"Hot Rod" Hundley, the beloved voice of the Utah Jazz who guided fans through countless yo-yo dribbles and leapin' leaners over more than 30 years on the air, died Friday at the age of 80.
Hundley's easy West Virginia sensibilities and unmistakable vocal stylings and phrasings followed the Jazz from their inception in New Orleans in 1974 through 35 seasons, 23 playoff appearances and two trips to the NBA Finals before his retirement in 2009. The legendary voice, who had been dealing with the effects of Alzheimer's disease for several years, died at his home near Phoenix, surrounded by family.
"I have a lot of memories of Hot Rod," Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said after news of his longtime friend's death reached him Friday evening. "There's probably not enough time to run them all off. But he was a good friend who did a great job doing what he loved doing."
And what Hot Rod loved was basketball.
He was born in Charleston, W.Va., in 1934 and went on to earn All-America honors as a guard at West Virginia University. His skills on the court made him the first pick of the 1957 draft, and he spent six seasons as a player with the Lakers.
"I am saddened by the news of the passing of my long-time friend, Rod Hundley," Jerry West said. "I first met Rod when I was 18 and he encouraged me to attend West Virginia University. We were Lakers teammates and never lost contact. Rod was not only a great basketball player, but one of the best play-by-play announcers in the game. He will be missed by all those he touched through his legendary career as well as his colorful story-telling."
In 1960, he and the Minneapolis Lakers took flight in a blizzard and survived a crash in an Iowa cornfield. According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune report, Hundley was the one who broke the silence, shouting "I live to love again!" when he and his teammates realized they had all survived.
Hundley scored 3,625 points during his playing career, but his true calling came in the broadcaster's chair.
Hundley learned under Lakers play-by-play legend Chick Hearn, was a color analyst in Phoenix to Al McCoy and carved out his own niche as the first voice of the Jazz.
"He was absolutely the best," McCoy said Friday. "It's amazing. I still have tapes of our broadcast, and he was really the ideal analyst. … He knew when to come in and when to make his points. He was really an exceptional analyst, but he wanted to do play-by-play."
He got his chance with the Jazz in New Orleans, followed the team when it moved to Salt Lake City and, over more than three decades and 3,051 games, honed his style and catchphrases.
Generations of basketball fans relied on Hundley to guide them through every hippity hop and belt-high dribble, decades of leapin' leaners, and countless gentle pushes and mild arcs that led that ol' cowhide globe back home.
You had to love it, baby, because he did.
"He absolutely loved basketball," McCoy said. "He really did."
Hundley was fast on his feet on the court, and maybe even faster in front of a microphone.
McCoy recalled commenting in one broadcast while the two worked for the Suns that forward George McGinnis' favorite shot was a 15-footer.
"I said, 'Boy, that's really his favorite shot! Rod, you were a top draft pick, what was your favorite shot?' " McCoy said. "He said, "Cutty and water" and just went on like nothing ever happened. He never skipped a beat."
"Rod was such an outgoing personality, going back to his playing days and everything, that I think that just normally came out in his broadcasts," McCoy added.
But Hundley's smooth stylings belied the work he put into his craft.
"I think that's what people didn't realize," said David Locke, who took over as the Jazz's radio voice in 2009. "He was such a carefree loose player, I think people assumed the same of his broadcasts. But what he did was difficult to do."
Locke recalled working with Hundley during a playoff series late in his career and "how upset he was he couldn't be great every night. That really stuck with me. … He was furious if he made a mistake."
Imagine then the difficulties of Hundley's late life as he dealt with the impact of Alzheimer's.
"Last summer, he was starting to slip a little bit," McCoy said. "But we had probably three hours together at a lunch and a lot of laughs." By the time McCoy called Hundley on his 80th birthday, the Jazz radio legend "really couldn't carry on a conversation."
The man whose voice is attached to so many Jazz memories was losing his.
Still, the Hundley memories and influences thrive.
"Hot Rod was the voice of the Utah Jazz for 35 years, and his voice was synonymous with Jazz radio," Gail Miller, owner of the franchise, said in a statement. "The expressions he used throughout the game broadcasts are legendary. He had the unique ability to make the game come to life so that you felt as though you could see what was happening on the floor when listening to him call the games. Rod was a very special talent, and will be missed by our family as well as Jazz fans everywhere. Our thoughts and condolences are with the Hundley family."
In 2010, the Jazz organization renamed its media center after the legendary radio voice. A banner honoring his more than 3,000 games as a broadcaster hangs in the arena.
"I'm aware every day of my life that I followed Hot Rod Hundley," Locke said Friday. "I don't think it will ever feel like my job, and I'm not sure I'd ever want it to."
Said Jazz director of pro personnel David Fredman, who started with the franchise when it was located in New Orleans: "When you mention a guy's name and a smile comes to your face, what more can you ask? It's shocking and it's sad he's not with us anymore. But mentioning his name brings up so many memories and stories, and you smile because he was a character. He truly made the world around him a better place. … He meant a lot to a lot of people, and he did a lot for this franchise. In those early years, we weren't very good. But he was exciting. He made our games exciting."
Late in life, Hundley's longtime girlfriend and family were focused on commissioning a statue to be built at his alma mater in West Virginia. While the statue has not been built, in December of last year, Hundley was honored at the school.
Hundley's condition worsened in recent days, and he died Friday.
"He was just one of a kind," McCoy said. "That's about the only way to put it."
Tribune reporter Steve Luhm contributed to this report.