Remembering A Lakers' Legend
2006-07 Tribute by 2006-07 by Susan Stratton
This year, the Los Angeles Lakers are pleased to have long-time KCAL-TV Producer/Director Susan Stratton share some of her stories about the broadcasting icon. Stratton began working with Chick in 1976 and spent 26 seasons as a Producer/Director for his telecasts, forging a truly special bond with the man known as "The Voice of the Lakers."
Unlike most Lakers fans, I did not grow up listening to Chick Hearn. My husband, Dick, and I moved to Los Angeles from Washington DC in 1972. Dick became the new Executive Producer at KTTV. I went to work as a Producer/Director at KHJ-TV (now KCAL). I met Chick for the first time in 1976 when the station suddenly became the Lakers broadcast station. Lionel Schaen, the station's General Manager, gave me the opportunity of a life time and asked me to produce and direct the telecasts. It would be fair to say that Chick was not too happy with me for the first few months. He really would have preferred a person with NBA experience. And then remember that there were very few women working in broadcast sports at that time, none in the NBA. I really wanted Chick to accept me, so I tried to figure out how I could gain his confidence. I soon learned that Chick had no mechanical ability. And I mean none. His daughter Samantha told me that either she or granddaughter Shannon had to set his car radio for him. So I spent a lot of time at our various venues making sure that the microphones and monitors were working and arranged to his satisfaction. Chick noticed my efforts and invited me to travel on the Lakers bus with him. I was absolutely thrilled. And we went on to forge a very rewarding and successful partnership. It helped that both of us were perfectionists! However, this is not a perfect world. Lakers fans still tell me their favorite Chick stories. Many of them involve on-air equipment disasters.
The marque at the Staples Center pays respects after the Chick Hearn memorial on August 9, 2002 at Staples Center As you know, Chick was not shy about using a person's name. How many of you remember him telling the statistician to write" BIGGER?" On one memorable occasion, someone spilled Chick's water bottle on his broadcast headset. This occurred while we were on the air. Unfortunately the spilled water damaged some wires in the audio system and everyone in the TV audience could hear us (the production crew in the truck) talking to Chick and Stu on the intercom line. Chick couldn't hear anything, so he thought his mic was dead. None of us realized that all of this "damage control" audio was being broadcast LIVE, a truly unique moment in television to say the least!
If a replay was not promptly aired, or even worse, did not show the play in question clearly, Chick was quick to announce it. He would then immediately go on to say, "Our Director, Susan Stratton, and her crew are doing their usual fine job!" I would crawl under the console in the truck! He didn't do this to be mean. It was his way of letting everyone know that the offending replay was not to be blamed on anyone. I could never convince him that this was not a good way to do this!
Chick was not one to hold a grudge. You would certainly know it when he was unhappy. If he liked you, he would call you a "Dum, Dum." But then all was forgiven. Our crews on the road loved him. He always noticed and acknowledged the people who worked with him on the broadcast. In the last year, Chick had trouble walking. One of the men in San Antonio volunteered to bring a special cart to the game so he could drive Chick across the huge Alamodome to his broadcast position. Statisticians would call me to ask if they could work with him.
Chick always wanted to be wherever we were going next. The minute the plane took off, Chick wanted to know when we going to get there. He would keep this up the entire flight. And he would be impatient to take off. His call of "Let's Go!" became a Lakers tradition. He always said: (1.) Get to the airport early and (2.) Take the first fight out. Not bad advice. On one occasion, we built an elaborate hoax involving an announcement by the Laker charter pilot that our flight was being diverted to Orange County because of fog at LAX. Even the players were involved. Chick took the bait for about 20 seconds until one of the writers, who was not paying attention and shall remain nameless, gave it away!
He always wanted to deliver the news first. The Lakers PR Directors were not always happy with this facet of his character. Medical reports were particularly sensitive. Some years ago, Chick wanted to interview Gary Vitti at halftime and ask him to discuss an injury to Magic Johnson. Gary, who is very articulate and precise, had a picture of the injury. Now although Chick was exacting about the English language, he was not always accurate in his pronunciation of foreign names or scientific words. This interview was priceless. Chick would say, "So …the injury is to that big bone in his hand?" and Gary would reply with the medical name of the bone and a further technical description of all the muscles involved. Chick attempted to respond to Gary using Gary's technical terms. This was a disaster. Finally Chick said, "So, it still hurts?" At this point, Gary could hardly talk!
One year, we had a Christmas game in Portland. Marge Hearn and I came up with the idea to have Chick interview some children at halftime. On that day, a terrible ice storm hit Portland. There were about 1,000 people at the game. I could barely gather children for Chick to interview. Chick had a nice open to the interview, then asked the first child about her day. She announced that she and her family were atheists and did not celebrate Christmas. Not to be daunted and in true show business tradition, Chick went to the second young guest who announced that they did not celebrate Christmas either. Chick closed the interview quickly by saying that everyone celebrates the holiday in his or her own way. Marge and I heard about this for years.
He was unique with a broadcasting style that was perfect for the fast paced game of professional basketball. Pat Riley said that he captured the textures and nuances of the game perfectly. And he did. He knew the game and respected the officials. Chick always knew what was happening on the floor and could tell the fans. He did not have to wait for a coordinator to relay the information from the scorer's table like many announcers do. He always thought about the fan, and I mean always. And I think the fans knew this. Chick spoke directly to them, or at least they thought that he did. Chick was fun. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was very quick. The writers were his particular pets. Occasionally several of them would show up at the game looking less than elegant. Chick would ask the offending party if the lights weren't working in their hotel room. They always took the bait.
He loved his work and he adored the Lakers. He would say to me, "Imagine, …they pay me to do this." However, the first love of his life was his wife, Marge. He said that marrying her was the best thing that ever happened to him. We were all very lucky to have had him be a part of our lives.