It has been many years since I have written about Hot Rod Hundley, and to account for this, I must begin with a personal episode. Years ago Rod and I were out together one evening in Manhattan, up to no good. It is my view that athletes—especially glib, boyish All-Americas—are of foremost value to the press in helping to pick up girls. Sure enough, Rod came through. Alas, one of the laws of urban civilization is that two good-looking women never travel together, so naturally Rod kept the prize of the pair for himself. Nonetheless, as the evening wore on it seemed to me that Rod's lady was actually sending fond glances my way. However, every time I tried so much as to say hello to her, she looked away.
At last, when Rod excused himself for a moment, I made my most suave move, asking her if she was enjoying herself. There was no response; she turned her head away again. "Hey, you can at least answer my question," I protested.
"No, I can't," she replied.
"You can't talk to me?"
"No," declared the beauty. "Hot Rod told me that I was not to pay any attention to you, not to say one word; that you were only here to follow him around and write down all the funny things he says."
Well, it has taken me almost 15 years to get over being vilipended, but now I have again followed Hot Rod around and written down the funny things. And the funniest thing is that he is middle-aged. Hot Rod, the Peter Pan of sports, is now "fours back to back"—44. And during some hours of the day he is downright mature. He is coming back to a national stage with a great deal of gray hair, gold-framed spectacles and a much svelter waistline than he had when he played his way out of the NBA. Carl Lindemann Jr., vice-president of programs at CBS Sports, has hired Hundley as an analyst on the network's traditionally woebegone NBA telecasts.
"I don't know why he wasn't already signed up," says Lindemann, who was once director of sports at NBC. "At my first CBS Sports meeting, I asked what we could do to improve, and everybody—everybody—said, 'Why don't we get Hundley?' So we did. Hundley, John Havlicek and Keith Erickson are going to alternate with Brent Musburger."
Hundley has appeared on the networks before as an analyst, but for the past five years he has been hidden away down in New Orleans as the Jazz' announcer, where he has developed into a first-rate play-by-play man and where he will continue to work between assignments with CBS-TV. Only a handful of jocks have become bona fide professional radio play-by-play announcers, and as far as anybody knows, Hundley is the only basketball player to make the transition. That it is the legendary clown, Hot Rod, who has brought this off must astonish a good many people. Hundley was an outstanding player at West Virginia, but his career with the Lakers tumbled from mediocrity to garbage time, and he left the NBA after six seasons, hounded by the realization that he had wasted his talent and opportunity. He has succeeded as an announcer because he has made himself work at the craft in ways that he, a natural athlete, never applied to basketball.
"I'm very insecure," Hundley says. "Before I got into announcing. I never did anything but play ball and sell sneakers. I haven't got a degree. I never went to class. I read now. I'm teaching myself. I look up all the words that are new to me and try to use them. [Checked out vilipended yet, Rod?] And when somebody corrects me, I don't forget it.
"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. A play-by-play man has to prepare more, but an analyst has got to get in and get out in a hurry. A play-by-play man can destroy a color man if he wants to. 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."
Hundley possesses one natural microphone asset, a voice that rolls in like fog, and he has added to it a distinctive style: no s's. That is, singular subjects get short plural verbs, i.e., "Goody right to left front court, angle left to Jimmy Mac, terminate the belt-high dribble, whip it down to Haywood, penetrate the baseline and score!"
But s's aside, even before he was an announcer, Rod liked imitating announcers, and one of his more conspicuous charms is that he sees the pretension and excess in his profession. He enjoys nothing better than parodying himself. One evening when Truck Robinson, the Jazz Player of the Game, failed to show up for his postgame interview, Hundley went right ahead and interviewed Robinson anyway, playing both parts. Hundley even 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 with you, Hot." On other occasions, when Pete Maravich makes a spectacular shot, Hundley will drop into his formal announcer's voice and actually say, "A gentle push, a mild arc and the cowhide globe hits home." (Note to pretty girls in bars: That's the kind of stuff I write down when I hear it.)
So, hey! Rod out of the NBA, angle left into sneaker sales, yo-yo, drop it off into color, whip under to New Orleans, penetrate the play-by-play, fake left, go right, spin up a 15-foot network hopper.... It has taken a long time, but Hot Rod is ready now to take his best shot.