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CHICK HEARN: 1916-2002

The Lakers' Legendary Voice

Sports: The team's broadcaster since 1961 coined terms like 'slam dunk.'

August 06, 2002|MIKE PENNER and LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Chick Hearn, the legendary broadcaster who provided the lively soundtrack to more than four decades of Los Angeles Laker basketball, inventing a new vocabulary along the way, died Monday. He was 85.

Hearn died about 6:30 p.m. at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where he was admitted Friday night after falling at his home in Encino. He underwent two craniotomies to control brain hemorrhaging Saturday but never regained consciousness. He declined seriously Sunday and by Monday morning his condition was downgraded to grave.

Talking to reporters at the hospital Monday night, Dr. Asher Taban, Hearn's neurosurgeon, said, "The injury to the brain stem was the main cause of death."

Hearn, who was instrumental in introducing professional basketball to Southern California sports fans after the Lakers moved west from Minneapolis in 1960, broadcast 3,338 consecutive games in a streak that began in 1965 and ended when he suffered a series of medical setbacks that began late last year.

Hearn missed his first Laker broadcast in 36 years last Dec. 20 after undergoing heart valve replacement surgery the previous day. Two months later, he slipped and fell getting out of his car, breaking his hip. The injury required Hearn to undergo hip-replacement surgery, extending his absence from the Lakers to 113 days and 56 games.

On April 9, Hearn returned to his familiar seat at Staples Center, calling the play-by-play during a 30-point Laker victory over the Utah Jazz. Though his voice sounded weak at the beginning of the broadcast, Hearn sounded more robust as the game progressed, clearly enjoying the appreciative applause from the fans and the opportunity to entertain local radio and television listeners with his unique wordplay once again.

"This is the happiest I've been since I married Marge!" he exclaimed on the air, referring to his wife of nearly 64 years. Half a beat later, he was quickly back to business: "Shaq down the middle

Hearn remained with the Lakers through the clinching of their third consecutive National Basketball Assn. championship in June. It was the Lakers' ninth league title since arriving in Los Angeles, and from Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Hearn had provided the colorful narration.

"It is impossible to express the depth of our sorrow.... This is one very sad day for everyone associated with the Lakers, the NBA and with the sports industry," said Laker owner Jerry Buss in a statement from London where he was traveling. "What Chick has meant to the Lakers and the popularity of NBA basketball in Los Angeles can never be overestimated. His 'word's-eye view' is as responsible for this success as any of the great players who have worn a Laker uniform. We will be forever grateful to him."

Former Laker star Magic Johnson expressed his sadness in a statement Monday night to Associated Press.

"I'll never forget all those times when I needed a hug, when I needed a high five, he told me, 'It's going to be all right.' He always uplifted me and uplifted other people, and I'll tell you something, basketball and the Lakers, without him calling the games, it would have never been the same."

Outside the Northridge hospital Monday evening, Laker general manager and former player Mitch Kupchak said:

"If you are a Lakers fan, if you are a basketball fan, if you are a sports fan in general, you know this is truly not a good day.... Chick, we will miss you. Quite simply, you are the best."

Hearn was the effervescent common link to every chapter in the team's Los Angeles history and nearly as valuable to the franchise as any of its storied players. His distinctive high-speed delivery--so fast that Hearn often announced a player had scored while the shot was still in the air--was perfectly suited to the Lakers' fast-breaking "Showtime" playing style.

Hearn invented a lexicon that has become as much a part of the game of modern basketball as the three-point field goal--"Chickisms," they were called. He concocted such phrases as "airball" for a shot that misses the rim, "slam dunk" for a shot that is thrust down into the basket, "yo-yoing up and down" to describe a player dribbling a basketball, and "dribble drive" for a player driving hard to the basket.

With Hearn behind the microphone, the Lakers didn't just pull away from a beaten opponent, they "put the game in the refrigerator." A defender badly fooled by a player with the ball was "faked into the popcorn machine." When a player mishandled the ball while trying a needlessly flashy move, Hearn determined that "the mustard's off the hot dog."

"He had this phenomenal ability to sound as fresh in the last game of last season as he did in the first game of his first season," said "Monday Night Football" broadcaster Al Michaels, who worked briefly as Hearn's partner in the late 1960s.

"His medical problems obviously affected his voice in recent years. But nothing could affect his enthusiasm and sense of humor....

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