It was like a song expressing love — of the game, and of the town. “They call San Francisco the City, New York the Big Apple. Now swing with me to the land of Jazz, New Orleans, where tonight ...’’
For five memorable years, that was the opening verse of Hot Rod Hundley’s broadcasts of New Orleans Jazz games. From 1974 through 1978, Hundley’s rapid, colorful descriptions of games became the stuff of legend: “A.J from the parking lot,’’ whenever Aaron James hit a long distance shot; “The Magic Man,’’ his introduction of Pete Maravich; leapin’ leaners, yo-yoing on the dribble, You gotta love it, baby.’’
Hundley’s calls became part of the patois of New Orleans, with fans echoing his calls while reliving the games. He — and those calls — have become part of Crescent City sports lore, even now, 36 years after the Mormon team owners abandoned New Orleans for their faith’s spiritual headquarters, Salt Lake City, where the team acquired the most incongruous name in sports: the Utah Jazz.
For a guy who spent much of his free time in New Orleans at Pat O’Brien’s, that had to be a shock to his system.
Hot Rod, who died March 27 at age 80, said he never could come up with such a memorable introduction to those games. “What can I say,’’ he asked rhetorically years later, “Swing with me to Salt Lake City?’’
Immensely popular in New Orleans, pro basketball united with Louisiana favorite and ball magician Maravich, James, and explosive and animated coach Butch van Breda Kolff, Hundley was as much a reason for that popularity as the others.
He stayed on the mike of the Jazz until 2009, when he retired.
With broadcasting stints with the L.A. Lakers, Phoenix Suns, CBS College Game of the Week, Hundley, even through the Utah days, maintained New Orleans was a highlight of his career.
“I loved it,’’ he said about 10 years ago to the first Jazz beat reporter, me, on a visit out west. “How could I not?’’
“It was there that I developed into the best announcer in the NBA, and what was I describing? The sometimes indescribable plays of Pistol Pete, the long-range shooting of Aaron James (and sometimes I think his shots were beyond the parking lot), and the sometimes awkward play of fan favorite Stanford scholar and Jazz center Rich Kelley,” Hundley reflected in a sports bar that paid him to use his name (“Hot Rod’s’’). “What a collection of characters.’’
Hundley was kind of a forerunner of Maravich, a showman with uncanny dexterity with the ball. That was his strength as a player playing in the NBA for six seasons. And it turned into a strength as a broadcaster. Hot Rod never hid the secret of that success, making himself work at a craft in ways that he, as a natural athlete, did not apply as much to basketball.
He learned much from Chic Hearn of the Lakers and applied it so much he never wanted a side kick.
“It may sound egotistical,’’ he said during his New Orleans years. “But I’ve played. I’ve been there, and I don’t need a color man. I honestly think this: I’m the best color man in basketball. I know the game. I’ve got humor, and I don’t look bad on camera. Now I want to be the best play-by-play, too. And I know damn well that there’s nobody who can do both as well as I can.’’
But he admitted he had to learn doing it alone could be difficult.
“You have to pace your voice. The first time I ever did play-by-play for Phoenix, I made the first basket of the game sound like it was the championship. By the end of the first quarter I was about half hoarse. Hey, this isn’t going to work. I had to learn to pace my voice, like training leg muscles to keep up with the hard-driving game, especially when you’re doing 90 games a season.’’
He learned. He had a voice once described as rolling in like a fog. And Hundley possessed a distinctive style, barking out with no “S’s”. That is, singular subjects got short plural verbs, i.e. “Goody (Gail Goodrich) right to left frontcourt, angle left to Jimmy Mac (Jimmy McElroy); terminate the belt-high dribble, whip it down to (Spencer) Haywood, penetrate the baseline and score.’’
Or Pistol Pete on the prowl: “Penetrate the middle, fake left, go right, spin up a 15-foot hopper.’’
The five years Hot Rod spent in the Crescent City are indelibly burned into my memory bank. Not sure I ever saw a more free-spirited guy.
Or one more parsimonious. He was a master at avoiding a check. On the road, he’d jump out of cabs with sportswriters a block or two from the destination, saying later,”You guys were going there anyway, so you can charge the paper.’’
His supper would the fare, usually chilli dogs served in the room, so he wouldn’t have to pay for dinner. Thinking of those chilli dogs night after night, I wonder how he lasted so long.
But Hot Rod was quick on the draw describing basketball — and quick on his toes when things were unraveling. One of his greatest moments came when forward Truck Robinson, that night’s Player of the Game, failed to show up for his postgame interview. Hundley went right ahead and interviewed Robinson anyway, playing both parts. Hundley went so far as to award Robinson/Hundley a gift certificate.
“Thanks for joining us, Truck,’’ he said. “Replied Truck/Rod, “It’s always a pleasure to speak to you, Hot.’’
You just had to love it, baby.
An illustration of how highly he came to be regarded came in his last broadcast against the Lakers, for whom he had played and announced. At the end of the game, Lakers fans gave Hot Rod a standing ovation.
New Orleans should as well.