Hot Rod's gotta love it: retirement

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 2:29 p.m. MDT

Jazz announcer Hot Rod Hundley broadcasts on the radio during the Jazz's first-round playoff game Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Jazz announcer Hot Rod Hundley broadcasts on the radio during the Jazz's first-round playoff game Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

He heads toward the rafters, zippered briefcase in hand.

In it is the handmade score sheet he personally fills out before each game, the format so old it has room to list only two referees — and the NBA began using three back in the late 1980s.

He's relied on it since he started broadcasting, and he even got ex-partner Chick Hearn — the late, legendary Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play man — to use one as well.

It's not old-fashioned paperwork, though, that's pushing him to part in a world of blogs and Twitter.

Rather, the long journey up is the bane of his existence — and the chief reason the 74-year-old Hot Rod Hundley will, after 35 years as broadcast voice of the then-New Orleans and now Utah Jazz, call it a career after this season.

"Radio," a rather melancholy Hundley said, "is not what I thought it would be."

So with the Jazz two games away from elimination in their ongoing first-round NBA playoff series with the Lakers, and Game 5 in the best-of-seven scheduled for Monday night in L.A., tonight's Game 4 at EnergySolutions Arena could very well be the last he ever calls in Utah.

If so, and whenever Hundley's calls soon end, the Salt Lake airwaves of KFNZ 1320-AM never will be the same.

"It will be sad," said Hundley, who got his NBA start playing 52 years ago for the Lakers — then the Minneapolis Lakers — after being drafted No. 1 overall.

"I'm kind of scared, too, I might add. 1957, I left West Virginia University. I went to the Lakers and got a paycheck the first week in October. I haven't missed one since. Now, I'll miss paychecks after September. I'm kind of nervous about it."

Then again, Hundley laughs at the joke, he probably hasn't picked up a check in 52 years, either.

Probably saved every per diem envelope he ever received, too.

"That," Hundley said, "is the only thing that got me (to) where I can pull this off — retirement."

Sad, too, is the realization for so many that a man welcomed for so long into their homes, cars and offices will no longer be heard.

"He's a fixture here in this community and all around the league," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said Friday.

"You can't be mad at yourself when you've done it that long. He's had, obviously, a tremendous career — especially when you count the Stockton-and-Malone era," Jazz veteran forward Matt Harpring said before breaking into a Hundley imitation. "You know: 'Stockton-to-Malone.' You're always gonna hear that."

Just not much more Williams-to-Boozer, the Jazz's current pick-and-roll pair.

"I know I don't have much time left (either)," said Sloan, who won't have to hold the Jazz's team bus for the occasionally late Hundley much longer. "(But) life goes on, and we wish him nothing but the best, because we've also been good friends."

The relationship goes all the way back to Sloan's college days at Evansville.

Hundley — his six-year career with two All-Star seasons having come to a close — was working at the time as a representative for the Converse sneaker company.

What Sloan didn't know was that he was doing some scouting on the side.

"Slick (Leonard) called him and said, 'Can this guy play?' " Sloan said with reference to Leonard, then an NBA head coach and Hundley's ex-Lakers teammate. "He said, 'He can do everything with the basketball except throw it in the ocean.' That was Hot Rod's recommendation."

For the longest time, Hundley called Jazz games on both radio and TV.

If it were up to him, the team still would be simulcasting today.

"But the league made us change," he said.

So Hundley returned to his roots, and at the start of the 2005-06 season — with a new five-year contract in hand, the team holding options on seasons No. 4 and 5 — he started working radio only.

Around the same time, many NBA teams — in their infinitely greedy quest to make more money — moved radio announcers off the floor and to much-higher perches.

Hundley wears no socks. But it's not just because Hots is cool.

Rather, he's had hip-replacement and knee-replacement surgery — and at arenas where stairs often are the best way up, that's no fun, either.

"When I think ahead," Hundley said, "I'm not enjoying being up in the top of the building. And every building — not just here."

At EnergySolutions Arena, Hundley now calls games from the top of the lower bowl — nearly 30 rows above the court.

From there, simply seeing what he must is a challenge that's becoming too overwhelming to overcome.

"Being upstairs — it's terrible to broadcast from," he said. "Why is television on the floor?"

The Jazz's TV crew — play-by-play man Craig Bolerjack and Hundley's ex-partner analyst Ron Boone — still have courtside seats.

That, those in the know say, is because television makes big money.

Radio does not.

"I didn't know we were going to be up like that — especially in our own building, up that high," Hundley said. "If you're four or five rows, 10 rows from the floor — that would be perfect. But I'm not. It's a big factor.

"I don't like to make a mistake, and you make mistakes up there."

Hundley, perhaps the most-imitated voice in Utah, mimics his own: " 'Check it, (the foul) wasn't on (Carlos) Boozer; it was on C.J. Miles.' "

Even for a man who called Harpring "Mark Harbring" for most of his rookie season and endearingly still sometimes calls Jazz guard Kyle Korver "Kal Kover," that just doesn't cut it.

"Man, I used to fly with it," Hundley said before taking a deep breath. "The referee hadn't even blown his whistle, and I got the foul.

"Now, I've got to wait. … I play off numbers more than faces up there, because it's easier to see a number."

And even those are difficult to discern.

Sightline issues aren't the only reason Hundley has had enough.

Living out of a suitcase has finally grown old, even when the hotels are best of the best, the flights are on a charter plane and the rarely if ever spent per diem hits three figures.

The start of the Jazz's current series, one in which they literally stay at the Ritz, drove that notion home.

"I'll miss Jerry (Sloan) and (longtime assistant coach) Phil (Johnson), Scott (Layden, a current assistant coach and former Jazz general manager — all the guys on the road," Hundley said.

But, he added, "I'm getting tired of the road. I was thinking about that over in L.A. I was sitting there for four days. 'Why am I doing this?' "

Then there's family.

Hundley has two grown children who reside in the Phoenix area, and two grandsons, Tanner and Rod — they turn 9 and 6 as of this month — there as well.

He has two homes, one in Arizona and one in Utah.

"I like Salt Lake," Hundley said. "What my druthers is," he added, "is to go eight months in Phoenix and four months up here."

Hundley's initial thoughts heading into this season were that next season he might call only Jazz home games.

But the organization wasn't very keen on the idea — "I think that's a difficult arrangement," team President Randy Rigby said — and Hundley eventually came to accept the same.

"I wanted to do that at first, because I said, 'I wouldn't have to travel,' " Hundley said. "Then it dawned on me that all home games are played in the winter here, and I hate snow.

"I said, 'That ain't gonna work, either.' "

Now, Hundley has come to terms with what will. And that's no more work — at least not the sort for which he made a post-playing-days name.

"The man is an institution here and deserves to leave when he wants to and the way he wants to," Rigby said. "So, I want to honor that request.

"The retirement of Hot Rod marks the end of an era for the Utah Jazz."

Rigby said there is no anointed successor.

But there are two obvious in-house candidates, 1320 talk-show host David Locke and longtime Larry H. Miller organization announcer Steve Klauke, voice of baseball's Salt Lake Bees.

"There will be myriad interested parties," Rigby said. "We've got a great stable, I think, of talented people who work for us in various capacities in broadcasting."

Locke has a multiyear contract with the team and its self-owned station; Klauke, according to Rigby, works without a contract.

Asked if Hundley's replacement will work solo, like Hundley does now, or with an analyst, Rigby said no decision has been made.

"Economics are going to come into play. We all realize that right now," he said. "I think the person, and their style, comes into play with it (too). So, there's a lot of options."

Hundley's first option when the season ends already has been exercised.

"If we don't win a world championship, or get eliminated soon, I'll be going down there (to Phoenix)," he said. "Quickly."

Hundley plans to escape the Arizona sun and return to his Utah home, however, for most of June, July and August.

Beyond then, there will be no more yo-yo dribble.

Hundley, instead, will have ample time to savor the memories, from his two seasons calling Lakers games and five calling Phoenix Suns games to the four All-Star Games and five seasons' worth of national Games of the Week he worked for CBS.

"To be very honest, a lot of nice things have happened," Hundley said. "Thirty-five years with the Jazz; longer than any employee, period.

"The 3,000 games (for the Jazz). The (Naismith Basketball) Hall of Fame (writer/broadcaster wing) back in 2003. … Now, knowing they're going to retire my number at West Virginia.

"All these nice things seem to just have fallen into place. I said, 'What else can I do to beat all this?' That's another thing. I think I've done all I can do, and I've enjoyed it, actually, the whole time."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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