Enjoyable as it is to see the Lakers win it all — that’s the ninth championship in my lifetime — I’ll never enjoy any game or victory as much as I did during the Chick Hearn era. It isn’t just that most announcers on NBA telecasts annoy me — it’s that Chick made his broadcasts affirmatively great.
All during the regular season, he would do a simulcast, calling games for television viewers on KCAL 9 or Prime Ticket, and for radio listeners on 570 KLAC. Due to the perennial status of the Lakers as an elite team, there would be numerous games during the year that were broadcast on national television, and almost every year they went deep into the playoffs, so that at some point you got announcers for the national telecast. But I’d always take a radio into the family room, turn down the volume on the television, and listen to Chick announce the games, even though it came over the airwaves a split second ahead.
And on occasions when I couldn’t catch a game on television, due to a late night at work or an evening event, I could listen to Chick call the game on the radio and feel as though I wasn’t missing any of the game’s flavor. In the same way that I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to tell you why Yo Yo Ma is better than other cellists I’ve heard perform, I cannot explain what exactly it is that made Chick an exceptional broadcaster. Luckily, many others have tried, the late-great LA Times sports columnist Jim Murray the best among them.
Before Chick, basketball broadcasts were just more interesting than test patterns. Basketball was a stepchild of sports at the time anyway. The old-time columnists referred to it as “whistle ball” or “bounce ball,” a game for guys who didn’t like to get their hair mussed in a real game like football.
Chick Hearn made it seem like World War III. He almost reinvented the game, gave it a whole new language. “Give and go,” “turnaround jumper,” “dribble-drive to the basket,” “going for the hole” came into the lexicon of the game, maybe even “slam dunk.”
Guys didn’t just bring the ball upcourt, they were “yo-yoing the ball to the top of the key.” Players didn’t just get fooled, they got “faked into the popcorn machine.” “Airball” might have been a Hearnism. “Sky hook” definitely was.
Jerry West became “Mr. Clutch.” The team of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar became “Showtime.” The game wasn’t just iced when the lead got big, it was put “in the refrigerator.”
Chick was no rah-rah boy, no cheerleader.
“Why doesn’t he sleep on his own time?” he would complain on the air about a local player who seemed to have lost interest in the game.
Chick and the Lakers were a match made in heaven. Romeo-meets-Juliet stuff. Laurel and Hardy. Before Chick Hearn, the Lakers played at junior college gyms, on stage at the Shrine Auditorium, wherever they could light. Then, Jack Kent Cooke bought the team and built the Forum. Chick filled it. Cooke signed him to an exclusive contract.
He’s still filling it. The game has gone through many changes, but the one constant was Francis Dayle Hearn.
You know, you hear about Cal Ripken Jr. And Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse.” A.C. Green, who has played in 930 consecutive NBA games.
Wilt Chamberlain played in 1,205 games, 55,418 minutes. Abdul-Jabbar played 1,797 games, 66,297 minutes.
Great longevity? Magnificent dependability! Showing up for work and ready all those years.
But how about Chickie Baby? On Jan. 19 at the Great Western Forum, he will be working his 3,000th consecutive game for the Lakers. You don’t even want to know how many minutes that comes to. And that’s only since 1965. He had done five years of sporadic games before then.
And when he thought the ref made a bad call? Well, see for yourself: