It’s Spring in L.A., and it was hot as shit yesterday, a million gnats are circling on the roof, and all the Laker flags are proudly flapping in the breeze, affixed to car windows across the city. The guys are hard at work in the heat, selling t-shirts at the corner of Crenshaw and Adams and the Lakers are looking strong going into the playoffs, so there’s that energy in the air.
It’s Los Angeles’s one true sporting obsession.
I’m incredibly biased for the Lakers. I take relish in suspending my objectivity and rooting like mad, yelling out in crowded bars ‘Ko-Be Ko-Be’. Every call that goes against them is by a bird-brained, can’t see, piece of shit, ref. I even refuse to recognize Sacramento as our state’s capital.
I grew up with Magic Johnson, coming down the court, smiling, his no-look passes finding a sublimely streaking James Worthy for the smooth, professional dunk; and Jack Nicholson in his heyday, stoned out of his mind probably, applauding along with everyone else, the Fabulous Forum rockin’.
I grew up spoiled by Chick Hearn, his eloquent stylings changed basketball, the all-time greatest sports announcer ever! PERIOD.
When he passed away my wife didn’t understand the big deal.
“The big deal?” I wailed in mourning. “He invented half the words in the basketball lexicon: slam dunk, air ball, no harm no foul, triple double. He was kinda like a father, well not a father, but fatherly, chiding them when they did bad and telling us stories from back in the day. He had, like, the longest announcing streak ever. And, he was the nicest man, always talked about his wife. You know how you think old people are adorable, well he had a cute muppet face. You would have loved him.
“Every time I went to a game, this is back when they were at the The Forum, in Inglewood, in the old days, I always tried to spot him in the press booth. My dad would walk me around the concourse at halftime. I’d wave, and, maybe it’s because I was a kid, but he was always nice enough to wave back.”
“Okay,” she said. “I get it.”
No, you don’t.
I don’t even get it. What changes from being a kid? so caught up in something it’s like an extension of your being; feeling the joy and the agony as if you were out there in a uniform? Why do you lose it? as an adult – going to work, coming home – sometimes forgetting when the game is even on?
She grew up in Brazil and Connecticut – no harm there – but my wife doesn’t know what it was like to be twelve years-old at the Forum in 1988, when Chick Hearn puts the game in the refrigerator, and the crowd stands and cheers and slaps high fives, and Randy Newman’s I Love L.A. starts to play as the buzzer sounds and Michael Cooper throws the ball in the air and you watch it travel a celebratory arc, glassy eyed with joy, your stomach slightly nauseous from hot dogs and cracker jacks.
And this is the point where the essay wallows in garbage time. (another Chick Hearn phrase)
The sloppy loose ends, wayward prose, philosophical backwater. Dragging a point too far.
It seemed like when Chick died, my childhood died. My last, true, connection to it, at least. Chick was the ultimate safety blanket, there for me year after year, never missing a game. Through the good times and the bad, but thankfully, and enviably, more good than bad. I had to face it though, it was the end of an era. The comforting voice was gone… I wasn’t a kid, not even a teenager, I was 27 years old when Chick died, but it felt like something heavy transpired, like the passing of a relative. That living reminder of pure joy, unaffected by larger issues, just the fate of the basketball and its travels through hoops, was extinguished. His voice was a portal I could enter and feel, however fleeting and tenuous, some connection to my innocence and childhood; and when the voice was gone, the portal closed.
If Chick could speak to me from the grave, I imagine his corpse telling me to ‘grow up, get over it!’ He’d say, ‘there’s lots of referees in the building, only three getting paid’. Or, in this case, I guess, there’s one referee…
His game was over and mine was sluggish.
You could say the first quarter had ended. I graduated college in the home of Larry Bird, came home to celebrate Shaq and Kobe’s third championship. I started to become this thing: artofstarving. Started to pick up my game. I brought my wife back from Boston and we learned about the give and go. About working as a team. When I think about it, if ever asked, I would list Chick Hearn as my favorite philosopher; a man who coined the term ‘the mustard is off the hot dog’ for a player who, while trying to show off, messes up; a player who hits a critical free throw has ‘ice water in his veins’, this is a man with wisdom in his elocution.
It’s five years late, but this ones for you, Chick.