The Legend of Chick Hearn

Francis Dayle “Chick” Hearn had that thing. That thing that doesn’t need to be explained. In Chick’s case, it could be heard.

They say people are mirrors to one another, that everyone you meet reflects some part of yourself back to you. That’s why sport is so sacred, because it feels like you achieved greatness through your team. That’s also why sport is so devastating, because the loss seems like it belongs to you too. It's rare though, one of the rarest things in the world, for one person to come in and appeal to the masses the way a sport does. Chick did though. His voice captivated everyone that heard it, it made people feel connected to the Lakers — to basketball. It made fans feel attached to something much deeper than a game.

Chick Hearn statue with Marge Hearn

“There was no put on with him.” Stu Lantz, the Spectrum SportsNet color commentator said of his 15-year broadcast partner. “When you’re genuine, people see it. You can’t hide genuine. You can fake it all you want, but you can’t hide it. He would just make you feel so at home, plus he was in everybody’s living room, you know? With 82 games, he’s in your living room 82 times a year. You just fell in love with the guy,”

Now, Chick’s no longer here, he sits above the western sideline at the highest point, but somehow, he’s still here. Really, even Stu says, “Every time I step into the arena, I think of him.”

Everyone wants to see a part of Chick in themselves and so they grabbed a part of him before he was gone and never let it go — his words.

Chick Hearn retired jersey

Chickisms are what his words and phrases are called today, what Chick created. When the Lakers arrived in Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season, Chick Hearn arrived too. He was the team’s announcer for both TV and radio, a simulcast. Most teams split the responsibility with one person specialized in broadcast television and another specialized in broadcast radio, but that would’ve been a disservice to whatever channel didn’t get Chick. His voice was made for both.

“He literally changed the way people would watch and listen to the game. He had a remarkable gift,” former Laker and current Spectrum SportsNet analyst, Derek Fisher said.

He was passionate and equally practical. His vision was precise yet imaginative. His style was always fast and clear. Chick found his rhythm from the bounce of a basketball — and even when the players faulted, he somehow never missed a beat.

Hearn called a record 3,338 consecutive Lakers games starting on November 21,1965, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena (he only missed two before his streak began). Maybe his dedication came from his love for the game. Maybe he knew how much the fans needed him.

Chick Hearn calling a Lakers game

That was one of the most important lessons he left behind, “to do right by the fans, that’s the most important thing,” Spectrum SportsNet play-by-play announcer, Bill Macdonald explained. “This is one of the greatest fanbases in basketball. This is one of the greatest fanbases in sports. And you gotta’ do right first and foremost by the Lakers Fans. And that’s what Chick did.”

After over 3,000 consecutive games, the only reason powerful enough to keep from his chair in the broadcast booth was cardiac bypass surgery in December 2001 for a blocked aortic valve. He returned in April 2002, right in time for the Lakers' pursuit of their final championship to complete the three-peat.

Robert Horry remembers this time as a player with Chick by his side, “A lot of times when I was there, he wasn’t feeling good but he worked through it. He had to have his wife, Marge, come on the road with him. And think about it, most people would say ‘Nah, I’m just going to do home games.’ No, not Chick. He said ‘I love this game; I’m going to keep going.’ He started bringing his wife with him and he started battling all the illnesses. He kept going.”

Chick Hearn waving to fans

The Spectrum SportsNet commentator says, even today, when he’s feeling a bit more relaxed while covering a game sometimes, he’ll let a “slaaaaam dunk” slip. “We all do it, we all have our little Chick sayings.”

Because for 42 years, Chick wrote the book on the language of basketball. Finger roll, charity stripe, triple-double, slam dunk — those terms are staples to the game. But his speech went well past these, he had phrases, metaphors, similes, analogies that gave the game a pulse. 710 ESPN play-by-play announcer John Ireland pointed out that Chick would “never forget the guy in the car because that guy in the car is rushing to get home and watch the game.” He knew how tough it was to miss a game, and he used his words-eye-view was so no one had to.

Chick was capable of coming up with his Chickisms in a matter of seconds, often he predicted the play before it happened. That level of mastery came from being a disciple to the game, devoted to the game. That was Chick. His career spanned from Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. His successors were tucked into bed by their parents falling asleep listening to him.

Ireland remembers his bedtime routine growing up as a kid in Orange County. “My mom would make me go to bed at nine o’clock. And a lot of cases that was in the middle of the third quarter of a Lakers game. So, I would take a transistor radio and put it under my pillow and put my head on the pillow so it was just loud enough where I could hear Chick, but my mom couldn’t hear that I was listening to the radio.”

Chick Hearn with Shaquille O'Neal

Now after 11 years of doing the job, John said he’ll be talking in a “stream of consciousness” and say something that has never come out of his mouth ever before.

“I’ll get an email the next day from somebody that will say ‘that was so cool how you used Chick’s old phrase,’ and I didn’t even know I had it. The only explanation is that I was channeling Chick,” John explained, “I pull them out of the back of my mind.”

His work is like the Bohemian Rhapsody of basketball; the first of its kind, never to be replicated. “Sometimes we try to do it and sometimes we get close but it’s kind of always like we’re imitating Chick,” Billy Mac said.

Chick Hearn pregame interview with Kobe Bryant

It’s been nearly 20 years since his time here, and from LA sportscasters to analysts, from longtime Lakers fan to the new generation, everyone is still thinking about Chick, talking like Chick, channeling Chick, because Chick was relentlessly Chick. “His legacy still lives on deep within us forever,” 710 ESPN color commentator Mychal Thompson expressed.

He has a statue outside the arena, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a place in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, a jersey in the rafters, and a voice in everyone’s head.

Chick showed everyone who listened that greatness happens off the floor too. Some legends don’t shoot, they call the shots. For 42 years, he was describing moments that would become a part of history and he thought he was only broadcasting, but he was becoming a part of history too. He showed everyone that greatness isn’t just about winning. Chick showed everyone that greatness is going to work and doing your job the best you can, day after day, for those that are depending on you.