Chick Hearn, R.I.P.

Even in his 80s, the Voice of the Lakers never turned into a lovable grandpa type, but that Gatling-gun voice rat-a-tatted play-by-play with astonishing speed and clarity.

Topics: Basketball,

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.”

You Might Also Like

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.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>