Opposites attract. For proof, consider that Hot Rod Hundley, the barhopping, fast-talking, wisecracking West Virginia basketball cult figure of the 1950s, has been hiding out from the rest of the world for nearly 10 years in, of all places. Salt Lake City. With the Jazz an NBA championship contender this season and with seemingly everyone in Utah listening to his irrepressible play-by-play ("The gentle push, the mild are and the cowhide globe hits home!"), love is in full bloom between Hundley and the Utah fans.
As Hot Rod says about his 1979 move with the Jazz from New Orleans, "It's a hell of a transition from the French Quarter to the Mormon Tabernacle." He's everything that Salt Lake City is not: spontaneous, flamboyant, a Las Vegas kind of guy. "And I flaunt it, too," Hundley says, running a few balls at the far end of the pool table in his Salt Lake City home.
Having worked nearly all of the Jazz's radio and TV games since its arrival in Utah, Hundley is one of the most beloved and widely recognized public figures in the state. His style is so distinctive—his tempo is as fast as a West Virginia auctioneer's and his voice sounds as if it came in with the fog—that three times in the past few years he has called 411 looking for a phone number, only to have the information operator say, "Hey, are you Hot Rod?"
Hundley, who turned 54 last week, was Pete Maravich a decade before Pete Maravich. An All-America guard at West Virginia in 1956 and '57, he embodied for a generation of fans how much fun the game could be. He could score, and his ball-handling and passing were right out of a Harlem Globetrotter routine. In '57 the then Cincinnati Royals made him the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and traded him to Minneapolis. He went on to play six seasons for the Lakers, averaging 8.4 points per game as a pro.
He started his broadcasting career with the Lakers in 1967 and has worked for the Phoenix Suns as well as the Jazz. No one has a sharper basketball mind, a more ready wit—he seems to have an endless supply of anecdotes and stories from his pro and college playing days—or a better command of the action. Hundley says hell never leave Utah unless Chick Hearn steps aside as the Laker broadcaster. "I love Salt Lake, but I love L.A., if you know what I mean," he says.
Though Hundley, like Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, is a fan at heart, he occasionally comes down so hard on the Jazz that owner Larry Miller has been known to watch telecasts with the sound off. That type of broadcasting has made Hundley so popular with the fans that he has practically made himself an untouchable as far as management is concerned. Says one member of the Jazz family, "His influence is such that if the inflection of his voice suggests that a certain player isn't playing well or shouldn't be in the game, that player will be subject to being booed."
Hundley's tendency to be a loose cannon could explain why CBS, which hired ex-Knick coach Hubie Brown as its analyst for NBA telecasts this season, didn't consider bringing Hundley back for a third tour. His previous gigs at the network were in 1972-74 and '78-80. Says CBS announcer Jim Nantz, who once was Hundley's partner on Jazz games, "It's a crying shame. He's the best basketball analyst I've ever heard. He was so loose he made me feel comfortable. I can honestly say that broadcasting with him was the one thing I've done that never felt like work."
Thus, Hundley will have to be satisfied with fame and fun in the second smallest TV market—only Charlotte is smaller—in the NBA. "Let me tell you something," he says. "I want the Jazz to win so bad that if they were ahead by 10 in the last two minutes of the seventh game of the world championship, I don't think I could broadcast. I think I'd be crying." For two minutes, maybe. After that he would be laughing. As usual.