Posts Tagged ‘Chick Hearn’

Some Thoughts on Streetball

December 28, 2011

So it is in life—from sun, to moon, to earth, to night, to day, to you getting up in the morning and going out to play a game of ball. All the rhythms of life are in some way related, one to another.

The First Book of Rhythm by Langston Hughes

So you know, that you’re over the hill
When your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill

Old Folks Boogie by Little Feat

I love to drive past Brea Junior High School on Lambert Road on warm nights when guys are playing basketball under the lights even though I had to quit over a decade ago. I played regularly in the same pickup game for over twenty years (roughly 1980-2000) until my body said, “No mas.” At some point we all must accept that the beat goes on without us.

On Saturdays and Sundays we would meet on the dirty asphalt: Kenny, Mitch, Oscar, Bob, Tony, Carl, Dave, Robert, Michell, Regan, Jeff, Rob, Brian, Don, Andy, Steve, me and whoever else decided to show. Some showed up sporadically; others were there every Saturday and Sunday. Year round unless it was raining, we almost always had enough guys to play five on five full court basketball. Sometimes so many guys showed up that when you lost you’d have to watch three or four games before you could play again.

Streetball has no constitution, but there are rules which vary somewhat from court to court. Two nearly universal rules make it possible for a guy to show up and play almost anywhere.

(Warning: Although I’ve shown up by myself and played at ballcourts in various locals without serious incident, it is always advisable to bring backup when playing with guys you don’t know. And some games should probably be avoided outright. I stopped playing at a particular court in Pomona when a buddy told me that disputes there sometimes involved firearms.)

Rule One: Players call their own fouls and all calls are respected. Play stops any time a player yells “foul,” and his team gets the ball back without any arguing or complaining–well, that’s how it works in theory. But if someone abuses this rule by calling a foul every time he misses a layup, that player will eventually face a barrage of verbal reprimands, sometimes from his own teammates. This is how the game regulates itself.

Rule Two:
The winning team keeps playing while the losers go to the back of the line. At our court next game always went to the five guys who had been waiting the longest, which is a good way to maintain tranquility and keep the games flowing. (At many streetball venues, players are able to call “next” and then choose whomever they want to be on their team–for example, one player might call next and then wait to choose the best players from the team that just lost, ignoring guys who have been waiting for several games.)

Streetball is an institution which functions as a building block of our civil society. Each week we chose to freely associate with one another in order to exercise our appetites for conflict, competition, and fellowship. All sorts of good and bad things can happen when grown men attempt to maintain comity and civility while fiercely chasing a round little ball. Over the years there was often much shouting and bluster, but we were usually able to settle disputes without assaulting one another.

I don’t want to frighten any of my younger readers, but in the age before smartphones, human beings who desired fellowship actually had to talk to the people around them
. And that’s what we did between games, we talked about everything. Sports. Life. The weather. We even talked about the onomatopoetic ramifications of Chick Hearn’s expression, “in-n-out heart BUH-RAKE.” That’s why I miss the guys as much as I miss the game.

Drivers, teachers, lawyers, students, contractors, forklift operators, electricians, surgeons, linemen, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, waiters, painters, carpenters, college professors, air conditioner repairmen. I miss the guys.

by Richard W. Bray

Poets at the Microphone

August 22, 2009



A good athlete must have that harmony of movements or rhythm, which is called “form”….From pitch, to swing, to ball, a whole series of rhythms are set off, one rhythm, or one motion, starting another.  So it is in life—from sun, to moon, to earth, to night, to day, to you getting up in the morning and going out to play a game of ball.  All the rhythms of life are in some way related, one to another.  You, your baseball, and the universe are brothers through rhythms.

Langston Hughes, The First Book of Rhythm

It is impossible to sever language from poetry.  All written and spoken language is rhythmic and metrical.  Even the phonebook read aloud would contain the unmistakable cadences of the English tongue.   All barkers, salesmen, teachers, DJs and sportscasters, and anyone else who makes her living with her voice, are constantly interpreting poetry, whether they realize it or not.

Two of the people who have breathed life into our language for me are sportscasters Chick Hearn and Vin Scully.  Although they are quite different in style and temperament, their respective talents almost perfectly match the games upon which they report(ed).

Linguists refer to English as an accentual-syllabic language because the rhythms of our language are based upon the natural stresses which occur with accented syllables.  A particular form of genius which interpreters of language like Hearn and Scully possess is the ability to unconsciously make thousands of decisions about which syllables to stress and how to stress them during the course of a single sporting event.

The late Chick Hearn, who announced Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball games for thirty-seven years, was a brash, boisterous, irrepressible motor-mouth with an inventive mind for language and metaphor.  He originated many phrases which are now embedded in the nomenclature of the game:  SLAM DUNK, CHARity STRIPE (free throw line), YO-YOing UP and DOWN (dribbling) and TICKy TACK FOUL (an infraction that wasn’t).  When a player on offense had made a move which caused his defender to lurch in the wrong direction, Hearn would say the player had faked his opponent “INto the POPCORN maCHINE.”  Hearn’s machinegun delivery was apposite not only for the action-packed, rapid-fire sport he covered, but for modern age in which we live.

By way of contrast, Vin Scully, who has been covering Los Angeles Dodger baseball games since the team was in Brooklyn (now going on sixty years), seems in many ways better-suited for an earlier, simpler, more agrarian age.  This is not to say that Scully talks like a hick.  Far from it, he is an erudite man who seasons his commentary with literary allusions and historical references.  Scully’s calm, leisurely parlance is perfect for the one major American team sport which is not governed by a clock.  (As George Carlin remarked in his legendary baseball/football routine, while football is “rigidly timed,” in baseball, “you don’t know when it’s going to end.”)   Like the game of baseball itself, Scully’s languid delivery reminds us of an age (whether it actually existed or not) when time was less of a commodity.

The pastoral rhythms of a bygone time live on in baseball, which was invented sometime in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  The innumerable pauses in action allow a good baseball announcer to weave several narratives into the story of the game he is broadcasting.  Like a nineteenth century cracker barrel bard, Scully is above all a storyteller [This is a hypothetical example]:

“Two and one, the young pitcher Davis comes from PENSaCOLa FLORida.  His grandfather was a FULL BLOODed  CHOCKtaw INdian who once EARNED a LIVing HUNTting BEARS.    SWINGANDaMISS.  Two and two.”

When a player hits a ball deep into the outfield and Scully refers to it as a HIIIIIGH FLYYY BAAALL, he is creating poetry.  (If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the arc of the ball in his words.)   Like Hearn, Scully instinctively knows which syllables to stress and how long to stretch out the vowel sound.

Vin Scully feels like a friend to millions of people who have never met him.  His pleasant, mellifluous voice was a tremendous comfort to my grandmother who never missed a game on the radio, particularly during her final, bedridden years.  (And there were certainly times during my drinking days when Vin Scully and a twelve-pack seemed like my two best friends in the world, though not necessarily in that order.)

Poetry is everywhere that people talk.  Once, when I was teaching seventh graders, as I walked up to my classroom door and stuck a key in the lock, the group of three or four students standing there immediately ceased the conversation they were having:

I joked, “You guys don’t have to stop talking because of me.  I’m down.” (Down in this context meaning, cool, alright, one of the gang.)

One of the students, a girl named Janelle, replied, “MISter BRAY you are SOOO NOOOT DOOOWN.”  (“DAVEy LOPES hit a HIIIIGH FLYYYY BAAAALL”)

by Richard W. Bray