As might be expected of one so set in his ways, Hearn has never taken kindly to sharing his air time. In fact, he worked alone until 1967 and was the last play-by-play man in the NBA to give in to a color man.
"Chick was the kind of guy who would never give his color men a whole lot of rope—usually just enough for them to hang themselves," says Laker coach Pat Riley, who worked with Hearn from 1977 to '79 before becoming Paul West-head's assistant coach. "If you're sitting beside him, you'd better be ready, because Chick tests you on the air."
When Westhead first offered him the chance to be an assistant coach, Riley resisted. "I didn't want to do it," he says, "but Chick highly recommended that I give it my best shot. Maybe he saw something in me that I didn't see. All I know is that if Chick hadn't advised me to take the coaching job, I wouldn't have done it." When Westhead was fired, Riley patterned himself not after Jack Ramsay or Dick Motta or any other coach, but after Hearn. Riley's Laker teams quickly became known around the league for their detailed preparation. "I think a lot of what I do now comes from watching Chick prepare for a broadcast," Riley says.
Like most of his predecessors as Hearn's sidekick, Riley generally felt the safest course to steer with Hearn was to agree with him on the air as often as possible. Hot Rod Hundley, the Utah Jazz announcer, who worked with Hearn from 1967 to '69, says, "You can say, 'That's right, Chick,' as many times as you want. But if you say, 'That's wrong. Chick,' you're gone." Usually there wasn't much to correct Hearn about anyway. "Chick's work is the Lakers, and his life is the Lakers," says West. "When I turn on the radio, I can tell by the tone of his voice whether we're winning or losing." When things aren't going just right, Hearn becomes what one of his admirers calls "the walking, talking nervous breakdown," but when everything's just fine, watch out. Riley remembers watching Hearn after several memorable Laker rallies at the Forum, Hearn rising majestically out of his seat as the noise swelled to a deafening level. Slowly he would raise his arms until the cheering had reached its crescendo, then bring them down again as the applause died—like a maestro of the ozone, conducting his ode to joy.
Hearn has never worked as a color man, though he did have an opportunity early in his career to go with Harry Caray of the St. Louis Cardinals. He knew Caray's ego was too big to let him do anything but read scores between innings, so he passed. "He wasn't going to give up any time to me," Hearn says. "He knew I might have given him some competition." Naturally, Hearn was less than pleased when Jack Kent Cooke, then the Lakers' owner, forced a sideman on him. "I was bitter because I didn't think a color man could be brought in advantageously on radio," he says. "I'm thorough in my reporting of a play, so if the man doesn't know the game pretty well, he's not going to have a lot to say."
The first Laker color man was Al Michaels, now a respected baseball play-by-play announcer with ABC. Michaels may have had a lot to say, but if he did, no one ever knew it because Hearn never allowed him to do anything more complicated than read the statistics at half-time and after the game. At one point Hearn even complained to Cooke that Michaels was taking up too much time doing that. Six games after he started, Michaels was gone.
"Chick is a spotlight guy," says Steve Jones, who does play-by-play for the Portland Trail Blazers and is a color analyst for the USA Network. "All the Number One guys who have worked their way to the top find it hard to give up the microphone. A lot of them think they are the show, that they're bigger than the game."
And when Hearn gets carried away on the air, it's usually on the side of excessive praise. When Westhead was fired by the present Laker owner, Jerry Buss, in November 1981, Hearn half canonized him in his next pregame show. "We've only known him 2½ years," Hearn said, "and we've never known a nicer man, a greater family man, a man that was God-fearing, a man that was relentless in his pursuit of success. If anything, he worked too hard. He worked 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, seemingly, trying to bring the second world championship here. For all these things we love him, we'll never forget him. He is intelligent, he is dogmatic, he is the kind of man that is a great teacher. So to you, Paul Westhead, I know it's a bitter pill to swallow. I know that Jerry Buss didn't want to do it. And I know for sure that Magic Johnson did not get you fired. [Suddenly music began to swell in the background.] So ladies and gentlemen, perhaps the best way to end this eulogy to a great guy is with...our national anthem."
And though there's no question about which team Hearn favors, he's not above mild criticism when he thinks it's deserved. If, for example, Hearn believes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been out of a game too long, he'll repeatedly ask Keith Erickson, his current color man, if it's possible that Kareem is still on the bench. Then he'll confirm his own discovery with frequent bulletins: "Yes, Keith, Kareem is still on the bench."
"Chick likes to think he's objective by calling himself 'this reporter' all the time," says Lynn Shackelford, a Hearn radio sidekick from 1970 to '77, who now does Laker pregame shows on Channel 9 in L.A., "but he's not." Hearn bristles at such criticism. "Harry Caray [now the voice of the Cubs] in Chicago is a homer, his son [Skip] down in Atlanta is a homer," he says. "Anybody who doesn't think I want the Lakers to win is a fool. But I'm no homer."