The radio hissed and emitted strange chuffing noises as it warmed up, then made a high-pitched meowing sound. Except for the phosphorescent glow of the radio dial, the room was completely dark.
...sshhhhhwopwopwop...is now stop-and-go all the way to the 605 interchange where there's a disabled...yeeeeoowooooo...but Mom Taylor's radio ministry cannot help you find Je-e-e-ezus without your prayers and your donations. Pray to God. Send the money to Mom...yeeeeeeeeeaaaaayuh...backed up all the way to the Harbor Freeway...rrrrrffffffzzzzzzzz....
The radio fluttered and woofed and then stammered crazily as if it were possessed by a demon that was trying to clear its throat. Then came a clear and resonant voice: "From high above the western sideline of the Los Angeles Forum, the world's most beautiful sports theater, hello again, everybody, this is Chick Hearn."
The voice was steady and sure of itself, and it caught the ear. The voice was made for radio, painting pictures in the dark. "Wow, what a tempo! Magic back and forth like a windshield wiper with the dribble drive, he throws up a prayer...air ball. Rebound left side taken by McAdoo, he goes right back up—a frozen rope that time, no arch, but it melted right in the hole. Phoenix Suns down by one with a minute left in the half, and it's so quiet in here that when this game's over they may have to send the ushers around and shake some of the customers. Walter Davis gives to Lucas in the lane. Lucas fakes and puts James Worthy deep into the popcorn machine. He's covered with salt. Lucas' shot spins around like a motorcycle in a motordrome...oh, heartbreak."
From the beginning the voice had about it a musicality that was perfect for basketball—soaring half notes gliding toward the basket, fast breaks in syncopated rhythm. "If you're going to capture the beauty of the game," says Eddie Doucette, who has broadcast Milwaukee Bucks games since 1968, "you have to be as fast as it is. And in order to do that, you can't miss the beat of the ball. Chick Hearn is probably the best there's ever been at making you hear the beat of the ball."
Hearn has been the Voice of the Los Angeles Lakers for 24 seasons and nearly 2,000 broadcasts, an incumbency during which he perfected the simulcast—describing a game on radio and television simultaneously—and practically invented professional basketball in Southern California. He gave the game a language of its own and, in the process, has become, at the age of 67 or thereabouts (Hearn isn't telling), one of the sport's enduring institutions. (Apart from pro basketball, Hearn over the years has broadcast college basketball, college and professional football, track and field, major league soccer, auto racing, horse racing, boxing—"It might be my best sport," he says—golf, tennis, swimming, bowling and water polo.)
"For kids of my generation growing up in Los Angeles, Chick was an almost mythic figure," says Lyle Spencer, 35, who covers the Lakers for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner. "At that time it was Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Chick, and they were all of about equal importance. Chick had such a powerful voice, and his images were so vivid. Radio forced you to use your imagination and to participate, and I think that's why Chick affected so many people. It was just you, Chick and his words. He immersed you in everything about the Lakers. If you listened to him you had no choice but to care. It's all so important to him. If Chick were ever forced to give up the Laker broadcasts, he would cease to exist."
It is 6:30 on a mid-January evening, two hours before the start of a game between the Lakers and the Seattle Super-Sonics, and Hearn has been busy preparing for his broadcast for nearly an hour. Sitting alone at his front perch in the Forum's upper press box, Hearn tends his statistics in this deserted aerie like some Himalayan yakherd. "Through all the years, no matter what kind of problems Chick may have had," says West, now the team's general manager, "when that bright light comes on, he's ready. I wish some of our players prepared for the games as well as he does."
Through his statistical studies, Hearn almost invariably mines some numerical nugget for the gold in it. The most celebrated instance of this occurred during the early 1970s when Happy Hairston was playing forward for the Lakers. Hearn's pregame research turned up the fact that Hairston had gone something like five full quarters without scoring a field goal. During the game that night Hearn mentioned Hairston's long dry spell early in the broadcast; then, as the minutes rolled by and Hairston still hadn't scored, Hearn gave regular updates on the drought. As Hairston's scoreless streak passed the 90-minute mark, Hearn began a minute-by-minute countdown to 100. This didn't go unnoticed in the Forum, where it has long been fashionable to monitor Hearn while watching the game at hand. When Hairston unhappily reached 100 scoreless minutes, the Forum practically exploded. Hairston, who was playing with a leg injury and, moreover, had had no idea what was going on, talked for a while of suing Hearn, but eventually he decided to drop the idea.
Preparation obviously helps make Hearn a superior announcer, but it also serves to pass the time between games, especially on the road, where waiting has always been an ordeal for him. "The worst part is the day of a game," he says. "I finish my work by noon, so what am I going to do for six hours before a game in Phoenix? It's a terrible thing to say in my business, but I don't watch TV. So I read or do a crossword puzzle and I walk around, and then finally it's time to go to the game." When he arrives at his broadcast position he continues to prepare. "I'll sit there by myself and maybe do a quarter just to warm up," Hearn says. As the maintenance men and the technicians scuttle crablike around the arena floor, Hearn begins to make bodies whirl about in his mind, and slowly his vocal chords begin to resonate with the beat of a ball that only he can see.