Tuesday, August 6, Chick Hearn died. That won’t mean much to most of you, but if you live or lived in Los Angeles, and you are or were a Lakers basketball fan, it will.
For years, Chick Hearn has been my role model. I want to tell you why. We can learn a lot from what he did, and how well he did it.
First and foremost, I respect talent. Chick Hearn was the greatest basketball announcer I ever heard. He was the greatest sports announcer I ever heard. He was the greatest announcer I ever heard.
Basketball is a fast game. The announcer on the radio must be able to communicate to the listener what is happening on the court, but without confusing him. More than this: the listener must get almost as excited as if he were watching the game. The listener must have a mental picture of the court, or at least where the ball is on the court. The announcer has to paint this verbal image within a second or two of the action. He cannot fake it, because the reactions of the crowd must correspond to his description of the action. Furthermore, if anything of significance is happening away from the ball, the announcer must see it, hold it in reserve mentally, and be ready to point out its existence, preferably just before potential becomes reality. It’s a skill possessed by few men. Chick Hearn was the master. He was so good at this that a lot of Laker fans at Laker Arena would bring transistor radios with them, so they could understand what was going on right in front of them. For them, seeing wasn’t necessarily believing. Hearing Chick was believing.
Hearn is thought to have invented these basketball phrases:
slam dunk air ball (missed everything) finger roll (7’1″ Wilt Chamberlain’s trade shot: released so close to the basket that he almost rolled it off of his fingers) no harm, no foul (should not have been called, and wasn’t) ticky-tack foul (should not have been called, but was) faked him into the popcorn machine.
There were many others, though not all were really his. But enough of them were.
He coined phrases that have become standard for the sport, with “slam dunk” being used in many areas of life, always meaning unstoppable — a sure thing. (You know: like the NASDAQ was in early 2000, or so the pundits said.)
IN THE SHADOWS
Hearn got his big break by announcing the basketball games of the University of Southern California. In 1960 and 1961, I would often listen to USC games, which were broadcast on FM radio, which not that many people listened to back then. I was attending a school 90 miles east, but I had met one of the USC players at a summer camp for collegians, so I listened to the games.
I could find no trace on the Web of Hearn’s USC connection. That era is forgotten. College basketball in that era was not a major sport. It was not until the 1962-63 season that the NCAA finals were broadcast on national TV. In March of 1962, UCLA made it to the NCAA final four for the first time. John Wooden was not a well-known coach in 1962. A local Los Angeles TV station broadcast it. Basketball was rated so low in 1962 that no local network affiliate was interested. This, you understand, was in the Los Angeles market — gigantic. The NCAA forced the station to agree in advance to broadcast the final game even if UCLA lost in the semi-finals, which it did, by two points, after a foul call so disputed that the post-game NCAA film clip eliminated the actual foul. The NCAA knew that the station would not otherwise broadcast the NCAA’s final game. I was at UCLA at the time, and my cousin’s fiancée was the team’s player of the year. So, I remember. It is still hard to believe. CBS has just agreed to pay $6.2 billion to the NCAA for the right to broadcast NCAA games through 2013.
So, laboring in FM radio’s shadows in early 1960 with an incomparable skill, Chick Hearn got his big chance when the Minneapolis Lakers came to Los Angeles.
And you know what? When he was in town, and the Lakers were not playing, he still broadcast the USC games through 1963. Anyway, that’s what I recall. But maybe I’m imagining it.
I think most men hope for something like this for their careers. We labor long and hard to develop our skills. We hope that doors will open to us that will allow us to maximize our contribution, and even get raises.
In 1960, pro basketball was just beginning to make its mark on American culture. It was the era of the Celtic-Laker rivalry, when the Celts beat the Lakers in the finals, year after year. It was Jerry West and Elgin Baylor vs. Bill Russell and Sam Jones and John Havlicek. And, in Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain did the impossible, over and over. (Trivia question: What is the greatest record in sports, showing absolute bodily control, which will never be equalled? More than this: it is so stupendous that it is not even tracked. My answer: from the day he walked onto a high school court until the day he retired, Wilt Chamberlain never fouled out of a game, yet he played more minutes per game than any other NBA player.)
Endurance. I respect it. We all do. That’s why we respect Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken. Hearn also endured. From 1965 to 2001, Hearn broadcast 3,338 games in a row. It took a heart attack to stop him, briefly. He came back for another year of broadcasting. Think about that. He was 85 when he died. So, he never missed a day on the job from age 49 to age 84. He had intended to retire after one more season. He slipped, fell, and injured his head. That’s not a bad way to go.
This is why the man has been my role model. If I can do anything like what he did, I will regard my stay on earth as productive.
He never got “old man’s voice.” That was a blessing, given the nature of his profession. He looked about 70 when he died — a photogenic 70.
FINDING YOUR NICHE
Hearn found his niche. I know nothing about how he got that USC announcing job. The obituaries don’t say much about his early years. He had an amazing skill, and he applied it to a sport that requires just this skill.
We all want this, too: that unique job for which our skills are uniquely suited. We can then look back at the end of our careers and say, “I did not waste my talent.”
This is why the so-called Renaissance man has a big problem. He doesn’t know what he is best at. Leonardo da Vinci was very good at everything, but he is remembered mainly for one painting: the Mona Lisa. (Why that painting is so great is beyond me. But I’m a Philistine.) He is remembered therefore for not making much of a difference, the whiz kid who left one painting to posterity.
Hearn could look back on his career and not second-guess himself. That’s a great thing for anyone. Bill Clinton can’t do that. Neither can George Bush, Sr. Think of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I suppose Dwight Eisenhower, who never stumbled, could, and maybe Harry Truman, who had failed at everything else. But most public men with significant talent cannot enjoy this: to be the best in your field, and to have your peers know this.
Well, that’s too much to expect. But if a person knows that he succeeded in matching his talents with his life’s work, that’s terrific, even if he wasn’t the best.
Next, if your work was the most important thing you could have done, in which you would have been most difficult to replace, all the better. I call this a person’s calling.
Finally, you make a lot of money doing it. This means that your calling was your occupation, and your occupation was in heavy demand.
The number of people who do all three — find their calling, make it their occupation, and make a pile of money — is very limited. Some ministers match calling and occupation. Some teachers do. But they don’t make a lot of money. The kinds of people described in The Millionaire Next Door and The Millionaire Mind do all three. They are people who are above average in intelligence, but rarely geniuses. They did not attend the best schools. They did not get greased careers. The high school hot shots get the greased careers, but most of them are salaried — very well salaried — from the day they graduate from law school or Harvard Business School. But you don’t get rich with a large salary. You spend it. You get rich by starting a successful niche business. Then you can look back and say, “That’s the best thing I could have done with my time, given my one unique skill and otherwise mediocre gifts.”
If Chick Hearn had never been hired by the Lakers, and had spent his life broadcasting USC basketball games, that would have been a good thing. He would have been able to match his unique skill with the support of thousands of fans. But with the Laker job, he did this with millions of fans.
NO WASTED TALENT
I used to do very basic Christian evangelism with prisoners in a maximum security Texas prison. All that this took was for me to show up once a week: no huge talent on my part. I lived about a 75-minute one-way drive from the prison: no big sacrifice.
One of the things I told these men, whose lives really had been changed for the better, but whose environment hadn’t and wasn’t going to, was that God doesn’t waste His people’s talent. They may, but that’s their responsibility. I cannot prove this, of course. When you make this kind of statement to a man with a 30-year sentence, with 25 years to go, and not much hope of parole, you had better believe it. If you don’t, he won’t. I believe it.
Two of these men got out and have made it. Another one didn’t. He’s back behind bars. One who made it was a barber in prison. He is a barber on the outside. He attends church and sings in a choir, as he did in prison. The other man was a con man, and a good one, as con men go. He separated people from a lot of money. But he had problems with women and drugs. He would up in jail. As Christians, they have now broken the destructive patterns of their behavior. They both say that prison was what made their lives better, because they were not ready to hear about God before they got locked up. They look back at their prison experience and think, “Given the mess I was going in, prison was the best thing that could have happened to me.” What marks the serious ones behind bars is when they say this when they have little or no chance of parole. They don’t say, “I was framed.”
Chuck Colson says the same thing. He started a fine prison ministry, Prison Fellowship. (I did not work with it.) Watergate was what made him, by destroying his world. In the White House, he had the reputation of a man willing to walk over his grandmother for political reasons. (The movie, “Born Again,” is faithful to his story.) Solzhenitsyn said the same thing about his time in the Gulag. His books changed the world.
The point I am trying to make is this: if you can carefully assess the most important thing that you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace, that’s your calling. Pursue it. If it doesn’t pay much, do it anyway. If you can’t afford to do it, then cut your expenses, start saving, work longer hours, and pray.
A few weeks ago, I saw a documentary that featured Air Force General Daniel “Chappie” James. He died in 1978. He died the same month that he resigned from the Air Force. When his job was finished, he was finished. This relationship is more common than men like to think. In a film clip, this four-star general told his viewers — probably black teenage boys — about his mother. His mother had told him, “When you bang at a door to get in, and one day the door opens, don’t tell the man at the door that you have to go get your bags.” Then he explained her point: do what you can to get the job you want before the opportunity arrives. Be ready to go through that door. Don’t bang on it until you are ready.
Chick Hearn had his bags packed in March, 1960. I don’t know if he banged on the Lakers’ door. I doubt that he did. I assume that the Lakers, about to move to California from Minneapolis (there are no lakes in Los Angeles, other than Toluca Lake, which isn’t a lake), started asking around about L.A. basketball announcers. His name came up. There were only two. The other was at UCLA. He wasn’t as good.
THE CENTRALITY OF YOUR CALLING
This year, we have seen rich executives who thought they were in the catbird seat a year ago, who are now trapped in class-action law suits, and will be for years and many legal expenses to come.
Martha Stewart’s net worth is down by the tens of millions, along with her company’s stock, because she, an ex-stock broker, could not resist selling shares in some high-tech bubble stock when she got an illegal inside tip. The stock market losses she would have suffered by ignoring that phone call would have been minuscule compared to what the stick market has done to her net worth since then, and what Congress is going to do to her for misleading them under oath. She forgot what her calling really is. It isn’t to be a stock picker or a stock broker. It is . . . for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what it is. But it is cute, I guess, and millions of women like it enough to buy her magazines, buy books, and watch her TV show.
Warren Buffett’s occupation has been his life’s calling: buying substantial percentages of companies, but rarely selling. He has done the most productive thing that he could have done, and he is truly irreplaceable. (Sadly, when he dies, his money will go to a tax-free cause that appalls me, but it’s not my money, so I won’t answer for it on judgment day.) But if his father had possessed the same money-making skill, he would have faced a very difficult choice. Howard Buffett was the Ron Paul of his day, the most free market member of Congress, a viewpoint that his son does not share. He did not make a lot of money while in Congress. He influenced few people. But he voted right, against the Fair Deal and Republican compromises therewith. He favored the re-institution of the gold standard. He voted “no” when almost nobody else did. He voted “no” the way his son makes money: consistently. He stayed the course. I respect the son’s ability, but the father was a giant, even though the public doesn’t remember him, and few knew about him back then.
Find your calling. Your money has meaning during your lifetime mainly in terms of your calling. The market can take care of itself.
May you be a Chick Hearn. May you make your life’s calling a slam dunk. But try to stay out of the popcorn machine.
August 9, 2002