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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Even if you’ve never set foot in Southern California you’ve probably heard Chick Hearn doing basketball play-by-play, which he did for nearly every Los Angeles Lakers game from the team’s move from Minneapolis in 1960 to the 2002 championship run.
You must have been seen a movie or a TV show where the characters are doing their thing in the foreground while a basketball game plays on a television set in the background. Invariably, the voice that’s just barely audible under the dialogue is Hearn’s, even if neither of the teams on the screen is the Lakers.
That’s because people who make movies and TV shows live in Southern California, and to people who live in Southern California, basketball sounds like Chick Hearn, who died Monday, three days after a fall at his home caused brain hemorrhaging. The Voice of the Lakers was 85.
It wasn’t a warm voice. Hearn never became the lovable grandpa that a lot of older announcers turn into. He was loud, brash, opinionated and utterly himself. In the days when men wore wild sport coats, his were the wildest. Though he clearly loved the Lakers, he wasn’t a homer — a requirement in L.A., where a good part of the audience for any sporting event has moved from other cities, where their sports loyalties remain. For a while he had the title of assistant general manager, and you could tell a player was on the outs when Hearn harped on his shortcomings. For a while he hosted “Bowling for Dollars.” He would have made a hell of an aluminum siding salesman.
He was playful, calling himself Chickie Baby and inventing a good part of the modern basketball lexicon. “Slam dunk” was his. So were “air ball” and “finger roll” and “no harm, no foul.” Somebody did someting stupid? “Not a Phi Beta Kappa play.”
A ballhandler who faked a defender into jumping “put him in the popcorn machine.” A point guard dribbling while assessing the offense was “yo-yoing up and down.” The last few minutes of a lopsided game, with the scrubs in there and fumbling the ball around, were “garbage time.” Someone scored 130 against a last-place team? “I don’t care if you’re playing the Little Sisters of the Poor, that’s a lot of points!”
His voice was a Gatling gun that lived in the back of his throat, biting through the transistor-radio static like a hail of bullets, rat-a-tatting play-by-play with astonishing speed and clarity. That’s what was needed to describe, say, a Magic Johnson-era fast break without missing a single nuance, and without ever being more than a half-second behind the ball.
It was a thing to behold, Chick Hearn doing play-by-play. Nobody ever tries to imitate him. Other basketball announcers are content to merely call the name of each player who touches the ball, then review the play in its aftermath. Hearn kept you right up to date. If a player made a stutterstep move, then dribbled to his left and around a screen to the corner of the key, then pulled up for a jumper, you’d get the hesitation, an assessment of its effect on the defender, the dribble, the name of the screener and the spot on the floor where the shooter popped up, expressed in terms of direction and distance from the basket, and if another defender stepped up you’d get his name too, all with enough time to spare for Hearn to say the ball was “on the way” — while it still was. And if the shooter was fouled and the shot missed: “Counts-if-it-GOES-it-doesn’t-go!”
Try it sometime, just for fun, to see if you can do it. Nobody else ever does. Not with a microphone turned on anyway.
In 1965 he missed a game because weather grounded his flight, and last season he was forced to the sidelines first by open-heart surgery, then by a broken hip. In between he offered his “word’s-eye view” for 3,338 consecutive games. He was back behind the microphone for the playoffs, though, and he called the Lakers’ run to their third straight championship, their ninth since they moved to town and Hearn took over the announcing duties. His wife, Marge, said that returning meant the world to him.
He had lost a little over the years. The delivery was slower, the voice a little more gravelly and weary than in his nearly endless heyday. But he still sounded like basketball in Los Angeles. For Lakers fans, it wouldn’t have seemed like a championship without Chick describing it, and the next one probably won’t. What will a lopsided Lakers win be without Chick saying, “This one’s in the refrigerator: The door is closed, the light is out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the Jell-O’s jiggling”?
It’ll still be a win. But it won’t be the same. A great announcer is more important to fans of a team than any great player. He stays around longer, for one thing, and he talks to you all the time. You get to know each other. He’s your connection to the team.
The Lakers eventually replaced Magic Johnson, just as they had replaced Jerry West and Elgin Baylor before him, and just as they’ll one day replace Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with other great players. But no one will ever replace Chick Hearn. A team only gets one “Voice,” and now that voice is gone. But Lakers fans were lucky. While they had him — and for most Lakers fans that’s as long as they can remember — he was all they could have asked for.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)