The tour ended in the old Arena Club, refurbished to look like a modern night club, located at the bottom of a flight of stairs near the north entrance. Lawler and Hahn, a gracious host, said goodbye and Lawler led me to the precise spot in the swanky room where he sat with Walton after the superstar was introduced more than three decades ago.
Lawler, 75, plopped into the corner of the couch, crossed his legs and began recollecting. He started from the beginnings in San Diego. The year before Walton.
“We came here in ’78, and had a surprisingly good season, just short of making the playoffs. They were really a fun overachieving team.
Gene Shue was our coach and he was one of three or four elite coaches in the NBA, having gotten to the Finals [two] years earlier with Philadelphia where I worked with him as well. By pure coincidence we both went to the club here for the inaugural season, which was a delight for both of us because we were good friends, our wives were good friends and it was great.
So, in the summer, Gene and I played racketball every day, 365 days a year. We lived close to each other out in East County [San Diego]. One day, driving to the gym he says I’ve got something I’ve got to tell you, I can’t hold it anymore. He said, ‘I think we’re going to sign Walton. Which today, is like saying, ‘We’re going to sign LeBron James.’ I mean, it was identical to that. I said, ‘You’re going to what?’ Plus, this was [Walton’s] hometown, which made it even bigger. We’re a day or two away, but I think we’ve got it done. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God’ because we were a pretty good team the year before, you add the best player in the game you go, ‘We’re going to win a championship.’
I don’t sleep for two days and, sure enough, they make the deal, sign Bill for a seven-year deal. I think it was a million dollars a year. He was the first million-dollar player in the NBA, the biggest free agent signing in the history of the league, by far.
The next day they’re flying airplanes, carrying big banners with ‘Bill Walton is Back’ or something like that. The city is thinking this could be kind of exciting.”
Back then, the league determined compensation for a team that lost an unrestricted free agent. Then-commissioner Larry O’Brien, on May 13, 1979, awarded the Trail Blazers center Kevin Kunnert, former All-Star MVP Randy Smith, bruising forward Kermit Washington and a 1980 first round draft pick. It was unprecedented.
But what Lawler recalled, even more so than the drain of assets, was what happened immediately following Walton’s introductory news conference.
“We have the news conference here, out on the court. Then we come in [the Arena Club] and talk to the media and I’m sitting in this spot and Bill was sitting right to my right and we’re just all giddy. We can hardly believe just how great this is. Bill leans in and says, ‘I’m going to have to leave in a few minutes.’ I said, ‘What’s up?’ He says, ‘I have an operation on my right ankle.’ I said, ‘You’re going to do what?’ So, he got up and went up those stairs and walked out and played 14 games that year.
When you first mentioned coming down here, the first thing I thought was I want to see if we can get in that lounge.”
The Clippers went 35-47 in 1979-80. When Walton played he was limited, but the Clippers were the kind of team Lawler envisioned when the city was abuzz about his arrival. The season opened with a national television broadcast on ABC against the Lakers at the San Diego Sports Arena.
“It was as big of a deal as you could get as far as national television in the NBA in those days. They thought it was going to be Walton versus Jabbar the two greatest UCLA centers of all-time going head-to-head. Bill in his much ballyhooed return to his hometown. And Bill after his surgery had no chance of playing in the game.
Walton doesn’t start that season, doesn’t play against the Lakers, which coincidentally was Magic Johnson’s debut in the league. And despite the fact that Walton is not playing, it’s a sensational game, back-and-forth the entire game. We’re playing Swen Nater instead of Bill Walton at center, but Swen’s a legitimate NBA center, so we were still okay. It was a super game.
It goes down to the last second, Clippers lead, 102-101, Lakers ball. ABC national television. They throw the ball into Kareem at the foul circle. He, as [Lakers broadcaster] Chick [Hearn] used to say, ‘Turns left, shoots right.’ Skyhook 15-17 feet, Lakers win, 103-102. The memory of those who were there was Magic jumping like he’d just won the NCAA championship. He runs over and jumps into Kareem’s arms and Kareem goes, ‘We have 81 more games to go boys, relax.’”
The Clippers had 81 games to go as well, but it would be 56 more before Walton would make his much-anticipated debut in San Diego. From Lawler’s perspective, and a majority of the city for that matter, the wait was agonizing.
“So, the season proceeds without Bill and is not going very well. And finally, he’s getting better and maybe next week he can start practicing and it’s always delayed by a week and delayed by a week. Finally, he’s able to suit up and play and it was tough because as I recall the restrictions were that he couldn’t play more than five minutes at a time, couldn’t play more than like 20 minutes in a game. That increased as the weeks went on. It was so tough for the coach. Bill would come in and get warmed up, work up a good sweat and have to come out. It was tough. Still, Bill played about 24 minutes a game, averaged almost 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. I mean, playing with a broken down body, he could still flat out play.”
Walton’s first game was a Jan. 29, 1980 win over the Phoenix Suns at the Sports Arena. It was one of the most meaningful moments in Lawler’s tenure as broadcaster, one he says he’ll never forget.
“Finally, it’s the first quarter. And I think Gene decided after the first or second timeout he was going to bring Bill in off the bench to replace Swen. I don’t think it was sellout crowd, but it may have been, if they got a chance to pre-hype the fact that Bill was going to play. For this club, it was a big crowd. I still get goosebumps. Somewhere I’ve got the call. I think in retirement I’ll go through all my old tapes and I’ll find that call of the standing ovation that Bill got. And he and I have reminisced about it, the thrills he had and the thrills that I had. It was really goosebump time.”
The Clippers would vacate San Diego’s Sports Arena for one of similar design in Los Angeles after the 1983-84 season. Lawler and the team returned twice for exhibition games in 1989 and 1991. The latter occasion, coincidentally, with Doc Rivers as the team’s lead guard.
The exterior of the building had changed very little since Lawler was last in the parking lot located in somewhat of an armpit between Interstate-5 and Interstate-8. But the inside had transformed, more vibrant. Lawler’s memories, however, were housed within the building’s walls as well, beautifully nostalgic in their own right.