If he's sensitive to that charge, it's because he's closer to the team than perhaps any broadcaster in professional sports history has been to any other. Cooke had always been awed by Hearn's grasp of basketball, and in order to take full advantage of this oracle of the airwaves, in 1972 Cooke made his broadcaster the Lakers' assistant general manager. In that capacity, he advised top management on trades and even helped negotiate player contracts. Though the title became honorary after Cooke sold the team to Buss five years ago, Hearn once wielded such power that Laker players regularly consulted their wives for detailed readings of his broadcasts, figuring that what Hearn said about them during a game reflected the management line.
Among the contracts Hearn helped negotiate was Magic Johnson's. In the spring of 1979, Cooke was trying mightily to impress Johnson, a 19-year-old Michigan State sophomore who still hadn't declared himself a professional, when Magic and his father first showed up at Cooke's Forum office. Always the master of the grand gesture, Cooke announced that before they got down to business he was going to have food brought in. "Gentlemen, I'm going to order lunch for you," Cooke said loftily. "We're going to have some marvelous fish." After the food arrived, Cooke asked each of his visitors how he liked the meal, and he was obviously basking in their enthusiastic responses when he reached the object of his desire. "Earvin," he asked, "how do you like your meal?"
Magic looked at the remains on his plate, then at Cooke. "Boy, Mr. Cooke," he said finally, "there's a lot better fish than this in Lake Michigan." It was the only time anyone ever said anything that rendered Hearn completely speechless.
Hearn has the ability to make a bad game sound interesting, and yet he can do it without making things up or embellishing the facts. During Cooke's regime, Hearn was summoned to the owner's office one day. The Lakers had been annihilated by the Cincinnati Royals the night before. "I figured he wanted to pat me on the back or give me a raise," Hearn says. "When I got there, Cooke said, 'Sit down there, Mr. Hearn.' I thought that was strange because he always called me Chick." Cooke took out a yellow legal pad and, as a tape of Hearn's broadcast of the game played, he began making check marks on the pad. Eventually Cooke stopped the tape and looked down at the page. "Sixteen times you said something nice about the Royals," he said heatedly, "and three times you said something good about the Lakers. That's my team! Why don't you say more nice things about the Lakers?" Hearn noted that the score of the game was 42-12 in favor of the Royals when Cooke stopped toting up check marks. He hasn't been troubled by an owner since.
The incident that has caused the most damage to Hearn's credibility occurred on Nov. 30, 1982 in San Antonio, when the Lakers were trailing the Spurs by two points with three seconds to play and Norm Nixon on the free-throw line. Nixon sank his first foul shot, then faked the second, causing players from both teams to step illegally into the lane. Amid the confusion that ensued, Hearn began shouting to referee Jack Madden that time had been incorrectly taken off the clock during the play. Though it isn't uncommon for announcers to try to referee games from their courtside seats, it's surprising when a veteran official responds, as Madden inexplicably did, by strolling over to the broadcaster and consulting with him for a minute, while the Hemis-Fair Arena was about to erupt. "I caused the damn thing, and I've regretted it ever since," Hearn says. "Madden went by me, and I said, 'Jack, you're making a mistake.' I shouldn't have said that, but I was trying to protect him. It looked like I was just helping the Lakers, when I was really only trying to help the game. Jack was nice enough to come over and explain it all to me. In fact, he explained it to me twice." The Lakers won the game that night in overtime, but the league later overruled Madden—and, by proxy, Hearn—and when the ending was replayed months later, the Spurs won the game in regulation. For his part, Hearn ordered the sequence expunged from the official Forum tapes of the game. "I'm not proud of the incident," he says.
When the Lakers are on the road and Hearn is able to sit at courtside, he can be as much a part of the scene as the players are. One night in the early '60s the Lakers were down by two points with only a few seconds left to play. When the ball was inbounded, Laker guard Dick Barnett turned and launched a 30-foot rainbow shot. The horn sounded almost as soon as the ball had left Barnett's hands, and it was still sailing toward the basket when he looked over at Hearn and said, "We're in overtime, baby." Hearn was already shouting, "We're in overtime, baby!" when the ball settled into the basket.
An impatient traveler, Hearn is always the first one on the team bus, first on the plane, first at the arena and the first to complain when things don't go smoothly. It's important for him, under such trying circumstances, to have a comic foil to deflect his pent-up nervous energy. "Chick always has to have a bobo," says Steve Springer, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, "because, in effect, his show never stops. Cab-drivers, stewardesses, sportswriters, little old ladies—nobody is immune from Chick's needle."
Baylor was a favorite target, particularly because Baylor ended up with so much of Hearn's money in their legendary gin rummy games. Baylor did so well at Hearn's expense on the long trips to the East Coast, Hearn says, "When we got to New York I used to ask the stewardess to have the pilot circle the airport for a while so we could finish our game. From 1963 to 1970 I never cashed a per diem. I just signed them over to Elgin. He beat me like a drum. Elgin had good card sense, great retention and long fingernails. I think he hid cards."
Francis Dayle Hearn was born in the little town of Buda, Ill., one of two sons of an Irishman who worked for the railroad. The family moved to Aurora, near Chicago, in 1925, and Fran Hearn played basketball at East Aurora High and might have gone to college on an athletic scholarship, except that his father was seriously injured in an auto accident, and he was forced to get a job and forget college. When Hearn was 19, he was involved in a car wreck himself in which he broke several ribs, and soon afterward had to have the body cast he was given cut through in order to have emergency surgery on his appendix. He then developed pneumonia. Things looked so bleak at one point that he was given last rites.
Hearn became known as Chick at age 22, when he stuck his hand into what he thought was a shoe box one day while he was playing AAU basketball in Aurora. His teammates had seen to it that he wouldn't find new shoes in the box. "It was an old maggoty chicken," Hearn says. "I got it all over my hands and under my nails. It was awful." Thereafter, his teammates started calling him Chicken, eventually shortening it to Chick.