Jim Murray on Chick Hearn
With the relative news vacuum that is August in the NBA, there are opportunities to reflect on any number of things unrelated with the day to day of wins and losses in pursuit of a Larry O'Brien. Many around the NBA world spent Friday afternoon celebrating the incredible career of Magic Johnson, both his impact on the court as a player and off it as a businessman and a symbol of the possibilities of living with HIV. (So successful is Johnson at the latter that it's easy to forget he ever contracted the virus.)
I remember watching Magic and the Showtime Lakers, and I remember when he retired. What I don't remember, though (mostly for lack of corporal existence rather than razor sharp memory), are the days when nobody particularly cared about the NBA and the league lived far deeper in the shadows of American sports. No doubt incredible talents like Magic, Bird and Jordan helped change that, but they owed a debt to a guy who advanced the game without ever wearing a uniform. In this 1986 column, legendary columnist Jim Murray commemorates the day Chick Hearn received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, noting what we knew about the modern NBA is thanks in large part to the legendary voice of the Lakers:
"...Basketball was a tough sell when Francis Hearn came along. I remember in the late winter of '61 going down to the Sports Arena where they were staging a playoff game between the then-St. Louis Hawks and the newly arrived--from Minneapolis--Los Angeles Lakers. It was a Sunday afternoon, and they used to click off the attendance on
a screen high above the arena floor. It read 2,800 that day as the
teams took the floor. Now, mind you, this was a playoff game.
The division final. But not only were there few customers, there were
hardly any other journalists covering games in those days... Any sport needs a lively nomenclature, word pictures that go into the
language. Simple terms like bases loaded, circus catch, circuit clout,
screwball and squeeze play all served to dramatize the grand old game
of baseball that even became the national pastime, thanks to the
fertile mind of some chronicler of press row....
Ted Husing took football out of its dock-fight image and invented secondaries, even tertiaries for its defensive postures, and talked of whole hosts of tacklers and coffin corner kicks until the game today is so full of colorful allusions it is almost liturgical in scope. Chick Hearn did the same things for pro basketball, which had almost no language of its own when he came along. No more would division playoff games be played before 2,800 spectators after Chick hit the scene. They became the hardest tickets in town once Chick was out in front of the tent..."
He was the ultimate salesman, Murray writes, for a game that desperately needed one. The extent of Chick-isms now part of common basketball vocabulary is spectacular. (Click here to get a feel.)
As fans we spend a lot of time playing the "What If?" game. What if the Lakers had come out on the wrong end of the coin flip that eventually brought Magic to LA? What if the Blazers had drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie? What if the Lakers had drafted Corey Benjamin instead of Sam Jacobson back in '98? Okay, maybe not that one. But you get the point.
What if the Lakers had hired someone else, even someone perfectly competent, to broadcast their games instead of Chick? What would have changed?
The NBA could very well have broken out behind the strength of another outstanding broadcaster, player, or iconic moment, or some combination of the three. Or maybe not. History is filled with turn-on-a-dime moments and individuals that shape the future in ways others wouldn't have been able to replicate. Maybe the NBA gains popularity but looks different today in the process. It's impossible to know. But I don't think anyone in the NBA's 5th Avenue offices would be willing to hop in a time machine and trade Chick for whatever might be behind door number one.
We'll probably talk about all this again around Chick's birthday, but that's not until late November and who wants to wait that long?