The sound of L.A. is very Chick
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's note: This column originally ran last November, when Chick Hearn was recovering from open-heart surgery. Hearn died Monday night at age 85.

It's hard to explain how strange it is that Chick Hearn isn't calling Lakers' games right now.

Chick Hearn
From West & Wilt to Kareem & Magic to Shaq & Kobe, Chick Hearn was a fixture behind the mike for the Lakers.
Chick's voice has been a fixture in my life from day one. I can peg almost every significant moment or stage of my development to a memory of Chick and the Lakers, and when I heard last week that he would miss a game for the first time in 36 years, I went into a bit of a nostalgic tailspin thinking about the hundred little ways he has been woven into my life over the years.

I thought I might write a piece about listening to him with my dad in the car, driving the streets of Long Beach, but I was maybe 4 or 5 then, and the details are shaky.

So, then I figured maybe I'd write about nights when I was around 10, and I'd stand at the sink in my grandfather's kitchen listening to Chick while we washed the dishes, or about high school nights spent lying on the floor in front of the stereo only "sort of" doing my homework, or about the way my friends and I would turn the radio on in the backyard while we played hoops, stopping the action when Chick's voice rose to describe a "no-look-pass-lay-it-up-and-in" between Magic and Worthy. But these were just rituals, and there was nothing special about them, except that I can't imagine having grown up without them.

I thought I might write about the last couple of times I heard Chick, too ... about a night spent waiting out a layover in an L.A. airport bar munching onion rings and hearing his voice coming from a TV over the bar, or about listening to him on the radio while an old friend drove me to dinner in the Los Feliz neighborhood of L.A. But those aren't really stories either -- they're just glimpses, feelings, hints of home. I'd need a poet's touch to get them right, and even then they might be best left unsaid.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Chick isn't a story, anyway, he's a sound.

He's the sound of basketball, and of catch phrases like "94 feet of hardwood," "swing left -- shoot right," "slam dunk," "yo-yoing up and down," and "the mustard's off the hot dog."

Chick Hearn
Fans in Los Angeles paid tribute to Hearn with a giant get-well card.
He's the breathless, rat-a-tat-tat of describing the action, and giddy, bursting-at-the-seams joy at what players can do on the court and in the air.

Chick's sound is the sound of rolled-down car windows on Sunset boulevard and air-conditioned interiors on jammed freeways, of transistor radios dangling from bicycle handle bars, and of boom boxes blaring in restaurant kitchens. It's the sound you hear at lifeguard stations from Huntington to Santa Monica, and in newsrooms, laundromats, liquor stores and bus stops all over the L.A. area.

People often talk about L.A. as a sort of disconnected place, but in my experience, no matter who or where people are, they feel connected to Chick, and unexpected little communities and unpredictable friendships crop up around his voice, because folks trust the way his sound makes new places and strange people feel familiar.

Every game day and night for almost 40 years, they've breathed him in like air, like his sound was the most basic element of who they were and where they lived. They moved through it, played along with it, leaned on it. It was a fact of life, the kind you plant your feet on.

That's what's missing right now: the simple sound and rhythm of things as they ought to be.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. The former managing editor of Sportsjones, Neel holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.



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