SALT LAKE CITY — After he had lost a step, as even the greats do, Hot Rod Hundley still had clout. Jazz management was slow to make a move, and stalled for a year or two. It’s not like the front office people were aloof from the emotion of it. They too had seen the games through his eyes and voice.
The NBA had been pressuring the Jazz — the last team to do a simulcast — to separate TV and radio and move seating courtside. Hundley’s career was winding down. The Jazz knew it was even possible to change announcers on the radio, but they couldn’t replace his tie to Utahns. Whenever the team conducted a popularity poll, Hundley’s approval rating soared.
“How strong was his approval rating?” said Jazz president Randy Rigby, who initiated surveys by Dan Jones & Associates. “It exceeded anyone else in Utah, next to the prophet of the (LDS) Church.”
Hot Rod was family, the impish but likable kid who could always bring out a smile.
Hundley, the longtime Jazz announcer who passed away Friday, had an air of excitement about him. He was on his own from the time his teen mom, abandoned by her husband, placed him in a series of foster homes. In his mid-teens he moved into a hotel. There was no curfew and no rules.
Most Utahns didn’t know about that. They only knew his was a comforting voice — something he seldom heard as a child. It never failed to resonate when he’d say, “You’re lookin’ live” from Reunion Arena in Dallas, or the United Center on game night. Then came the signature line: “Utah Jazz basketball is comin’ up next, and you gotta love it, baby!”
Once you heard that, you were hooked.
Hundley’s connection was strong because his persona wasn’t far from reality. He was as likable as he seemed. He would wait until an official got within earshot during a break in the action and say something like, “Time out is called by the handsome and talented Jimmy Clark ” just loud enough to draw a smile from the ref.
Hot Rod would drop by Jerry Sloan’s room on road trips and end up walking out with something from Sloan’s courtesy gift basket. Always, he had that mischievous grin.
Hundley was seldom in ill humor, unless awakened before noon. The genuineness always showed through. When the Jazz team bus would crawl past the National Guard armory in Minneapolis, he’d talk about playing games there with the original Lakers. He spun tales of winter mornings being so cold he would start his car to go to practice, then go back inside, cook breakfast and eat it while the car warmed up.
As a broadcaster, he would sometimes stow a few extra beers in a gym bag while on the road, then spot someone drinking a soda and say with a grin, “That stuff will kill ya.” He never drank before going on air.
He was unafraid to admit he borrowed many of his phrases from legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn. “Belt-high dribble,” “frozen rope” and “good-if-it-goes” all came from Hearn. But what Hundley lacked in originality he made up in authenticity. It was delivered with 100 percent Hot Rod style, in a voice like a rusty gate.
When he called games, he took his audience with him, to the dead spot on the Boston Garden floor or courtside next to Jack Nicholson and Jerry West in Los Angeles. When his pulse quickened, so did that of his audience.
“I would get multiple letters from people with visual disabilities who would say ‘Thank you, Rod Hundley, you make the game come alive. I can see that game in my mind’s eye because of Rod Hundley,’” Rigby said.
The Jazz moved him from his courtside seat to the back of the lower bowl for the last couple of years before his retirement in 2009, to make way for national, international and local TV. In his new perch above the court, Hundley complained he couldn’t see well enough to call the game. That’s understandable. It’s hard to paint the pictures Hundley did when he couldn’t hear the squeaking gym shoes or see the sweat beads. Near the end, he was a shade slower on the uptake. But the familiar voice was never better.
Not long after his retirement, the Jazz named the pressroom at EnergySolutions Arena after him, splaying pictures and plaques throughout. He moved permanently to Phoenix, but continued to occasionally visit Salt Lake. When he came, he was always the most popular guy in the room.
But after Alzheimer’s began its march in recent years, he struggled to remember acquaintances. That was the hardest part. Because nobody ever forgot Hot Rod.
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