Thousands Turn Out to Pay Tribute to Voice of the Lakers
It figured that Chick Hearn would call the play-by-play at his own funeral.
Not in the flesh, of course--not even Hearn was capable of that. But time and again, as the longtime Laker announcer was eulogized Friday, mourners reached into his deep bag of “Chickisms” to describe a man whose wordplay, descriptive powers and passion gave his basketball team--and, in a sense, his city--a colorful soundtrack for 42 years.
Not even Cardinal Roger M. Mahony could resist.
Looking ahead to a fourth consecutive Laker championship, Mahony told mourners: “I am going to go outside and look up in the sky, because I think for the last time we will see the meteor go by, and we will wave so long.
“This one’s in the refrigerator.”
It was a line that might have brought shocked gasps at any other funeral, but those who were there--a who’s who of basketball greats and local political leaders--understood that Mahony was simply quoting one of Hearn’s most beloved aphorisms, used to signal that the Lakers had put a game out of reach and were on their way to victory.
It was a phrase that also came up repeatedly at Staples Center, where thousands of Laker faithful filed all day through a darkened arena to pay their respects at the empty broadcast booth where Hearn finished his career. Francis Dayle “Chick” Hearn died Monday of brain injuries suffered in a fall at his home in Encino. He was 85.
“It’s in the fridge, but the light will always be on,” a fan wrote in one of more than a dozen thick memorial books spread out on black-draped tables in a concession area at the downtown arena. Next to the books were keepsakes for the mourners: photographs of Hearn that included a handy list of Chickisms on the back--"slaaaaaam dunk,” “frozen rope,” “faked the floperoo,” “give and go,” “no harm, no foul,” “triple-double,” “air ball,” and so on through a lexicon that was part English, part basketball and all Chick Hearn.
Hearn began broadcasting Laker games in 1960, when the team moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and became, along with Dodger announcer Vin Scully, one of the most omnipresent public figures in Southern California over the following four decades.
His role as a unifying force was apparent at Staples Center, where people of all ages, races and cultures turned out to honor Hearn. And it was a prominent theme of his funeral, which drew several generations of Laker stars to the St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood.
Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were there, as were Keith Erickson and Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, Rick Fox and Kobe Bryant. Many had to duck as they walked through the church’s front doors. Some former players, their hair gray or long gone, shuffled down the aisles on rickety knees and ankles, a giveaway of Hearn’s longevity.
Other mourners included Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, Gov. Gray Davis, Scully, retired UCLA coach John Wooden and Laker fan extraordinaire Jack Nicholson.
Mahony Sets the Tone
Mahony conducted the 90-minute service, which leaned heavily on eulogies by current and former Lakers players. But it was Mahony’s homily that set the tone.
The cardinal said Hearn’s biggest accomplishment was to bring “a spirit of unity and harmony” to Los Angeles on a scale that few people, if any, have been able to do.
“He dropped down barriers in this community,” said Mahony, who recalled watching diverse crowds squeeze together on the escalators of Staples Center, all unknowingly united by the voice of Chick Hearn.
“He was able to bring together people from all kinds of backgrounds, races, languages, ethnic groups,” he said. Hearn, he added, “helped our city more than anyone can dream or imagine.”
Besides Hearn’s unifying spirit, his work ethic, kindness and gruff impatience were common themes that ran throughout eulogies by Johnson, Fox, West and granddaughter Shannon Newman. His closed casket rested at the front of the sanctuary.
“He always made me feel like I was worthy of wearing a Laker uniform,” said a tearful Fox, who wore his white Laker warmups to the funeral. He thanked Hearn’s wife, Marge, sitting in the front row, for “keeping Chick going for 42 years.”
“It is our turn to be there for you,” Fox said. Hearn would frequently mention his wife of 64 years during broadcasts.
West, who began with the Lakers the same year as Hearn, recalled how the announcer got cabin fever every year waiting for the season to start and was quick to anger when the team’s airplanes were delayed on the tarmac, often yelling, “Let’s go!” from his seat. Later, when West became the Lakers’ general manager, he said Hearn would call and demand that he begin making trades to help the ailing team. “This is after we won 10 in a row.”
“Chick was, without a doubt, the most impatient person I’ve met in my life,” West said, “besides me.”
West said there will be many Hearn impersonators who will use Chickisms while announcing. “And they will fail miserably because they’re not Chick Hearn,” he said.
Los Angeles Police Department officers and private security guards surrounded the church. Only 400 people were invited to the funeral, which was broadcast on Los Angeles television stations. Laker center Shaquille O’Neal was in Florida and team owner Jerry Buss was out of the country.
Although the pews held plenty of the famous, tall and powerful, they also contained other, less-celebrated people whose lives were touched by Hearn.
John Werhas was the only speaker whom most of the crowd didn’t recognize. He played basketball at USC during the late 1950s, when Hearn was a Trojan announcer, and they remained friends.
“We loved Chick not because of his dedication” to basketball’s superstars, said Werhas, now senior pastor at Yorba Linda Friends Church, but “because he loved us, the common man.”
19,000 at Staples Center
At Staples, a line of mourners snaked out the front doors and around the corner for much of the day. Some 19,000 people filed into the arena, past larger-than-life photographs of Hearn at various stages of his career.
Outside, hawkers did a brisk business in T-shirts memorializing Hearn. Inside, a scoreboard flashed Chickisms and the huge video screen played local TV coverage of Hearn’s death.
As he shuffled forward in line, Ken Gootnick, 39, recalled a lifetime of listening to Hearn, who turned him into such a fan that he twice attended celebrity basketball camps with the announcer and recently opened a basketball complex in Sacramento.
What set Hearn apart?
“His passion for the game,” Gootnick said. “You could feel it in his words. He was the most descriptive broadcaster I’ve ever listened to. I knew everything that was happening on the court when I listened to him.”
James Dale West, 76, cried as he passed Hearn’s booth. West said he saw the Lakers in person only once, at the Sports Arena shortly after their arrival in Los Angeles. Otherwise, he said, he relied on Hearn to paint the game for him in his Compton home.
“He was the only way I got to know the Lakers,” West said. “He helped me to know the players.”
West, a teacher at Crenshaw High School for 50 years, said he felt a special connection to Hearn, who broadcast 3,338 consecutive Laker games from 1965 to 2001.
“Longevity is important in any field,” West said. Hearn, he said, showed up every night, “even though he had all kinds of excuses and reasons not to.”
Earlier this year, West had heart surgery, just as Hearn did last year. After the surgery, he said, he made a list of people he admired.
Hearn was No. 1--because of “the streak.”
Another fan at Staples, Sandra Martin, moved to Los Angeles in 1979 from Minneapolis. At the time, basketball was still a mystery to her. Hearn changed that.
“It’s like I’d been watching basketball in a dark room and somebody flipped on the lights,” she said. “He taught all of us the game.”