He defined the game: Chick Hearn 1916-2002

Aug 12, 2002  •  Post A Comment

We lost another of the Ironmen last week. In sports the term “Ironman” is usually associated with two men in particular: Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripen Jr. And the feat the term refers to is the long number of consecutive baseball games they played. Gehrig’s streak ran 14 years. Ripken’s ran 16.
And these men call themselves Ironmen? Pshaw! How about a streak that lasted 36 years? Now, someone who accomplished that would truly be an Ironman.
The man who achieved that feat was Chick Hearn. He didn’t accomplish it on a playing field but by describing in a way no one had before what happened on a playing field. More specifically, what came to pass on a basketball court. Hearn, who died last week at age 85 after falling and hitting his head, was the broadcast reporter for the Los Angeles Lakers for more than 40 years. His streak of announcing consecutive games ran from 1965 until late last year, when he went under the knife to have a heart valve replaced. But Hearn was back at his post in time to announce the Lakers “threepeat” earlier this year.
For us L.A.-born-and-bred baby boomers, Hearn’s passing is yet another reminder of a youth that has passed all too quickly. There are certain media figures who were such longtime stalwarts of our development, of our growing up, that we feel a little bit of ourselves dies whenever they retire or die. In a strangely tangible way, they have been family.
The first Ironman who left us was Uncle Walter. Walter Cronkite is still alive and well, of course, but when he stopped anchoring the “Evening News” on CBS in 1981 after 19 years, we baby boomers felt a loss that was palpable.
Silly as it may seem, that same sort of loss was felt by a lot of us boomers when Ironman No. 2 left the airwaves. That was Captain Kangaroo. Yes, Bob Keeshan, who played the Captain, is still with us. But again, the world somehow hasn’t been the same since he left the airwaves in 1984 after 29 years of playing the Captain.
Next came Johnny Carson, who abandoned us-and yes, dammit, we do indeed feel abandoned-in 1992, after 30 years of hosting “The Tonight Show.”
Cronkite, Kangaroo, Carson and now Chick. The first three helped define life-and TV-for us, the first true TV generation.
Hearn, however, was from a bygone era. He gave us, as he would say, his “words-eye view” of the game on the radio. But he was so good that many of us-as kids watching the Lakers perennially be also-rans to the Boston Celtics-would turn down the volume when the Lakers were on national TV and bring a transistor radio into the room so we could hear Hearn’s play-by-play instead.
How good was Hearn? Well, he invented many of the terms commonly used by those announcing the game today. “Slam dunk” wasn’t a phrase until Hearn made it up. Same for “air ball.”
Basketball great Bill Walton, a fellow baby boomer, explained to USA Today how important listening to Hearn was. “Chick meant everything to us,” Walton said. Listening to Hearn “taught me how to play basketball, think about basketball, how to love the game. I grew up in a nonathletic household. We had no TV. I had books, newspapers and a hand-held transistor radio. Every night it was Chick, the world and me.”
I’ll go Walton one better. I used to take my hand-held transistor radio and sneak it under my covers, and when the lights were out and my parents thought I had gone to sleep, I’d quietly turn Chick back on and glue my ear to the radio.
“When the game was finally `put in the refrigerator,’ I knew I could go to sleep,” Walton recalled. Putting a game in the refrigerator was a wonderful Chickism for the game being on ice.
I remember one time, however, when Chick got that wrong. It was some time in the early ’60s and the Lakers were playing the Detroit Pistons. The Lakers were ahead by 6 points with 12 seconds to go. In those days there was no 3-point play, so Hearn felt comfortable saying that the Lakers had the game in the refrigerator. I turned off my radio.
Reading the paper the next day, I found out that the Pistons had, miraculously, tied the game and had won in overtime. I turned on my radio the next night to hear an embarrassed Hearn apologizing for calling the previous night’s game prematurely.
But that was a rare miscall for Hearn. He made basketball come alive-hell, as Walton said, he defined the game-for so many of us.
Now, for we L.A. boomers there is but one Ironman left: Vinny. Vin Scully has been announcing Dodger baseball games since 1951. And God willing, he’ll be doing it for another half-century. So it’s most fitting that in closing, the most elequent words about Hearn, are his.
Upon hearing of Hearn’s death, Scully told the Los Angeles Times, “I would like to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for having been able to enjoy his work for all these years. Chick had immense talent that was driven by tremendous work ethic and an insurmountable passion for the game and his trade. His personality, character and professionalism will be greatly missed, but his spirit, importance and impact will live forever.”
Chuck Ross is publisher and editorial director of Electronic Media.