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CHICK HEARN PLOTS HIS RETURN

'I Wish I Was Going Back Tonight'

January 15, 2002|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The voice is almost as good as new, and so is the heart. Chick Hearn is eager to go back to work.

"I wish I was going back tonight," Hearn said Monday, referring to the Lakers' game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

In his first in-depth interview since his open-heart surgery Dec. 19, Hearn said he hopes to be back in early February.

The Lakers' first February home game is Feb. 6 against the Chicago Bulls. Their next game is Feb. 12 at home against the Washington Wizards.

Hearn, the only play-by-play announcer the Lakers had had in 42 years in Los Angeles, had worked 3,338 consecutive games over a 36-year span when he had the surgery.

"I really never gave the streak much thought," he said. "What did it last, 36 years? It was a case where I would just automatically go work.

"I'll just have to start on a new streak."

Hearn, who turned 85 Nov. 27, said he plans to be back next season as well, announcing every game, home and away. "I want to work every game," he said. "That's just the way I am. The travel doesn't bother me, and before the surgery I felt pretty good."

Since the surgery, Hearn has had time to reflect.

"A lot of things can happen in one's life, and it teaches you to be grateful for everything you have.

"This whole experience has made me love my job more than ever. What I've missed the most is being around the players and coaches and everyone else. And not just the Laker players and coaches, but those from the visiting teams as well."

Hearn said he and his wife Marge have been overwhelmed by the get-well wishes they have received.

"There are thousands and thousands and thousands of cards and letters," he said. "I don't know if we'll get to all of them, but we're going to try.

"We were reading them last night as we were watching television. They are so heart-warming. And so appreciated, I just can't tell you.

"Some cards come from schools where a whole class has signed the card."

Hearn paused to chuckle.

"One little girl, a second-grader, wrote, 'Dear Chick, I hope you don't die.'"

And speaking of the media coverage of his surgery, the kind usually accorded famous people only when they die, Hearn said, "Maybe they thought I did die."

Hearn said he has been watching games, but with the sound down.

"I call the game as I sit here," he said. "Not with the same emphasis as I would if I were doing it for real. I do it to keep me in shape."

He said he has been progressing gradually, although there have been days when he felt weak.

His main concern was his voice. Because he'd had tubes down his throat, he had trouble talking for quite a while.

"The voice has come back pretty good," he said.

Hearn said he doesn't remember much about the day of his surgery, but that he felt very tired and weak.

"I remember telling Marge we'd better get to the hospital," hesaid.

"I don't remember going to the hospital, and I don't remember the preparation [for surgery].

"I just remember waking up and thinking, 'It's over.'"

Hearn had a damaged valve replaced.

He said he was going stir crazy during his week-long stay at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.

"I felt so confined," he said. "But the nurses and the people who took care of me were great. They made it bearable."

Hearn also was grateful to his cardiologist, Jack Patterson, and surgeon Michael Soltero.

"I'm thrilled with the encouragement they've given me," he said. "And I can't say enough about everyone in the Laker organization--Jerry Buss and Jeanie [Buss] and Mitch [Kupchak, the general manager]."

Hearn also felt like talking a little basketball. He had seen Shaquille O'Neal take a swing at the Bulls' Brad Miller on Saturday night.

"That was a very unfortunate incident," he said. "I've said many times on the air that I don't understand how he holds his temper. Well, there was a case where he finally didn't."

The Lakers were leading by 17 in the second quarter Saturday night, but that lead had evaporated by halftime, when Hearn went on the air briefly by phone during Channel 9's telecast.

"If the Lakers lose, they shouldn't come home," Hearn told announcers Paul Sunderland and Stu Lantz.

"It was typical Chick," Sunderland said Monday. "I was glad our viewers got a chance to hear his voice."

Sunderland has been doing a nice job filling in for Hearn but readily acknowledges he's just keeping the seat warm.

"It's great that Chick is coming back according to the original schedule," Sunderland said when told of Hearn's target dates. "He was supposed to miss six to eight weeks, and it looks like that's just about what it will be."

Whether Hearn returns for the game against the Bulls, which would be fitting considering all that went on in Chicago on Saturday, or for the game against Michael Jordan and the Wizards, it will be a stirring occasion.

"It'll be the loudest ovation in Staples Center history," Sunderland said.

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