On a sad Monday over a decade ago, the man who affectionately called himself Golden Throat quietly died. He died and it seemed as if an eternal light had broken its promise, it had gone north with the heavenly wind. Twelve years ago on this very day, Francis Dayle Hearn, otherwise known as Chick, a nickname that stuck with him after a college prank, no longer breathed another basketball word. He died from injuries resulting from a bad fall. It was August 5th 2002 when the Aurora, Illinois native stopped speaking and it was August 5th 2002 when an entire city was overwhelmed with despair.
Of all the people that freely entered the Lakers world, all the players, all the support personnel, all the employees, all the vendors and corporate sponsors, Chick was the one constant in a sea of hundreds, the refuge in a constant ebbing storm. With the exception of the Buss family, everyone else was temporary. But Chick, well, he was always there. Turn the radio on and there was Chick. Turn the television on and there was Chick. He sold cars and he hosted Bowling for Dollars and he broadcast Ali-Frazier. He announced USC football and the Summer Olympics. He was the eyes of UNLV and was a presence in movies. He pitched pizzas; he made you laugh and he also made talking about basketball an art form. Chick at the microphone was Picasso. And Mozart. And Einstein.
All deaths are quiet moments of sorrow, you get stuck in time. Twelve years later Chick’s death is still the same, it echoes across the world of lakes and rivers and basketball courts and playgrounds with a latent sort of grief. The incredible orator who united Lakers fans all over the world with his poetic language, enthusiasm, basketball intelligence, catch phrases and honesty still leaves a giant crevice where he used to be, where his voice announced what he was seeing, what the truth of Lakers basketball was. But no more.
Francis was given the name Chick after his Bradley University teammates forced him to look inside a shoebox for shoes. Apprehensive, he did. Inside the box was a dead chicken, a joke. The nickname stuck. Chick started his Lakers career in March of 1961. That year the Lakers lost in the Western Division Finals. They went to the NBA Finals the next two years and lost.
Beginning on November 21, 1965 Chick began an immortal streak of 3,338 consecutive games without missing one. He didn’t miss the 1969 NBA Finals when Jerry West was the MVP, the first ever to be awarded. But the Lakers who were the favorites lost the series to the Celtics. Chick was there in the Forum hours before game 7 when Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, so convinced the Lakers were going to win, had balloons in the ceiling for the celebration. This infuriated Red Auerbach who said, “Those things are going to stay up there a hell of a long time”. Bill Russell, the Celtics player-coach, seethed too especially when he heard the USC band play. The Celtics used it as motivation and when they won their 11th championship on the Fabulous Forum floor Bill Russell and the Celtics taunted Jack Kent Cooke and those damned balloons.
Chick did not miss the 1971-72 Lakers win streak of 33 games in a row. He did not miss Magic Johnson’s first game against the San Diego Clippers which ended with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar hitting a game winner. The rookie from Michigan State startled Kareem with a fierce, playful bear hug as if he had just won a title. Chick did not miss the end of that season when Magic played all five positions and won his first NBA title. He did not miss the moment his broadcast partner, Pat Riley, was stolen from the booth to become the Lakers head coach, ushering in Showtime.
Chick did not miss the game in Vegas when Kareem set the scoring record. He was there for the best of Kobe and Shaq and their comeback in game 7 against the Portland Trailblazers in 2000. Trailing by 13 in the 4th quarter they rallied furiously to earn a birth in the NBA Finals. Chick did not miss Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals when Shaq fouled out and Kobe told him, “I got this” and went on to score nearly every point in overtime.
He was there when the Lakers embarked on a 15-1 playoff run in 2001, the most dominant march to a title in NBA history. He was there for Robert Horry’s last second three pointer in game 4 against the Sacramento Kings in 2002 to even the series at 2-2.
He called Shaq The Big Fella. He called Kobe The Kid. He called Rick Fox Foxy. The Lakers went into Sacramento and in Game 7 beat the Kings on their home floor. Chick Hearn, after seeing one pathetic shot after another by the Kings said, “they can’t throw a pea in the ocean.”
Chick loved his phrases and so did everyone else. They glided off his tongue like butter. Whether it was you can call it in Braille- referring to an obvious call or he has 2 chances, slim & none, and slim just left the building, Chick Hearn was Shakespeare. Poetic, amusing, honest, lyrical and possessing of beauty was his particular genius. When he said the Clippers couldn’t beat the Sisters of Mercy it was funny and it was true.
Chick’s continuous game streak ended on December 16, 2001 when he needed bypass surgery. Eight months later he would fall at his Encino home and never recover. At his memorial service, Archbishop Roger Mahoney said of Chick, he brought “a spirit of unity and harmony” to the city of Los Angeles. Chick was the rare human being who could erase barriers. “He was able to bring together people from all kinds of backgrounds, races, languages, ethnic groups. He helped our city more than anyone can imagine.”
James Dale, a Crenshaw High schoolteacher of 50 years openly wept then. “He was the only way I got to know the Lakers. He helped me to know the players.”
The last game Chick Hearn saw was game 4 of the NBA Finals. In that game the Lakers were trailing by 3 with 9 minutes left. Kobe made a 3 pointer to tie the score. Brian Shaw made a 18 foot jumper. Then Devean George hit a three. Kobe hit a 15 footer and the Lakers never trailed, on route to their third NBA title in a row. It was this triumph that was the last image of his beloved Lakers, one Chick took with him to heaven: Lakers, 2002 NBA Champions. And he was too, Chick Hearn was the Lakers champion.
Rick Fox said at his memorial service on August 10, 2002, “He always made me feel like I was worthy of wearing a Laker uniform.”
Some people you never remember. Their lives matter in the sense that all lives matter but there is an absence of immortality after the fact. Chick Hearn was not one of those souls. He of the elegant and graceful voice entered our lives in a simple way: he talked. But it was more than that, more than what he said and how he said it, more than he was the voice of the Lakers recording and documenting their excellence. We remember how he made us feel on a rainy night when it was a bad day with nothing going right but Chick’s voice made everything seem possible again.
The irony of Chick Hearn was this. He gave Jerry West the nickname Mr. Clutch but Chick was Mr. Clutch. He gave James Worthy the nickname Big Game but Chick was Big Game. He gave Kareem the nickname Captain. But Chick was the Captain. For 41 years he was the Lakers Mr. Everything.