LAWLER REVISITS SAN DIEGO PAST
The concourse of the building formerly known as the San Diego Sports Arena is plastered with history. It is beautiful and nostalgic, eye-popping and vivid. Not much like legendary Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler left it three decades ago.
On April 14, 1984, the last the time the Clippers played a regular season game in their former home, Lawler walked out of the arena unaware the team would not return. The arena was old and unkempt back then.
When Lawler walked the spacious concourse a week ago, following the Clippers’ morning training camp practice at UC San Diego, it was only the third time in the last 30 years he’s visited the building. It was entirely different inside.
He talked and walked with the arena’s General Manager Ernie Hahn, remarking on the highly detailed photographs on the walls. “Boy oh boy,” Lawler said of a Neil Diamond photo from 1976. “I’m going to know some people in that picture,” he quipped about a black-and-white, ringside shot of Ken Norton’s split-decision victory over Muhammad Ali in 1975.
Lawler and Hahn continued their journey from the north entrance to the 47-year-old arena and back, the photographs lighting the way as if they were being shifted through a time machine.
“We put historic [photos] on the left and modern [photos] on the right,” Hahn said. “It’s sort of like a living Hall of Fame.”
Hahn has worked at the facility since 1992, a year after the Clippers played their second of two preseason games ever in what is now known as Valley View Casino Center. He had never met Lawler, but jumped at the opportunity to show the venerable broadcaster around his old digs. All of the pictures from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Freddy Mercury, the five-time champion San Diego Gulls to the 1966 ground-breaking of the center seemed to captivate Lawler.
His time in San Diego with the Clippers, from 1978 to 1984, was flying back at him like a paper sack in a wind tunnel. “You’re bringing up things I haven’t thought of in 20 years,” he said.
As the tour proceeded, Hahn stopped and excitedly directed Lawler to look to his left. It was a dramatic photo of former Clipper Bill Walton rejecting a skyhook from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Hahn wasn’t sure of the exact game it occurred. Lawler was.
“That was an exhibition game,” Lawler said, pointing at his friend and former colleague on Clippers broadcasts, Walton. “He most certainly blocked that shot and nobody blocked a right-handed hook shot from Kareem.”
Stories of Walton are Lawler’s primary recollection of the Clippers’ San Diego years. It seemed as though seeing the nearly 8-foot tall photo started those memories churning. They are a blend of revelry and humor; sad, funny and intimate.