Some of the most popular professional basketball players of all time have worn the uniform of the Los Angeles Lakers. The list includes Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Earvin (Magic) Johnson. But their popularity may be eclipsed by a member of the Lakers organization who has never scored a basket for the team or pulled down a rebound. He is Chick Hearn, the ``voice'' of the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson may execute the team's lightning-fast break, but Hearn describes it with the detail, color, and flair of a gifted painter, and the speed of a slam dunk. Over the past 26 years, the name Chick Hearn has become synonymous with the Lakers. To hundreds of thousands of Laker fans, Hearn is the Los Angeles Lakers.
As a testament to Chick's popularity, a star bearing his name was added to Hollywood's ``Walk of Fame'' last September. No Laker player has been so honored. And while his name doesn't appear in the team's record book, his broad grin and twinkling Irish eyes grace the cover of this year's media guide. It's probably the first time a team has featured its play-by-play announcer so prominently.
This coming Saturday night when the Lakers visit the Utah Jazz, Chick will broadcast his 2,000th consecutive Laker game - an unbroken string dating back to November 1965. ``It's a record that will never be equaled or surpassed,'' he predicts.
Hearn has missed only two Laker games since his first broadcast for the team in the spring of 1961, and on both occasions he was away covering other sporting events as part of a network contract.
But Hearn's special appeal is not based on his longevity alone. His blend of quick wit and sarcasm make any Laker broadcast entertaining. He finds innovative and imaginative ways to describe the action on the court.
When Hearn talks about a player using the ``yo-yo dribble,'' listeners instantly know the player is aimlessly bouncing the ball while sizing up a defense. When a pass is thrown out of bounds it is described as the ``mustard off the hot dog.'' But if Chick has a trademark, it is his ``popcorn machine.'' He uses it when a ball handler fakes a defender in the air and then dribbles past for an easy shot. For example, ``Worthy puts Bird in the popcorn machine and gets the slam dunk.'' If it's a well-executed move, Hearn will suggest the defender needs a towel, because ``he's got butter and salt all over him.''
Hearn is the Henny Youngman of sports broadcasting, delivering peppery one-liners like ``There couldn't be more than 5,000 fans in the arena; if there are, they're dressed as seats.'' When a player retrieves a loose ball right along the base line, Hearn says, ``His foot is right on the base line. Good thing it's a Size 11, Size 12 would have been out of bounds.'' Hearn possesses one of the fastest mouths in the West, and always stays ahead of the action.
Hearn says he has to be fast, since so many of his broadcasts are simulcast on radio and television. And many of the fans attending home games at the Forum pack along radios, so they see the live action as fast as Hearn describes it. ``I've got to be right on top of the action or else all those people watching the game will say this guy's not very good,'' Hearn says.
Listeners know they can count on Hearn to call 'em as he sees 'em. If the Lakers are playing poorly, he's quick to point it out. ``Make no mistake about it, I want the Lakers to win, but I'm not a homer or a cheerleader,'' he says.
If a referee makes a bad call, Hearn will say so, but when there are unjustified boos over a foul, he might say, ``Some of the boo birds didn't think that was a foul. Heck, you could call that one in Braille,'' or ``If that wasn't a foul, we won't have any tonight.'' An unidentified spectator who tossed an ice cube on the court one night evoked Hearn's ire. ``Not a real bright move; someone ought to give that guy a one-piece jigsaw puzzle.''
When the action on the floor stops, Hearn keeps the patter going. He exercises poetic license to provide his version of what's being discussed. After a technical foul was assessed against the Lakers for using an illegal (zone) defense, Hearn said: ``Coach Pat Riley gets up off the bench and says a few words to his players on the floor. `It's OK to do it, guys - just don't get caught.'''
Hearn got a taste of broadcasting during World War II when he did some work for Armed Forces Radio. After the war he wasn't able to land a radio job in his hometown, Aurora, Ill. He sold pharmaceuticals instead. But two years later he got a call from a local radio station and was asked to broadcast a pair of high school basketball games. ``I told the guy I couldn't do that, I'd be scared stiff. He said he'd sit with me, so I agreed,'' says Chick. The next day he was offered a full-time job around the station for $47 a week. He took it.
Ten years later, Hearn was hired to broadcast basketball and football games for the University of Southern California, and within five years he joined the Lakers. Hearn also continues to broadcast many basketball games for the University of Nevada at Reno. His career includes coverage of numerous sporting events including golf, football, and boxing.
In the mid-'70s, Hearn hosted a television show in Los Angeles called ``Bowling for Dollars.'' He is also a popular dinner speaker and appears on dozens of radio and TV commercials.
Hearn concedes he works too much. ``My work is a love for me; I'd do it for free, but don't tell my bosses.''
What's ahead for him? Well, he hopes the playoffs and another Laker championship. And then there's always next season and the season after that, and perhaps 500 more consecutive Laker broadcasts.