On crisp fall weeknights not too long ago, a young boy would come home and the routine would be set in motion. The starched-white baseball pants with green on the knees and brown on the bottom would come off, or other nights it would be the sweaty mesh Nike shorts and the black high top basketball shoes with the laces tied just right. The dirtied garments would be tossed in the washer, a load of soap went in with them, and then the boy would hurry off to the steaming shower to clean up before dinner.
“How was school today?” his mother would say, usually from the kitchen where water boiled, meat broiled and dinner was prepared with love.
The boy would respond in the same monotonic dialect regardless of whether he got an ‘A’ on a math exam or his science teacher told him he needed to pay a little closer attention in class. “It was good,” he would say. On some nights, the word “good” had never meant so little. This was not to say the boy was never enthralled by academia or was never proud enough of an assignment to gloat. There were many times when he would explain what he was writing about in American History. Or, perhaps it was his research essay on Jackie Robinson. It’s hard to remember. The grade school years tend to blend together once the adult years — and the adult responsibilities — become life’s full-time tenant.
At the dinner table, the boy’s father would often ask about what he did at practice that afternoon, and then the boy’s ears would perk up. Baseball fields, basketball courts, that was his domain. He could ramble for lengths at a time about going to the batting cages to whack the yellow rubber balls until the grip on his aluminum TPX baseball bat insisted on wearing an oozing blister into his palm. He could relive the diving catches he made in the dirt or the bullet throws he fired across the diamond. Some nights, even, the boy would drag his father into the yard to toss him a few more groundballs. If the boy had a basketball game coming up, then it was shooting a few extra hoops in the driveway instead.
If there was algebra to be done or a book report to complete, it was rushed through while waiting for dinner, because the boy knew what happened on many nights between 6:00 and 7:00. That’s when the man-alarm sounded for boys and their fathers in Southern California.
“From high above the western sideline of the Los Angeles Forum, hello again, everybody, this is Chick Hearn.”
When those words boomed out of the living room television set, it was time. Time to scarf down the last bite of food if the plate wasn’t yet wiped clean, time to rush the dishes into the sink if they weren’t already there, time to, most importantly, nestle into a comfortable position on the couch and get ready for Chick’s broadcast of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Chick became a staple of the young boy’s life from October through June. The Lakers always had stars, but not even a supreme talent like Kobe Bryant could get fans to stick around for all 48 minutes of a Tuesday night game against the Milwaukee Bucks. At home on the couch, though, Chick could. He spoke with warmth, described with beauty, worked with a zeal that pulled fans through the radios and the TVs into the arena. It was one hell of a magic trick, what Chick did.
The young boy wasn’t around for the bulk of Chick’s days. He wasn’t around when Chick’s remarkable streak of 3,338 consecutive games began on November 21, 1965. No, the boy caught the overtime period of Chick’s career. The boy’s father tried to fill in some of the gaps. He illustrated what it sounded like to hear Chick screech when Magic Johnson buried a running skyhook to beat the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the ’87 NBA Finals. He convinced the boy that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s signature skyhook was both the most unstoppable and most beautiful move in sports. Footage of the Magic Man leading a fast break? That defied any explanation the boy’s father could concoct.
But beyond that, the boy’s father simply wanted him to listen. To enjoy. To savor. To know what it meant to be a young boy 30 years prior. If you listened closely enough to Chick calling a basketball game, you swear the man was trying to parent America’s youth for those two hours. His words transcended sports, sticking with kids who were far too young to know the glory days of his career.
He just did the bunny hop in the pea patch… Oh, and the mustard came off the hotdog… Dribble-drive, and he throws up a prayer… He has two chances, slim and none, and slim just left the building… No harm, no foul… He bloooowwwss the layup! Heart brrrrreeeaaak… My grandmother could guard him, and she can’t go to her left… This is nervous time now… If that goes in, I’m walking home…
The wacky vernacular went on forever with Chick. You see, with Chick, those expressions weren’t forced. The words weren’t diagrammed. Chick wasn’t a talking head looking for a shtick to extend a fledgling media career. His prose was part of him. He believed that was how he could deliver the best product to his listener.
The young boy ate it up. He would keep the TV on during blowouts to listen to Chick’s descriptions. He wanted to know how a pro went about his work. He wanted to hear how a local announcer could be a homer and play up to his audience but yet maintain enough integrity to call out a team when effort failed to make the dinner meeting with expectations. He wanted to know how a voice could make the biggest playoff game seem like a joyous kids’ game yet make the most mind-numbingly boring regular season contest feel like it was bigger than words.
If there was ever an adequate explanation, it was that Chick himself was bigger than words. Bigger than his own words, somehow. His most famous call of all, putting the game “in the refrigerator,” was as gaudy and superfluous as it got, and yet Chick was bigger than it.
“Well, Stu (Lantz), this game’s in the refrigerator, the door is closed, the lights are out, the eggs are coolin’, the butter is getting hard, and the Jell-O is jigglin’!”
How can anyone say those words and not get mocked? How can a figure be so iconic that these nutty phrases and funny puns are spoken like gospel?
Chick did it, and it was something all could appreciate. It was those Chickisms that filled the boy’s youth until a summer day in 2002. Chick had called the Lakers sweep of the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals merely weeks earlier when he slipped and fell in his home in Encino, Calif. Chick injured his head during the fall, and he passed away three days later.
To the masses, Chick’s death wasn’t unexplainable. Yes, it was shocking that the greatest voice of Lakers basketball was suddenly silenced, but the physical event itself wasn’t mysterious. The man was 85, and the elderly sometimes take tumbles, and sometimes those tumbles break bones and cause tragic injury. The young boy was getting a little older, but he was still numb to the news.
So when the summer passed and October rolled around, the boy stepped into the shower after school and after practice on opening night of the Lakers season, his dirty baseball pants with green on the knees and brown on the bottom already rumbling in the wash, and his eyes turned glassy as the hot water ran. It finally was real. It was all harm and all foul.
There would be Lakers games, yes, but there would be no Chick Hearn. There would be warm meals coming from the kitchen with love, but there would be no Tuesday night dribble-drives.
There would be no warm voice welcoming everybody again from high above the western sideline.
* * *
Of course, as you know, I was that young boy. I recently graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism, and I had a little down time between the end of my college world and the beginning of my real world. The internships lasted until the end of the semester, and then that was it. I had some time to relax and enjoy the ocean breeze of my Southern California hometown, which has been great for a few days.
But it’s a funny thing pursuing a writing life. You get this itch. This itch to explore and describe and converse with people. This itch to think. So after I spent a couple weeks getting away from writing and taking a break from the creative process, it was time to find another outlet. Thus the creation of this blog. I have published blogs before and done some other things around the Internet, but I wanted something fresh. A new vision at a place that I could control.
I spent about four days laboring over a name for my new blog, which became exceedingly difficult and taxing on my mind because I wanted to do different things with my blog. Yes, 99 percent of what I do here will be sports-related. But if there was an interesting story to be told outside of the realm of sports, I wanted to be able to share it here. If an article or a book or a movie spurned thoughts, I wanted to be able to expound on them in this space. That’s about all I can tell you about the vision of this blog. The rest we will figure out along the way.
But there was one major theme I wanted to maintain here, and that’s the art of original thought, fresh ideas and nuanced discussion. I will link to items here, but only as a tool of reference or as a means to powering along this steamboat of mine in a direction that the mainstream discussion has not already gone. I will not post a batch of links to be read every morning like many blogs do. That’s not a criticism of those blogs — hell, I depend on those blogs like we all do — but merely a line in the sand, a boundary for the purpose of this blog.
I will strive to produce fresh angles of major stories, to lead the discussion of a national topic to a place where you may not have thought it could go. That’s my hope, at least. I hope to entertain at a glance while also leaving a longer lasting impact by writing something of substance, taking something from the sports world and spinning it into a chunk of gristle you can chew on.
I explained to my dad what I wanted to do with this blog, and he helped me come up with the Chick Hearn inspired named. It made more sense when I started thinking about the impact Chick had on my sports consumption as a kid and how his description and handling of a narrative helped, in some way, form my voice as a writer. I am not so narcissistic to say that I will write any words as entertaining and elegant as Chick’s words, because I can assure you I will not. But naming the blog “Western Sideline” is a homage to Chick and a reminder of what this space is meant to be.
It’s meant to be a place to think. A place to tell stories. A place to explore. A place to enjoy. A place to challenge. A place to question. Like Chick Hearn, I hope it will be all of these things at different times.
But at all times, this is a place to discuss.
Follow Teddy Mitrosilis on Twitter here. You can also reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.