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Basketball world mourns death of Chick Hearn

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LOS ANGELES

Chick Hearn, who made phrases like "slam dunk" and "air ball" common basketball expressions during his 42-year broadcasting career with the Los Angeles , died Monday night. He was 85. Hearn, the only play-by-play announcer the Los Angeles ever had, died at 6:30 p.m. at Northridge Medical Center Hospital, team spokesman Bob Steiner told a grim-faced news conference outside the hospital. Hearn was taken to the hospital Friday night after falling and striking his head in the back yard of the Encino home he shared with his wife, Marge. The two would have celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary on Aug. 13. Surgeons operated twice on Saturday to relieve swelling in his brain, but he never regained consciousness. "Chick, we'll miss you dearly, Quite simply, you're the best," said Mitch Kupchak, the team's general manager and a former player, his voice breaking. About 100 fans gathered outside the hospital, and many broke into tears when they heard Hearn had died. "The city of Los Angeles has lost an incredible icon," said former star Jerry West, now the Memphis president of basketball operations. "For all of the years he's been around as the voice of the , he helped capture so many special moments for fans everywhere. "He was a real joy to be around as a person. He certainly helped me appear to be bigger than life. More importantly, he was a true, great friend. I will miss him." Hearn called a record 3,338 consecutive games starting in 1965 before missing a game because he had to have an operation in December 2001 for a blocked aortic valve. While recovering, he fell and broke his hip. Despite that setback, he returned to work April 9 and broadcast the ' playoff run to their third consecutive NBA championship. He became the ' announcer when the team moved from Minneapolis from Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1960-61 season. Hearn's career with the was far longer than such standouts as West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy and Michael Cooper. And he was calling games long before current stars and were born. "There's never going to be another Chick Hearn," Johnson said Monday. "He's a man who will be remembered long after. Some people grow bigger than their sport, bigger than their job." Johnson said he will remember Hearn for more than what he did in the broadcast booth. "He didn't just support Johnson for what he did on the court," he said. "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." Hearn called his first game in March 1961. His last game was June 12 when the beat the New Jersey 113-107 in East Rutherford, N.J., to complete a sweep of the NBA Finals and earn their ninth title since moving from Minneapolis in 1960. During the finals, he told The Associated Press he was getting stronger every day and planned to work at least one more season. And he said he believed his call of the ' Game 7 victory over Sacramento in the Western Conference finals might have been as good as any in his career. Last week, he drove to Las Vegas with his wife to speak at a fantasy basketball camp. Born Francis Dayle Hearn on Nov. 27, 1916, in Aurora, Ill., Hearn peppered his rapid-fire delivery with terms like "no harm, no foul," "the mustard's off the hot dog," "ticky-tack foul," and "faked him into the popcorn machine." Whenever he believed a 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." Hearn's unique "words-eye view" provided the soundtrack for nine NBA championships - one with West and Chamberlain, five with Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, and the last three with O'Neal and Bryant. "Generations of fans were brought to the NBA by the voice and vision of Chick Hearn," NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement. "From Wilt and West to and Kareem to Shaq and Kobe, Chick was a fixture as the `Voice of the ' and a legend in his profession." When it came time to give out rings, raise championship banners, conduct victory celebrations or retire uniform numbers, Hearn was the master of ceremonies. Hearn also broadcast other historic accomplishments, such as the night in Las Vegas when Abdul-Jabbar broke Chamberlain's NBA career scoring record and when Johnson broke Oscar Robertson's career assist record. "His colorful descriptions of the game transcended the sport and have had an indelible influence on basketball and broadcasting itself," Stern said. Hearn also was a comforting voice to fans in difficult basketball times - helping fans cope with Johnson's HIV announcement in 1991 and Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers' death in 1990. When the moved from the Forum in nearby Inglewood to the downtown Staples Center in 1999, the press room was named in Hearn's honor. He has been immortalized with a star on Hollywood's "Walk of Fame," and appeared as himself numerous times on television shows - including the TV movie "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island." And he hosted the TV show "Bowling for Dollars." Hearn missed just 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. Johnson was in grade school and Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor and a teenager. Throughout his career, Hearn refused to call in sick. He came to work when he wasn't feeling well - including a couple of times with laryngitis that forced him to sit out the second half. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame, Hearn received a standing ovation on his 85th birthday in November during a -Milwaukee game. He got his nickname when friends played a prank on him when he was an amateur player. Given a box he thought contained sneakers, he found a chicken inside. When Hearn broadcast his 3,000th consecutive game in 1998, O'Neal said, "That's an amazing accomplishment. I don't think I've done anything 3,000 times in my life. I hope he stays around 3,000 more games." Hearn documented the ' record 33-game winning streak in the championship season of 1971-72 with West and Chamberlain, saying: "That will never be duplicated." It hasn't. Pat Riley, a member of that team who later spent 2 years beside Hearn in the broadcast booth before he became the coach, credited Hearn with being his mentor, and not only in a broadcasting sense. "He was a man who taught me about discipline," said Riley, who guided the to four NBA titles in the 1980s and now coaches the Miami . "He was an announcer who got fired up for games. He is the best, he has been the best in the NBA forever and will probably go down as the best," Riley said when Hearn's streak reached 3,000. Hearn kept few secrets from fans. But he didn't like to talk about his age. After he reached 70 or so, he would only chuckle and say, "I don't know, I lost my birth certificate." One might say he was "caught with his hand in the cookie jar" during the NBA Finals in June, acknowledging his age and saying he was proud of it. The Hearns had two children, but both died - a son of a drug overdose, and a daughter after battling anorexia. The couple was very close with Shannon, their granddaughter, and her family. AP Sports Writer John Nadel contributed to this story.
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