Courtly wisdom

Having once aspired to be a radio sports broadcaster, I'm saddened by the passing of Chick Hearn, longtime announcer for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Like Red Barber, Mel Allen, and other great play-by-play voices, Hearn had an inventive style that produced wonderful phrases such as "Mustard falls off the hot dog!" In other words, a player was trying a flashy shot but missed. I know the feeling.

I listened to Chick Hearn during my college years near Los Angeles. Besides colorful terminology, he also had a talent for spontaneous commentary that resonated beyond sport. The stand-out example took place during my freshman year. It was the winter of 1971-72, a historic season in which the Lakers won a record 33 straight games en route to the championship.

Some friends and I were sitting around watching a Lakers game on TV. It wasn't that exciting, and I can't even recall the other team. What I do vividly remember is a moment when the Lakers were trying to get off a shot, and the ball was suddenly deflected out of bounds by an opposing player.

Several things happened right away. The referee started to indicate that possession belonged to the other team, but quickly realized his mistake and made the proper signal. In the meantime, a fan had picked up the errant ball and saw the referee supposedly giving possession to the visitors.

Angered by what he perceived as a bad call, the fan swiftly turned away just as the ref was correcting himself and tossed the ball high into the seats behind the backboard, which meant both teams had to stand around waiting while the ball was retrieved.

Chick Hearn erupted without hesitation. "Oh my!" he exclaimed. "A fan thought the call was going against the Lakers so he threw the ball into the stands. How ignorant can you be? Now he feels like a total fool!" We broke up laughing. In fact, Chick had imparted a nugget of timeless wisdom, a remark uttered in haste that has echoed inside my head for 30 years.

The insight is simple: Don't act impulsively, or you could end up looking ridiculous. You will be worse than an average fool; you will be a complete, ignorant, total fool. It is a scenario I work hard to avoid every day. So good-bye, Chick. You have stepped away from the microphone for the last time. But in my mind, you'll never be off the air.

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