Chick and Donna

Not your typical Lakers fan --   "Donna", c. 1968

Not your typical Lakers fan —
“Donna”, c. 1968

“Suh-LAMM dunk!”

That’s how Chick Hearn shouted it into the microphone, making “slam” a two-syllable word, and punctuating it with at least three exclamation points.  As the announcer for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chick coined the term “slam dunk”, along with “air ball”, “garbage time”, “no harm, no foul” and lots of others that are now commonplace in basketball’s lexicon.

Hearn called Laker games from 1961 until 2002, at one point reeling off a stretch of 3,338 games without an absence.  He had a rapid-fire style; it was once estimated that he occasionally reached a breathless 200 words-per-minute pace.  Now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Chick Hearn was one of the most popular Lakers ever.

Among his admirers was an elderly woman we called Donna.  No one in the family knows exactly when she became a Laker enthusiast.  To the best of anyone’s recollection, she had never shown any interest in sports.  Donna became captivated by Chick’s accounts of the games, though, so on February 26, 1979, I sent Hearn this letter to tell him about her…

Dear Chick:

The whole family called Alice Stephens “Donna”.  It was more a title than a nickname, like those given to Italian noblewomen.  She was that sort of lady — courteous, proper, and unfailingly pleasant.  But she also had unabashed enthusiasm for the Los Angeles Lakers.

I didn’t get to know Donna until she was in her eighties (she was my wife’s grandmother), but every time I saw her, we always talked basketball… no, not just basketball.  Laker basketball.  They were her team, and through your descriptions, she stayed current on Jerry and Elg and Kareem and, for that mattter, John Q. (Trapp, a Laker reserve).

There was one occasion at a dinner party when she brought a portable radio to the table with her.  It seems the meal conflicted with an important game, and in spite of her otherwise impeccable manners, she wasn’t about to miss that broadcast.

My wife Sally and I want to thank you and the team for all the enjoyment you gave to an old woman.  And somehow, we also thought you should know about the loss of such a loyal fan.  Donna died in her sleep yesterday at the age of ninety-seven.

Sincerely,

Tom Reeder

♦     ♦     ♦

A couple of weeks later, I got this handwritten note from Chick.  One thing I treasure about it is the strip of adhesive that still clings to the paper where he ripped it from the note pad, suggesting that he wrote it in his usual high-velocity style…

Dear Tom + Sally

What a meaningful message!!!  I am so grateful to you for sharing “Donna’s” love of the Laker team.

God bless you both + God have mercy on Donna’s soul.

Gratefully,

Chick Hearn

♦     ♦     ♦

If you ever heard Chick Hearn call a game — that is, if you ever heard Chick give his “word’s-eye view from high above the western sideline” — his voice echoes in this note, doesn’t it?

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11 responses to “Chick and Donna

  1. Thanks Tom. This brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.

  2. Tom, I want you to write my obit when I’m gone…not yet though.

    • I’m sure there are lots of people who would be willing to write your obit, Rick. No, wait, that didn’t come out right. What I mean is, there are lots of people who have plenty of good things to say about you. Please stick around!

  3. I think it’s fair to say that L.A. has been blessed with the two finest announcers in sport. The voices of Chick Hearn and Vin Scully have added immeasurably to the appreciation of sport in L.A. and helped establish the teams in a time when TV was not as widely available. With no football equal it might be the reason why this city doesn’t miss having a pro football team.

    • Monty, you’re right about Scully and Hearn and the role they played in developing strong followings for the Dodgers and Lakers respectively. The football situation was more complicated. Dick Enberg was among the announcers who called games for the Los Angeles Rams on radio; during the 1980s it was Bob Starr, and I’d agree that he was no Hearn or Scully.

      What also worked against the L.A. Rams was the NFL’s blackout rule — if a team didn’t sell out their home game 72 hours prior to kickoff, the game could not be locally televised. Since the Rams played in the cavernous L.A. Coliseum, they had trouble selling 92,000+ tickets for home games. That meant that a lot of games weren’t televised in the local market.

      Now with no NFL team, Los Angeles football fans get to watch as many NFL games as they can stand, so in that sense, they don’t miss having a pro football team.

      • It’s my understanding that baseball had a similar blackout rule. My cousin Bill Olds use to drive to Bakersfield, rent a motel room so he could watch the Dodgers on TV.

      • Straying a little off topic, the sellout rule reminds me that Coliseum had a policy of opening the gates after the half. It still didn’t fill the stadium.

  4. Thanks for that lovely remembrance of my mother. I was as mystified as you were by her love of the Lakers and Chick. I never knew her to go to a sports event of any kind. I do know how she got the name, Donna, though. It was a charming mispronunciation of “grandma” by her first grandchild, Phyllis. She loved it and adopted it immediately.

  5. Thanks for bringing Donna back to center stage. What fun to see her picture and read those wonderful words again. She was certainly one of a kind and how lucky we are to have had her for a grandma. Memories of her are wonderful and I thank you for sharing.

  6. Don, it’s true that from the ’50s into the ’70s the Dodgers televised only a handful of games. If memory serves, it was fewer than 20 telecasts during the regular season. As Monty pointed out, that’s why Vin Scully’s radio broadcasts were so important in developing a strong fan base.

    The situation is quite a bit different now — every game is televised, and the Dodgers recently made a huge deal with Time Warner Cable for television rights. According to news reports, the price tag was between $7 and $8 billion over the 25-year term of the contract.

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