SI Vault
Bruce Newman
April 09, 1984
Painting word pictures that have made him the Michelangelo of basketball broadcasters, Chick Hearn is the enduring voice of the Lakers
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April 09, 1984

From High Above The Western Sideline

Painting word pictures that have made him the Michelangelo of basketball broadcasters, Chick Hearn is the enduring voice of the Lakers

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Stationed in the Philippines during World War II, Hearn did some work for Armed Forces Radio, and when he was discharged in 1946 he decided he would give broadcasting a shot. He tried to get a job at WMRO in Aurora, but the station manager wasn't interested. "He laughed at me," says Hearn, who took a job selling pharmaceuticals instead.

Hearn and his wife, Marge, whom he met in high school and married in August 1940, settled into a comfortable life in Aurora, and he might be there still if in 1946 he hadn't been asked to broadcast a high school basketball doubleheader scheduled one night. WMRO, which by regulation was a "sun-up to sundown" station, had been given a dispensation by the FCC to broadcast the twin bill. The station manager called and offered Hearn $5 a game for the evening's work. "I was a cocky Irish kid, and I told him to keep his five bucks," Hearn says. "I said I just wanted to show him he had made a mistake not hiring me in the first place." On the strength of his performance. Hearn was offered $47 a week to do weather, sports, religious programming, news and to be the disc jockey. And he took it. "I'll never forget my poor father's reaction," Hearn says. "I went home and said, 'Dad. I'm going to quit the pharmaceutical business to go into radio.' He just looked at me and said, 'Do you think radio is really here to stay?' "

There are probably three-way light bulbs that use more power than the 250-watt WMRO, but to Hearn the thought of any job in radio was thrilling. Despite the drastic cut in pay he had to take, Marge was confident everything would work out. "There was no TV then, so it seemed kind of glamorous," she says. "I didn't know if he had any talent, but he always loved to talk. If you said hello to him on the street, you were liable to get yourself into an hour's conversation."

When Hearn jumped to Aurora's WBNU three years later, one of his early assignments was to broadcast a charity basketball game in town. Martin R. O'Brien, the owner of WMRO—his initials are its call letters—had been incensed about losing his star announcer to his chief competitor, but what he really resented was that Hearn would be doing a game that WMRO—because of its FCC daytime status—couldn't cover. Hearn was oblivious to all this, and so he was more than a little surprised when he felt someone tapping him on the shoulder during the third quarter. Upon turning to look, he discovered he was being tapped by the long arm of the law—and the even longer arm of Martin R. O'Brien. A policeman had arrived with a warrant requiring Hearn to vacate the premises. "Goodby, everybody," Hearn told his listeners as he was being dragged away while the game continued, "the gendarmes are here!"

WBNU-FM was located in downtown Aurora on top of the 19-story Leland Hotel, the tallest building in Illinois outside of Chicago. The station had been running a talk-and-game show for some time, but both the live and listening audience had been disappointing, so Hearn was installed as host to turn things around. For the next two years his lively patter was a nightly fixture in Aurora. People gathered in their living rooms, waiting for their sets to warm up to grab his voice out of the night air. "From the beautiful Sky Club high atop the Leland Hotel, it's time for The Sky's the Limit," he would intone. Then he would give away prizes to people who identified mysterious sounds, the strangest of which was that of an automatic potato peeler, whose weird ululation was the bane of Aurora for years.

In 1950 Hearn began announcing Bradley University's basketball games for station WEEK in Peoria, Ill. The Bradley Braves, who had made the NCAA and NIT finals the season before Hearn arrived (losing both to CCNY), were extremely popular throughout the Midwest. Hearn was convinced that broadcasting Braves games was about as high as one could go in the basketball world and that he had made his final career move. But in 1951 several Bradley players were implicated in a point-shaving scandal, and Hearn was devastated. "It was a sobering thing for me because I thought I knew the game so very, very well that there was no way I could be fooled like that," he says. "Here were these people who had been held up as absolute gods, then suddenly there were all these idols smashed on the ground. It shook the community."

Peoria wasn't only a great basketball town, but it was also a mother lode of broadcasting talent. Veteran baseball announcers Jack Brick-house, Vince Lloyd and Jack Quinlan of the Chicago Cubs all worked in Peoria at one time, as did Tom Kelley, who subsequently followed Hearn out West, and news anchorman Jerry Dunphy. Hearn remained at WEEK for five years, then was hired by CBS Radio in Los Angeles to broadcast USC football and basketball games—an assignment that lasted until 1963.

Along with everybody else in L.A., Hearn ignored the Lakers—who had been winners of five NBA titles, three more than the Boston Celtics—when they came to town from Minneapolis in 1959. "The next year their attendance was about 4,000 a game during the regular season," Shackelford says. "They had West and Baylor on that team, but nobody cared." It wasn't until Bob Short, who then owned the Lakers, called Hearn at 2 a.m. on a Sunday in March 1961 and convinced him to fly to St. Louis to broadcast the fifth game of the Western Conference finals the next night against the Hawks (the Lakers won 121-112, but lost the series in seven games) that people began taking an interest. "When the Lakers got back to Los Angeles after that game," says Shackelford, "suddenly everybody was dying to get in." The sixth game drew a crowd of 15,000 to the L.A. Sports Arena, the Lakers' home at the time, and what was the largest NBA gate in history ($55,000) at that time.

As Hearn's fame spread in the entertainment community, offers from Hollywood came rolling in. He played a naval officer in the movie Cry for Happy and a detective on TV's Policewoman, but more often than not he was cast as a sports announcer in films like The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and All the Marbles. With the possible exception of Lassie, Hearn has played the part of himself in movies and on TV more often than anyone in history. He has appeared in cameo roles on Knight Rider, Simon & Simon, Hart to Hart, Matt Houston, Hardcastle & McCormick and Fall Guy.

In the mid-'70s Hearn also had a five-year run on L.A.'s Channel 5 with a show called Bowling for Dollars, for which his daughter, Samantha, now 34, was production coordinator. Hearn loved doing the show, probably because it gave him an almost Groucho-like vehicle for saying outrageous things to the contestants. Friends recall with a mixture of incredulity and ill-disguised glee the brief interviews Hearn did with the bowlers. If the contestant was white. Chick would ask him where he worked; if he was black, Hearn would invariably say, "So, do you have a job?" He also had a habit of asking Oriental contestants how to tell the difference between Chinese people and Japanese people. Was Hearn being racist? His friends say insensitive yes, bigoted no.

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