Remembering A Lakers' Legend
2004-05 Tribute by Steve Springer
The Los Angeles Lakers are pleased to have long-time Los Angeles Times writer Steve Springer present the inaugural commemoration of Chick. Springer, who recently released the book Chick, His Unpublished Memoirs and the Memories of Those Who Knew Him, has also authored The Encyclopedia of the Lakers and co-authored Winnin' Times: The Magical Journey of the Los Angeles Lakers. He has covered the Lakers on and off for 30 years in a sportswriting career that began at the Thousand Oaks News Chronicle (1974-79), followed by a move to the Orange County Register (1979-83). Springer and his wife, Annette, have two grown children, Dina and Alan, and a son-in-law, Daniel Garcia.
In an area as vast as Southern California, an area containing approximately 13 million people, is it possible to have a shared experience? One comes easily to mind: Listening to Francis Dayle "Chick" Hearn.
Everybody, it seems, has a Chick story. Most are funny, a few are sad, all are memorable. It sometimes seems as if Chick, who died August 5, 2002 at 85 after being the team's first and only broadcaster for 42 seasons, touched the lives of all 13 million people.
Maybe that's why his funeral was televised live, from beginning to end, on various local channels. No other Southern California figure, it is believed, has ever received such a special honor, not politicians nor entertainers, not athletes nor religious leaders.
Maybe that's why 18,000 people filed through Staples Center on the day of Chick's funeral to view his broadcasting perch, located above the court in a spot where he could be surrounded by his beloved fans.
Maybe that's why the stories keep coming, from a shut-in who said that Chick's broadcasts opened up his world, from a blind man who said he could see the Lakers through Chick's words-eye view, from several generations of listeners and viewers who say they learned basketball through Chick.
Remember, in 1960, basketball didn't have the common appeal in Southern California that it enjoyed in other parts of the country. The Lakers had just arrived and John Wooden was still four years away from his first national championship at UCLA.
Laker owner Bob Short, dismayed at the sparse crowds attending the Lakers' first home playoff games in their new city, convinced Hearn, then the USC play-by-play announcer, to add the Lakers to his resume.
The team had been averaging between 3,000 and 4,000 fans for their first two playoff series, against the Detroit Pistons and the St. Louis Hawks.
Hearn joined the Lakers in St. Louis in the middle of that playoff series and the L.A. audience heard Laker basketball on the radio for the first time. Hearn's energy and passion were infectious. His sometimes critical, but always informative commentary was instructive. His Chickisms - from "slam dunk" to "faked him into the popcorn machine" to "the mustard's off the hot dog" to a dozen others - were hilarious.
It was no coincidence that when the Lakers returned home to the Los Angeles Sports Arena for Game 6 of their series against the Hawks, 14,844 fans also showed up. It was the beginning of a long and loving relationship between a city and its basketball announcer.
The famous, like Bill Walton, to not-so-famous in those early Hearn years behind the Laker microphone all share a common memory: Being a youngster sent to bed by his or her parents, but secretly taking a transistor radio to tuck under the pillow so that the Laker broadcast could serve as a good-night story.
As the seasons mounted, so did one of the most amazing streaks in sports history. From Nov. 21, 1965 to Dec. 16, 2001, Hearn didn't miss a single Laker broadcast, his run of consecutive games reaching 3,338 before heart surgery forced him to leave the microphone. But what the public didn't know was the physical hardships Hearn sometimes overcame to keep his streak alive.
"During the 2000-2001 season," said Susan Stratton, Chick's long-timer producer/director, "we were in Houston and Chick was really sick.
"We put him in a car and took him to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. They ended up having to give him blood transfusions. It was related to the heart problems he would subsequently have."
Chick was admitted in the afternoon. Faced with directing a game that night, Stratton left for the arena.
"I had a car waiting for Chick," Stratton said, "because he insisted he was going to do the game. And Chick showed up. He had simply told the doctors that he couldn't continue the transfusion any longer. He had to go. Whatever they had given him would have to do. They removed the IV and he walked out of there, went back to the hotel, changed his clothes and there he was. Leaving a hospital while having a transfusion? God, who would do that?" Only Chick Hearn, 84 years old at the time.
Chick loved to pick on traveling writers and I was one of his favorite targets. On one occasion, we were on the team bus traveling through the streets of Denver. I was sitting behind Chick, engrossed in a conversation, the noise annoying Chick.
As we pulled up to a corner, a crew was working on the street, the sounds of their jackhammers on the asphalt reverberating against the bus windows.
"Hey, Springer," said Chick over his shoulder, "want to make some extra money?"
"Sure," I replied, playing the straight man.
"Then get out there, put your chin on the sidewalk and start talking."
Chick was always on.
One night in Philadelphia, he and several writers got on a hotel elevator in the lobby. They stopped at the second floor and a man in a Superman costume got on. At the third floor, Superman got off.
As the doors shut, Chick turned to the writers and said, "You'd think the silly son of a gun could have jumped that high."
Future generations of basketball fans will hear the many Chick stories and they can hear recordings of his voice if they are interested. But they won't be able to reach under their pillow, flip on a radio and hear,
"The game's in the refrigerator, the door's closed, the light's out, the eggs are cooling, the butter's getting hard and the jello's jiggling."
Some childhood memories are irreplaceable.