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.”

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

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