Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chick Hearn

It was 2002 and the Lakers had just beaten the New Jersey Nets for their third straight NBA Championship. Being a huge Lakers fan, I took a subway to downtown LA to check out the parade. As I watched the double-decker buses carrying the players down Figueroa Avenue, I noticed Chick Hearn standing at the front of the first bus.  He was leaning against the top rail, his hair dyed purple, his shirt drenched with sweat and champagne.  While Shaq and Kobe waved to the crowd, Chick stared straight ahead.  This was his ninth championship as Lakers announcer and at age 85, he was exhausted.

Less than two months later, Chick suffered a fall at his Encino home that took his life.  The world's greatest basketball announcer was gone and Laker nation fell into mourning.

Francis Dayle "Chick" Hearn was born in 1916 in Aurora, Illinois.  He played basketball at Bradley University and he earned his famous nickname from a prank played on him by teammates.  He was given a box of sneakers and when he removed the lid he found a dead chicken inside.

Chick Hearn became the Lakers play-by-play man in 1961 after the team moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.  His announcing style featured an enthusiastic, rapid-fire delivery peppered with colorful phrases and an offbeat sense of humor. Chick invented many of the terms that have become common basketball parlance.  These include: Slam Dunk, Air Ball, Finger Roll, Give and Go, No Harm No Foul, Dribble Drive.

Chick also coined a number of phrases that became known as "Chickisms."

"94 x 50 Hunk of Wood"--referred to a basketball court.

"Bunny Hop in the Pea Patch"--when a player was called for traveling.

"The Mustard's off the Hot Dog"--when a player made a mistake while showing off.

"Yo-Yoing Up and Down"--dribbling the ball.

"Got caught with his Hand in the Cookie Jar"--a blatant foul by a player.

"Throws up a Brick"--a terrible shot.

"Heart-Brrreeak!"--a shot that goes in and out of the basket.

"Ticky-Tack"--a foul call when minimal contact is made.

"He couldn't throw a Pea in the Ocean"--when a player's shooting has gone cold.

"Put him in the Popcorn Machine and he's covered with Butter"--When a defensive player leaps in the air from a head fake and the opposing player scores on him.

If a player tried an impossible shot that had no chance of going in, Chick would say:

"He has two chances, slim and none and slim just left the building."

If that same impossible shot actually went in the basket, Chick had an alternative call:

"He throws up a prayer...and it's answered."

Whenever the Lakers had a lead that Chick deemed insurmountable, he would launch into his most famous phrase which guaranteed a Lakers victory.

"The game is in the refrigerator, the door is closed, the lights are out, the butter's getting hard, the eggs are cooling and the Jello is jiggling."

From 1961-1965, Chick missed only two Laker games, one due to laryngitis and the second after he missed a plane flight.  In 1965, Chick began a new announcing streak which would reach 3338 consecutive Laker games.  The streak came to an end in 2001 when Chick had cardiac bypass surgery.

Chick was possibly the most beloved of all Lakers personalities.  In the days when the Lakers played at the Forum, fans could walk up to Chick before games and have a conversation.  He was always friendly and smiling and he'd often mention a fan's birthday or offer a get well sentiment live on air.

Chick was also brutally honest.  In 1998, Chick was honored for broadcasting 3000 consecutive games.  The Lakers were losing to Orlando at halftime and after accepting his award, Chick told the crowd, "The Lakers look like dogs.  If they play the third quarter like they played the first half, I'm going to buy them Alpo."  The Lakers went on to win the game by double figures.

In 1991, Chick Hearn was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.  He had a street named after him in Downtown LA and his name was hung from the rafters inside Staples Center beside Laker greats like Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson.  In 2010, a bronze statue of Chick was christened outside Staples Center.  Chick is the only non-player to receive such a statue.

Chick and his wife Marge were married 64 years.  They had two children, a son Gary who died of a drug overdose in 1972 and a daughter Samantha who died from complications of anorexia in 1991.  

When Chick died in 2002, flags at Los Angeles City Hall were flown at half mast. Thousands of fans and numerous Laker greats showed up at Chick's funeral. Cardinal Roger Mahoney told mourners: "I am going to go outside and look up in the sky, because I think for the last time we will see the meteor go by and we will wave so long.  This one's in the refrigerator."  (6" x 8", black ink print)