a connection to the past. While Chick broadcast his radio program simulcast on television for all regular season games, his style was uniquely tailored toward the radio audience, for whom he painted a detailed picture of the action with the color, detail, and style that only a master in his craft could achieve. Indeed, in a city obsessed with television, it was Chick who got L.A. fans to perch a radio above their television sets during the finals, so that they could mute the network broadcasters (or turn off the television altogether) and really see the game through Chick’s eyes. While I left Los Angeles several years ago, hearing Chick’s voice would stir fond memories of growing up during the Laker-Celtic dynasties, and of one particular season when I heard all but two of Chick’s broadcasts for the year.

If the only distinguishing feature of Chick’s career was its longevity, that would alone be worthy of mention. He was the only play-by-play announcer the Los Angeles Lakers have ever had–spanning the entirety of the team’s 42 years in the city. Then there is the streak: he broadcast 3,338 consecutive games spanning from 1965 until his heart attack at the end of last year. I personally heard him call games suffering from head colds or even laryngitis, which was about the only time that his longtime sidekick Stu Lantz would get a word in edgewise.

But Chick was more than just a streak. Much more. Many obituaries have referred to his “rapid-fire” broadcasting, but this description is a bit of an understatement. His style was not rapid-fire, but was more like the commentator’s equivalent of a gattling-gun. Calling a true play-by-play of a fast-paced basketball game on the radio in such a way as to make the listener “see” the court and feel the emotion on the floor is tough enough, but Chick managed to do this while peppering in details about each and every players’ entire life history. Chick would set the stage, for the drama to unfold. It wasn’t merely a sold out game, but rather (back in the Forum) a capacity crowd of 17,505. The court wasn’t the court, but a 94 by 50 hunk of wood. It didn’t matter that the player had graduated 12 years ago from their college, he would still refer to as “the 6-foot-10 forward from North Carolina,” and during the course of the game you were likely to hear details about the player’s wife, his children, and some personal anecdote that Chick had picked up during practice, all interspersed between Chick’s detailed up to the second calls and analysis of the game.

Chick’s colorful descriptions of the game produced to a virtual lexicon of basketball terms, some of which have become household phrases, like “slam dunk,” “dribble drive,” “finger roll” or “air ball.” Yet Lakers fans will remember him most for Chickisms–the terms that were his and his alone. For Chick, a player who can’t make a shot “couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean;” while someone travelling with the ball “did the bunny-hop in the pea patch.” A player caught committing a blatant foul got his “hand caught in the cookie jar;” a non-call and a minor foul would evoke “no harm, no foul,” and a call for incidental contact of course was a “ticky-tack foul.” If a player followed a feigned shot in the air he was “faked into the popcorn popper,” and the “mustard” would “come off the hot dog” if a player blew an easy shot while trying to show off. Then there was the refrigerator. When the Lakers had pulled far enough ahead that the opponent couldn’t possibly overtake them, Chickie would put the game in the refrigerator, where “the eggs are chillin’, the butter’s getting’ hard, and the jello’s jigglin’.” During the great battles between the Lakers and the Celtics, the entire city of Los Angeles would wait on pins-and-needles to hear Chickie slam the refrigerator door so that we could finally breath a collective sigh of relief.

He, unlike Shaq at the free-throw line, was a consummate straight shooter. If the team wasn’t playing well, he was going to let everyone know. Indeed, when he was honored for announcing his 3000th consecutive game, he took a moment out at center court to chide the team for playing so poorly in the first half. He took pride in the fact that his reputation for honesty was such that on at least one occasion a referee deferred to his call as to which team had possession after a ball was knocked out of bounds. I vaguely recall that he ruled against the Lakers on that call, but that again was Chick.

I have not followed basketball as closely since I left Los Angeles, partially because of the passing of the great rivalries of the past, but also because I no longer have access to the kind of colorful commentary and analysis that only Chick could offer. After all, once you have been to Paris, it is hard to go back to the farm, and after you have heard Chick, well, let’s just say you just wouldn’t want to listen to Bill Walton. During the lean years between Showtime and the current string of championships, Chick would often remark after a lucky shot or a close victory that he “would rather be lucky than good.” Chick didn’t need luck, and I speak for millions of fans who feel lucky to have listened to someone that good.

Robert Alt is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Ohio.