SPORTS

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August 9, 2002

Chick Hearn was beacon of character in city known for shallowness

"The game's in the refrigerator, the door's closed, the light's out, the eggs are cooling, the butter's getting hard and the Jell-O's jiggling," Chick Hearn (1916- 2002) would famously declare after the outcome of the game was clearly decided.

I was in my dubious friend's (Vijay) apartment, watching a glorious preseason Monday night football game (the Texans vs. the Giants, for anyone who cares), when I mentioned that I heard Chick Hearn, longtime sportscaster for the Los Angeles Lakers was in a coma. I told him that he had gone through two hematoma surgeries to remove blood clots from his brain and now his condition was severely deteriorating.

To this, Vijay with a mouthful of Diet Coke, muttered, "Chick who?"

"Chick who!" I then proceeded to give him the longest lecture I care to give anyone about how this was the same man who has been literally "the voice" for the Lakers for the past four decades. He has been the only sportscaster with the team since the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in the 60s. He has been such a fixture to the NBA that he contributed to the lexicon of basketball, with "Chickisms" like "slam dunk" and "airball."

Up to his death this last Monday night at 85, the man had embodied the image of the Iron Man. Until last season, when he had to undergo heart bypass surgery, he had broadcasted 3,338 consecutive games. The last game he had missed calling was in 1965.

But it didn't surprise me that Vijay or any other Chicagoans never knew who Chick was. In such an insulated and self-centered city, I didn't expect the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun Times to mention Chick and what he had accomplished as a legendary sportscaster/figure of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Chick and his lore, deservedly so, belonged to the city of Los Angeles and its many Lakers fans. He was as much a part of my life and my upbringing as my parents were.

I remembered how I got "hooked" onto the NBA and its games. Back in high school, when I was still a scrawny teenager, my buddies and I used to sneak into the dormitory's lounge to watch NBA games, during evening study hall periods. Unfortunately, the television we watched the games on was busted. Its sound had been blown out by some bastard who had kicked the speakers in. To compensate for the lack of sound, we stuck a radio next to the glowing screen, tuned to the game, and listened. It turned out that Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz (Chick's partner in crime for 15 years) called every game on the AM station, the only sports channel we could listen to on our P.O.S. hand-held radio.

We kept this routine up until the television was replaced with a much nicer one that actually worked. But even after that, the gang and I decided to mute the television and leave my friend's radio on. We had become enamored of Chick's voice. People who would stumble into the lounge would always ask us why we couldn't be normal and just listen to the television broadcast. We would just point to the radio and motion to them to just listen.

When the Lakers acquired Phil Jackson as their head coach in the 1999-2000 season, I was a senior in high school. I had to do like all seniors at Webb and attend a senior trip up the Colorado River for a week of canoeing and hiking. This trip happened to coincide with the Lakers- Blazers historic Western Conference Finals.

On the last day, Game 7 of the series, my friends and I kneeled around a guy who had brought a small Walkman with him. We made him turn up the volume as loud as possible and we listened to Chick's broadcast of the game out on the shores of the Colorado River.

Halfway through the game, the dude's radio completely died out. With the Lakers down 17, most of us scattered off to bemoan the game and the probable outcome.

It was not until the fourth quarter, when a teacher came up to us and offered to let us use a car that was parked nearby. We huddled around the car, amassing by the second as we listened to the Lakers make the most improbable comeback of all time.

I still remember the voice of Chick coming loud and clear over the static and three states: "Lakers up by one. Oh, what a play by Kobe Bryant. The Lakers are up by one with four minutes left in the fourth quarter."

It didn't take very long for me to become a steadfast, loyal Chickie fan. Even into the recent years, when people started questioning Chick because of his constant name slipups, I remained defiant. Chick was the only one for the job. I would explain to anyone that as long as he lived and wanted to, Mr. Hearn would be the only voice that I listened to for any Lakers game.

I have so many Chickie memories, so many little tiny pieces of goobe that ooze absolute sentimental value.

I feel so old for saying this, but with Chick's passing, I feel as if I lost a piece of my childhood.

In this day and age, when I talk to my friends with my computer more than I do in person, a man like Chick, who was absolutely so "old school," kept me nostalgic for a time that had passed. He was an absolute class act. He never was associated with anything less than absolute professionalism and pure dedication.

Hearn was once asked what he wanted written on his tombstone.

He answered, "No harm, no foul."

I'll miss you, Chick.