Chick Hearn is big in LA. How big? Let's just say that a couple of generations have grown up out there not believing anything about basketball unless Chick Hearn told them it was so. Hundreds of thousands of fans have never heard a Lakers game without having Hearn, in the words of one observer, "call the play-by-play, referee, and coach both teams."
It's hard to describe how important Chick Hearn is out there. It is said that over the years he has signed more autographs than any Laker with the exception of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson. His situation is somewhat analagous to Johnny Most's, except that before Johnny Most arrived in Boston there was Red Auerbach and there was Bob Cousy. There were also people who did the Celtics on the radio. (The last one, trivia buffs, being Don Gillis).
In LA, meanwhile, there has only been Chick Hearn. When the Lakers moved to LA from Minneapolis for the 1960-61 season, they did without a radio contract for the entire first year. But during the playoff series with St. Louis, owner Bob Short decided he wanted TV coverage of a big road game. His choice as play-by-play man was Chick Hearn, who had arrived in LA four years earlier as an employee of CBS radio, and who had made a local name for himself doing Southern Cal football and basketball, UCLA basketball, NCAA football and a variety of other things for both CBS and NBC. When the Lakers instituted full radio coverage a year later, Hearn became the announcer. He has missed two games in 24 seasons, and none since 1965.
In all that time, he has established a unique persona. He does love the Lakers (even carrying the title of assistant general manager), but that does not prevent him from chastising them over the air. If the Lakers stink, he says so. He treats his audience as adults.
"I think you can do that in LA more than in most any other place," Hearn contends. "LA is a melting-pot city. You've got many people who migrate there from other areas, and who are still fans of their old teams. We've got a lot of New York fans in LA, and a lot of Celtics fans. So over the years I've created this aura of impartiality, if you will, and people seem to appreciate it. Now they sit there with radios at the game, and you'd sound like an idiot if you didn't call the game correctly. But I'm fortunate, because I think I'm in a better position to broadcast this way than I would be in any other city in the NBA."
Most Lakers players accept the fact that their foul-ups will be duly reported. One who didn't was Happy Hairston, who wasn't pleased when Hearn would say: " . . . and Hairston blows another layup."
"I think," says long-time friend Mitch Chortkoff of the Santa Monica Register, "one reason Chick comes down so hard on the team at times is that he feels they're letting him down with their play. But I know the players respect him. Take a kid like Byron Scott, who grew up listening to Chick on the radio. If Chick compliments Byron on a nice game, that really means something to him."
Hearn may be the oldest play-by-play man in the league, but he can still deliver the news in a cadence that would make a tobacco auctioneer gasp. He can encompass an astonishing number of facts and opinions in a 15-second burst, so much so that one of the running jokes among the Lakers' entourage is that the most superfluous person in America is Chick Hearn's color man. Right now that individual is Keith Erickson, who, appropriately enough, had the reputation for moving well without the ball.
After operating many years without a color man, Hearn admits he was not thrilled about the innovation. "It was tough for me to leave space for the guy," he says. "I did not think it would work. But now I love it. I don't want somebody sitting there saying, 'Yes, Chick.' I think it's great to have someone offer another opinion, another viewpoint."
His first color man was Al Michaels (yes, that Al Michaels). Then came the parade of jocks, starting with Hot Rod Hundley, and continuing with Lynn Shackelford (a seven-year association), Pat Riley (three years) and now Erickson. But the truth is that if ever anyone had no need of a color man, it is Chick Hearn. He could offer a complete career analysis in between a man's first and second foul shots, while dropping in a plug for an auto dealer.
Hearn was born and raised in Aurora, Ill., and is a broadcast product of Peoria, a fertile training ground for announcers. But now he is quintessentially Southern Californian, from his San Fernando Valley residence in Encino (home of Michael Jackson, whom Chick says he has never seen at the supermarket) to his frequent appearances in movies and television. He has been in over 50 movies and TV shows, and is currently on display in Chevy Chase's "Fletch." He also has a movie in the can during which he recreates play- by-play from the 1962 Lakers-Celtics final series. "I had to go check on the right names," he confesses.
He never has to check on a contemporary name, however. "His enthusiasm is what amazes me," says Chortkoff. "After all these years, he's the first one off the plane, the first one on the bus, and the first one up in the morning reading the box scores. You can never say to him, 'Have you heard about such- and-such?' and find out that he hasn't already heard."
You probably don't realize it, but if you're a basketball fan you're already indebted to Chick Hearn. Fifteen years ago Chick Hearn invented the phrase "air ball" to describe a shot that fails to hit the rim. That alone would constitute a meaningful legacy.