Few people mean more to the Los Angeles Lakers than Chick Hearn.
In the 40 years he has done play-by-play for the team on television and radio, Hearn has described in his rapid-fire delivery the heroics of everyone from Jerry West to Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal.
But unlike those superstars, Hearn has been there during every championship and every disappointment.
And in the process, he coined many of the terms now standard in NBA lingo: "slam dunk," "dribble drive," and faking someone "into the popcorn machine."
His record of durability is astounding: since Nov. 21, 1965, Hearn hasn't missed calling a single regular season or playoff game a string of 3,200 straight contests.
Hearn, who won't reveal his age, is one of only three announcers in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and one of the 20 members of the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame (an exclusive club that also includes L.A. Dodgers announcer Vin Scully).
Question: How on earth do you keep broadcasting day after day, year after year, with the same level of detail and intensity, without missing a game?
Answer: I'm a very devoted person. When I make up my mind to do something, I stick to it pretty much, but this is ridiculous. Actually, when it came to the end of the first thousand (games), I had no idea that the consecutive-game streak was going. They gave me a basketball for the achievement. When I got another five hundred, they gave me another one. Now I've got more basketballs than Spaulding. I'm very proud of that record, I don't think it'll ever be broken. If it is, God bless whoever breaks it. You play sick a lot of times. When you're not feeling up to par, you still go out and do your job.
Q: The Lakers have their best team in years. How does this squad rate in comparison with Laker teams of the past?
A: For the best teams, they do not compare yet. (The current Lakers) are not as good as the '71-'72 team that won 33 straight and finished with 69 wins, 13 losses, and won the world championship. The era of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the '80s, that was a better team. But this team has the possibility of one day becoming that good. Chicago won the championship under Phil Jackson six times, and the Lakers in the '80s won two (championships) in a row. I think you've got to do that to be firmly established (as a great team).
Q: What does the team mean to Los Angeles, and how has that changed over time?
A: They came (to L.A. from Minneapolis) in 1960. The first year, no one in town would broadcast them not one of the 28 existing radio stations. It's changed dramatically. It all started in the '60s, when they had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. After they won their first championship in '71-'72, the city recognized them. And then came the '80s, with Magic, which brought a new design to the game for Los Angeles "showtime" and the ability to entertain as well as play with greatness. That grabbed the city. I do think this (current) team has revitalized the interest of the fans. People in Hollywood and L.A. want to be entertained. They'll spend big dollars and they have to spend big dollars to watch them at Staples to be entertained. (But) you have to have a winner. If you're not winning, you're not going to have any success. You can ask other teams in this city about that.
Q: Salaries and tickets are higher than ever, and sports arenas are fancier. How does that change things for the average fan?
A: That's one thing that worries me. Your future fan is the youngster. Where are they going to get the money to see the game? Where will today's father and mother get the money to take a family of four to see a game? My God, you're talking about $600, and you haven't had any popcorn yet. In every (basketball) market there's a new building going up. (Driving that) are the (luxury) boxes. That's how the owners can afford to pay the players the money they do.
Q: What's your take on the escalating salaries? Does it affect performance?
A: The majority of athletes realize they're being paid exorbitant amounts of money, more than anyone ever dreamed. The average salary in the NBA is over $2 million per man. Kobe Bryant is 21 years old, and in a couple of years when he gets a new contract, he's going to be paid a number that's probably incomprehensible.
Q: Is the league less competitive these days?
A: A good athlete always plays his best. There are some that shirk their duties, but they don't last long. When you go back to the Jerry West days in the 1960s and through the '70s, you had only 12 teams in the league. Now, we have 29 teams. In my opinion, I don't think you have the same caliber of competition that you used to have. Maybe 70 percent of the players in the league could have played in those golden days. Most of the 12-man rosters contain people who'd be better off learning the skills of the game in the minor leagues or playing in Europe.
Q: Vin Scully is the voice of the Dodgers as you are for the Lakers. How well do you know your counterpart and how do your broadcasting styles compare?
A: I first met him in 1959 when the Dodgers came out here. I didn't know Vinny before because I hadn't been around New York. When I first heard him, I thought, "My God, this guy is the greatest I've ever heard." Vin is an artist. We work a lot alike, to tell you the truth. I don't think anyone could accuse either of us of being a "homer." There isn't any doubt that he wants the Dodgers to win and I want the Lakers to win, but neither of us wants you to know that. Just go down the middle of the road, tell it like it is.
Q: You've worked with a number of sidekicks: Lynn Shackelford, Pat Riley, Keith Erickson and now Stu Lance
A: Don't ask me which one is the best and put me on the spot (laughs). I love them all.
Q: Is it tough balancing the play-by-play and the color commentary? How long does it take to develop a good rapport with a broadcast partner?
A: It takes a year or two to really get it in balance. That's why I was so disappointed when Pat Riley left. When head coach Jack McKinney got hurt in a serious bicycle accident (at the beginning of the 1979-80 season), and Paul Westhead took over as coach, Riles came to me after a game and said, "They've asked me to become an assistant coach, what do you think?" And I said, "Geez, you've been with me three years, and I've been tutoring you, and got you now where you can speak a whole sentence. You've gotten rid of that nasal twang from Kentucky. I don't want you to leave!" He got to be very good as an analyst.
Q: Can you imagine not being the voice of the Lakers?
A: No, absolutely not. I enjoy it very much. Sometimes it's drudgery. I'm in the middle of getting my stuff ready for the playoffs. It keeps me busy, and I think it keeps your mind sharp, too. I think inactivity is one of the worst things that could happen to me.
Q: Who's the greatest basketball player you've ever seen?
A: That's a tough question. I said for years I thought Elgin Baylor was. And it's a shame there wasn't television to any degree during his career. He did things that the great Dr. J of the Philadelphia 76ers later got credit for. I thought he was the best. But I finally changed my mind. Michael Jordan has to be because he was the complete player. He could play defense with the greatest defensive players of all time, and he could play offense like only a few could. Kobe has a chance to be very good. He might really surprise you. Michael Jordan wasn't any better than Kobe when he was 21.
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