Chick Hearn, the rapid-fire, iron-man basketball announcer who called nearly every Los Angeles Lakers basketball game since the team moved to L.A. from Minneapolis in the early 1960s, died Monday evening at Northridge Medical Center Hospital from head injuries he suffered in a fall in the back yard of his Encino home Friday. He was 85.
Hearn, who added such terms as “air ball” and “slam dunk” to the sports lexicon, had suffered a series of health problems this past season.
His record streak of announcing 3,338 consecutive Lakers games over 36 years was ended by a blocked aortic valve that required heart surgery in December. While recovering, he fell and broke his hip in February. He was able to return at the end of the season and covered all the games throughout the team’s championship run. He even drove to Las Vegas with his wife last week to speak at a fantasy basketball camp.
The only play-by-play announcer the L.A. Lakers ever had, Hearn is honored in the Basketball Hall of Fame — only the third broadcaster to be so feted — and has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In June, he received a Los Angeles Area Emmy Award for lifetime achievement.
So well known was he that he played himself in films including “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Fletch” and “The Love Bug” and TV shows such as “The Simpsons.” He also hosted the L.A. TV show “Bowling for Dollars” in the 1970s.
Venerated by other broadcasters and famous for his game simulcasts on radio and TV, Hearn was known for his ability to not only call play-by-play action but literally step-by-step and pass-by-pass accounts in a torrent of rapid, precise, almost photographic descriptions. His catch phrases — “faked him into the popcorn machine” or “caught with his hand in the cookie jar”– and nicknames gave Hearn an allure and personality rarely found on the nation’s sports airwaves.
Born Francis Dayle Hearn on Nov. 27, 1916, in Aurora, Ill., Hearn missed only two games before his unprecedented streak — one because bad weather kept him grounded and one because he had another broadcast assignment.
The first game of the streak was Nov. 21, 1965, at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
The broadcaster’s drive to keep his streak alive often caused him to struggle under adverse conditions. In the 1998-99 playoffs, while suffering from laryngitis, Hearn called a series against the San Antonio Spurs, his voice cracking and squeaking pronouncedly.
Poignantly a few years ago, as an aside while calling a game, he asked listeners if they’d keep his daughter in their thoughts as she battled an eating disorder. She died not long after. He also had a son who died of an drug overdose in the 1970s.
Since the 1980s, whenever he believed a Lakers victory was clinched, Hearn would say: “You can put this one in the refrigerator. The door’s closed, the light’s out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the Jell-O is jiggling.”
When receiving his Emmy in June, Hearn told the audience he didn’t consider himself a cheerleader for the Lakers. “My main objective when I get behind a microphone is to entertain, yes, but to be honest. If (former Lakers star and general manager) Jerry West threw the ball up in the second row and hit some old lady drinking a beer, that’s tough. You got to report it.”
Upon learning of Hearn’s surgery in December, NBA broadcaster Marv Albert said, “He’s one of the pioneers, one of the giants. For me, Chick Hearn ranks with Marty Glickman and Johnny Most as the three biggest names ever to announce NBA games.”
“There’s never going to be another Chick Hearn,” famed player Earvin “Magic” Johnson said Monday. “He’s a man who will be remembered long after. Some people grow bigger than their sport, bigger than their job.
“He didn’t just support Magic Johnson for what he did on the court, he supported Earvin Johnson Jr. When I talked to Chick, a lot of times it was hardly about basketball. He was always so proud of me. I would get little notes from him. That would make me feel so good.”
Survivors include his wife, Marge, with whom he would have celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary Aug. 13, and granddaughter Shannon and her family.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)