From the Couch: Today's NBA voices no match for Hearn

Published Jun. 1, 2010 4:34 p.m. EDT

Most anniversaries are a pain in the butt, although (free tip here, guys) I don't recommend ignoring one. Yet as a basketball fan watching from the cheapest seats — that is, the couch — the Memorial Day run-up into the NBA playoffs always fills me with a sense of misty-eyed nostalgia.

It reminds me why I miss Chick Hearn.

Hearn’s name doesn’t mean nearly as much outside Los Angeles, but the Lakers announcer — who spent 40 years as the team’s voice before dying with his broadcasting boots on at the age of 85 — set a standard that’s sorely lacking among most of today’s play-by-play men and analysts.

Essentially handling both duties in a virtuoso one-man show (his parade of color guys were clearly role players), Chick peppered his broadcasts with colorful vernacular — “faked into the popcorn machine,” “the mustard is off the hot dog” — but spoke in clear, understandable bursts at an astonishingly rapid clip. That’s in part because his calls were simulcast on radio, yet his constant rat-a-tat patter wasn't intrusive on TV.


Compare that to the current crop of talent on ABC/ESPN and TNT.

Many are former coaches and players, but they’ve all gotten the memo and been “SportsCenter”-ized. Take a color guy like Hubie Brown, who can go minutes without uttering a sentence with both a noun and verb or anything resembling identifiable English.

During one playoff telecast, Brown said about a hot player, "Go to the guy. Let him get a feel," which, stripped of context, sounds like he isn't talking about basketball at all.

In fact, a lot of what Brown says sounds vaguely dirty — like this observation about Spurs center Tim Duncan: “He’s such a major threat down on the box area, once he gets the ball and he turns on you, see how he comes right up into your face.” Ouch.

Then again, compared with college hoops motor-mouths like Bill Raftery and Dick Vitale, who speak their own language — like Jodie Foster's character in “Nell” — Hubie could qualify as a candidate for Poet Laureate of the United States.

ABC’s primary NBA team — Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson — epitomizes much of what’s wrong with modern announcing.

A former coach, Van Gundy has some sharp insights but regularly obscures them with schtick, as if he’s auditioning for the George Costanza role on “Seinfeld.” Jackson, meanwhile, has adopted an empty catchphrase — “Momma, there goes that man!” — that he repeats frequently enough to inspire an online petition begging him to stop.

Breen has a terrific voice, but his verbal repertoire seems limited to “Puts it in!” and “Knocks it down!” — hardly representing a threat to Marv Albert’s “Yes, and it counts!” He’s not bad, but as an experiment, try walking out of the room to grab a beer or take a leak and see how difficult it is to follow what's happening based on Breen’s play-by-play.

As for the common habit of hometown announcers shilling for their clubs, while Chick loved the Lakers and shamelessly rooted for them, he could also be fair when discussing opposing teams. Another Lakers-Celtics matchup in this year’s NBA Finals would put him in hog heaven, as I suspect ABC is, salivating at the prospect of big ratings.

By contrast, Chick’s TV replacement, FOX Sports West’s Joel Meyers, is not only a committed homer but manages to sound genuinely panic-stricken and even pissed when the Lakers are losing in the second quarter 46 games into the season. Chill out, Joel.

I’m not talking about Chick’s final years, by the way, when his game lost a step and sidekick Stu Lantz often had to correct him. He remained remarkably sharp into his 80s. He just hung on too long, as so many sports greats do.

Fans in L.A. have undoubtedly been spoiled, with Dodgers voice Vin Scully setting baseball’s broadcast standard and Hearn doing the same for basketball. Unfortunately, the likelihood anybody working in the current climate might rival either of them is — to borrow another well-worn Chick line — slim and none, and slim just left the building.

E-mail Brian Lowry