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Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn dies at 85

Howard-Cooper: Chick Hearn was the Lakers

Vitale: Sad time for Hearn, Lakers

Friends and fans mourn the death of Chick Hearn

Reactions to the death of Chick Hearn

Tuesday, August 6
Updated: August 7, 1:10 PM ET
It's Just Chick Chat
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 19, 1981.

"Front court to Nixon. Dribble around Sparnarkel. Bounce pass to Magic. He pumps, fakes. Seventeen-footer, no good! Rebound to Magic! Nice hustle! Give to Cooper. Top of the key to Jamaal. He shoots up a prayer! Air ball! Ladies and gentlemen, I don't believe it! Dawkins has him in a wrist lock. They don't call it! No harm, no foul. Rebound to Kareem. Yo-yoing to the baseline. Around Dawkins. Slam dunk! Wait a minute! They call charging! I don't believe it! Dawkins has set up light housekeeping in the key, brought the family and a tent and everything, and they call charging! OK, Jones to dribble. Ladies and gentlemen, do you and your family want to save on a new set of clothes? Then go this week to Sears . . . "

A man in the throes of a nervous breakdown? The end of the world? Armageddon? A ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel?

No, just another Saturday basketball game with Francis Dayle Hearn at the mike. Nothing serious. Chick's pulse is a nice, steady 68. His blood pressure is normal. He might even be stifling a yawn. But he sounds like a man in terminal dementia, or one experiencing the onset of St. Vitus' Dance.

They don't pay Chick Hearn to be blase. They don't pay him to understand officiating that goes against the home five. Chick is paid to make pro basketball exciting. And he does this better than anybody in broadcasting, and always has.

Chick doesn't really think a March meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas whatyamacallerms is World War III. But neither does he think it's the skins against the shirts in a Poly High gym.

Chick doesn't necessarily tell it like it is. He tells it like it ought to be. Wildly exciting. Sports need dramatizing. Two travelers from Siberia might think Chick was talking in code. But around the NBA, they eat it up. Too many broadcasters sound like he's inciting a riot.

In 1961, when owner Bob Short transferred the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles, the club was one jump ahead of the sheriff and foreclosure. The Lakers were lucky to draw the rent. I can remember a Sunday afternoon playoff game that drew all of 2,800 people to the Sports Arena. The top salary in the league in those days was $15,000 and Wilt Chamberlain got it. The game got about the same press that high school soccer got. Playoff games were in junior college gyms. Minor league hockey was a bigger draw.

A phone call from owner Short to a fledgling football announcer in L.A. on the eve of the fifth game of the 1961 playoffs against St. Louis changed all that. The National Basketball Assn. went from pass the hat and "Where will the game be played?" . . . "Where would you like it?" to a multimillion-dollar industry. As someone has said, "Wilt Chamberlain went from freak to Farouk."

Chick Hearn could talk fast -- and think faster. Chick was an embellisher. For instance, he was in World War II, all right. But he did not parachute in and capture Goering, as he used to love to tell the rookies on the long, boring bus rides through the snow. Neither did he force the Japanese surrender by leading the raid on Tokyo, as he might well tell a bellhop or a cabdriver. Chick was a sergeant in special services. But who wants to hear that?

Like a Republican convention keynote speaker, Chick's function was to view with alarm, not to say sheer terror. To Chick, the cup was always half empty. A 116-90 Laker lead with two minutes to play filled him with dread and foreboding. If Magic Johnson sneezes, Chick has him in intensive care. Jerry West played with a broken nose most of his career, and Chick called it with a broken heart.

Chick talked so fast the game couldn't keep up. Most basketball announcers are telling you what happened two minutes ago. Not Chick. Chick tells you what's going to happen.

He's worth 10 free throw a night to the franchise. Twenty years and 2,000 consecutive games have not slowed his tongue nor dimmed his enthusiasm. Chick is paid well but not excessively. He has enriched the language. "Yo-yoing" is a Hearnism. As is "slam dun," "dribble drive," "fall-away jumper," "popcorn machine." A "tickytack foul" is any one that goes against the home team.

They're giving Chick a "night" at the Forum this Friday. The Lakers will be playing the Seattle SuperSonics, a team not to be confused with the 1961 Celtics. But Chick will make you think it's the Alamo. Not only L.A. should honor Hearn. The whole league should get in the act. Chick Hearn helped all the clubs, not only Bob Short's Lakers.

The team had its lunch in a bag when Chick started broadcasting. It sold for $5.175 million four years later, and it sold as part of a $68 million package four years after that. Chick made the game. Every guy in it making half a million should be there Friday to doff his hat to the man who made it all possible, who brought the game of pro basketball in from the cold.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.