The networks, which usually appear dedicated to the proposition that sports announcing must be bland, humorless and uninformed, seem to forget sometimes that they are no longer the only game in town. As a consequence, the regimented network stars are regularly embarrassed in head-to-head exposure against local announcers who show some individuality and understanding of the action they are describing. Nowhere is the contrast more evident than in the second-largest TV market in the land, where the dominant sports voice belongs to a man who has thrived for a decade by being outrageously and stylishly himself.
Chick Hearn, the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers, stands at the top of his profession today. As handsome and sure-throated as his network colleagues, he exhibits perception and wit as well. In Southern California he is so appreciated that his fans refuse to do without him, with the result that he is forced to simulcast—broadcast radio and TV play-by-play at the same time. A large number of Laker fans require even more assurance; they bring transistors, tuned to Hearn, to the home games. Vin Scully of the Dodgers was responsible for starting this phenomenon, but baseball is a languid, chatty sport that enables an announcer to assert his personality with relative ease. Accomplishing the same thing during the constant action of a basketball game must be more difficult. In any case, the transistor habit would seem to attest equally to Hearn's announcing talent and to the insecurity of the average Laker follower as he watches his team in person.
Considering the relatively recent popularity of big-time basketball, it is a minor anomaly that there are probably more good announcers covering this sport today than there are good baseball or football spielers. Hearn explains this by pointing to the popularity of high school basketball and football, in which budding announcers find a training ground that baseball cannot offer. Basketball broadcasters also frankly admit that once you're into it, calling basketball is easier than many other sports. Perhaps most important, basketball commentary has not suffered from the petrifying effects of long repetition as much as baseball and football announcing have. It is easier to wing it a little in basketball, and the best young men are naturally drawn to a sport that gives them a chance to vent their talents. In the NBA alone there is a profusion of good young play-by-play men—notably Jim Karvellas in Baltimore, Skip Caray in Atlanta and Andy Musser in Philadelphia.
Hearn has had an influence not only within his field but on the game itself. Several of his phrases have drifted into the public domain; for example, "no-harm, no-foul," "yo-yoing" and "corkscrew layup"—all original Chickisms. His latest, "dribble drive," also seems destined for an honored place in the lexicon of modern basketball terminology.
As slick and humorous as Hearn might be, however, his ability to transmit an incisive and deep knowledge of the game—which he refreshes with tedious study every day—is his outstanding attribute. Unlike the network men, who are reluctant to venture more than confirmations of the obvious, Hearn's whole approach is to guide the viewer, to increase his interest and understanding with heavy infusions of speculation, criticism and confident expertise. "Anticipation," he says. "That's the whole secret, the most important thing." Often citing floor violations before the referees do, Hearn bats a good .900 on such calls. And he is constantly coming up with some bit of monologue that gives the listener as clear a picture of a game situation as he could get by eavesdropping on a sideline huddle. Take this typical few moments from a recent broadcast:
"...over to Clark on the left. The 76ers are trying to work something inside. There, there goes Jackson on the pick-and-roll. Clark sees him, but Wilt is dropping back on Jackson. Archie throws to Jackson underneath, but the Lakers foul him right away. That won't be on Wilt but on McMillian, coming over from the side to help out. Yes, it is on McMillian, and an unnecessary foul because Jim did not see that Wilt had dropped back and thought he had to handle Jackson by himself."
Since Hearn rid himself of a bad case of the greats—at his worst, he called one Laker "the NBA's greatest two-handed offensive rebounder"—the only substantial criticism remaining is that he overwhelms his color man. Which he does. Also, so what? As a rule of thumb, the more guys with microphones, the worse the broadcast. Considering the evident abilities of most network men, it is understandable why the safety-in-numbers approach enjoys such a vogue, but, in fact, the strongest performances are invariably turned in where one man is clearly the boss.
Almost every form of public exposition is falling back on the more personal, intimate approach: low-budget, compact movies; first-person journalism; offhand, often self-deprecatory commercials; even friendly Our Gang television news. What this approach sometimes invites, of course, is a too-"inside," too-cute presentation that is supposed to substitute for quality. Hearn manages to avoid these pitfalls while establishing a brand of personal excellence that represents, happily, the future in his field.