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A Lakers voice is lost in the wilderness

It’s four years later and you’re wondering how he ever found his voice amid the madness. Paul Sunderland smiles.

“Kobe down low to Shaq, over to Fox, back out to Fisher at 25 feet, back to ... " he says during the middle of breakfast, his words flowing like a bouncing ball.

It’s four years later and you’re wondering, how could somebody with such rhythm be silenced by such cacophony?

In 2002, Paul Sunderland was the announcer who reverently and honorably replaced the legendary Chick Hearn.

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Today, he is the man who was eaten alive by that legend.

In 2002, with the blessing of Hearn’s widow and the respect of Laker Nation, he thought he had an NBA announcing job for life.

Today, he hasn’t had an NBA job in two seasons, with no possibilities in sight.

“Friends call me and say, ‘OK, Paul, it’s been a long time now, tell me what really happened,’ ” Sunderland said. “And I tell them, ‘I still don’t know.’ ”

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He didn’t ask for this to be written. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to be written.

“I do not want this to come across like a pity party,” Sunderland said. “I have a great family and a great life.”

But, out of respect for the memory of Chick Hearn, it must be written.

In the eyes of the bewildered Sunderland, one can still see the awesome power of that memory, which apparently can turn lives upside down and make people completely disappear.

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Sunderland used to bring the action into thousands of Southland living rooms.

Now he can’t even bear to attend a game.

Sunderland used to be the voice of one of the most powerful sports franchises in the country.

Recently, as a favor to old friends, he was the television announcer for a high school volleyball game.

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“Some people said I was given the most difficult job in the history of the Lakers,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe they were right.”

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Imagine being plucked from an ordinary baseline press seat and plopped into one of the most famous chairs in Los Angeles history.

Imagine being the announcer taking Chick Hearn’s place on the night that his 3,338 consecutive-games streak ended.

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Imagine being only the Lakers’ second lead announcer in more than 40 years.

That’s what happened to Sunderland, who’d done the Lakers’ pregame and postgame TV work before temporarily replacing Hearn when the legend took ill in December 2001. Sunderland then became the permanent replacement after Hearn’s death in August 2002.

Sunderland was a lifelong Lakers fan, so this was his dream job, but it arrived under nightmarish circumstances, and he trod carefully, respectfully.

He refused to sit in Hearn’s Staples Center chair, insisting that the usher bring him another one. He refused to develop any trademark calls that might make it seem that he was trying to overshadow Hearn.

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He sought advice from Marge Hearn, who repeatedly told him, “Be yourself.”

But in that somber time after Chick’s death, he couldn’t.

“I don’t think I did a good job of following her advice,” Sunderland said. “Part of what I wanted to do was to be mindful and respectful of Chick’s legacy. I didn’t want to do anything to put myself out front.”

So he purposely wasn’t flashy. So he clearly wasn’t Chick. But he was descriptive enough, and passionate enough, that most believed he was good enough.

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Said Marge Hearn, “I thought he did a really good job.”

Said Susan Stratton, former longtime Lakers television executive producer, “He did a terrific job. I don’t know anybody who could have bridged the transition better.”

Sunderland was good enough during his 56-game interim stint that he was given a one-year contract after Hearn’s death. He was good enough during that season to later be given a two-year deal.

Not once during that time did he hear any complaints from the Lakers. Rarely during that time did this newspaper receive complaints from fans.

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But in the spring of 2005, with the team faltering and the ratings floundering, he was suddenly told that his contract was not being renewed.

Just like that. From Chick to chucked.

“I was in shock,” Sunderland said.

He wasn’t the only one.

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“At the time, I was also shocked,” Marge Hearn said. “I don’t think Paul had enough time to prove himself.”

Marge wanted to make it clear that she is also a big supporter of Joel Meyers, who replaced Sunderland on the telecasts.

“I’m talking strictly about Paul, and I was just very surprised,” she said.

When pressed for a reason, the Lakers told Sunderland that it was about the poor ratings.

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“But at the time, the team was playing so poorly, even [analyst] Stu [Lantz] and I could barely stand to watch them,” Sunderland said.

He always wondered if it was something different. Lots of folks in town wondered the same thing.

When asked this question Thursday, Lakers spokesman John Black said, “Paul did a very professional and good job for us, and was well liked by everyone in the organization. We appreciate the contributions he made. However, because of a couple of factors, we decided to go in a different direction.”

Black declined to list the factors, but other sources have confirmed that the Lakers considered it a combination of poor ratings and lack of pizazz.

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In other words, the guy who did his best to defer to Chick’s memory was fired because ... he deferred to Chick’s memory?

“It wasn’t about me. It was never about me,” Sunderland said.

In trying to dance around Chick’s flame, Sunderland was perhaps engulfed by it. So, it seemed, was his career.

The broadcasting jobs for various networks that he’d held before replacing Hearn had been either eliminated or filled by other people.

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His attempts to land another NBA play-by-play job were rebuffed.

“It was like life had moved on,” Sunderland said.

He hadn’t held the Lakers job long enough to establish himself as a top free agent.

But he’d held it just long enough, perhaps, to scare away teams that thought they couldn’t afford him.

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He landed in limbo, where he sits today, working about 20 college basketball games this season for FSN West while still hoping to return to the league next season.

“I hope the god of fates is watching him, because he deserves it,” Stratton said. “I know something really good will happen to him, because he has earned it.”

Even now, Paul Sunderland refuses to criticize the team that canned him while embracing the memory that smothered him.

“If the high point of my career is succeeding Chick, then I consider myself a success,” he said, still deferring, forever wondering.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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