LOS ANGELES -- Lord knows this franchise has racked up enough “Ls” in the past and sadly, the LA Clippers are bracing for a few more at season’s end.
Loyalty, longevity, loquaciousness, they’re about to lose all that. All because the man who graced the team with those qualities has tweaked his own definition of Lawler’s Law: the first Clippers broadcaster to reach 40 years on the job must retire.
This is it for Ralph Lawler, the enduring voice of the franchise, the perky purveyor of Clippers basketball. He’s the talking head who married “oh me!” with “oh my!” to create a catch-phrase that squealed how the Clippers did something special on the court at that very moment.
“I’d rather quit a year too early than a year too late,” explained Lawler, 80, whose standards always ran high while doing radio and then TV play-by-play for the Clippers.
It is appropriate and respectful to lavish a parting gift on those who walk into the sunset. For Lawler, who has watched over 2,000 Clippers losses, there’s an urge to give him Visine. Or better, a place in the media wing of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which happened last weekend. Because nobody in basketball history did more with less.
How about this trick? Try keeping listeners locked into games that end badly, as it was for vast stretches of Lawler’s time with the Clippers.
I realized early on, back in the early ‘80s that I have no control over winning and losing, so why should I get too invested in winning and losing? I invest 100 percent of my energy into the broadcast. We’d lose a ballgame and I’m going, 'Man, we had a good show.’ "
Lawler always had the respect of his broadcasting peers but none of their good fortune while calling Clippers games. The team has never reached a conference finals and the contrast has been especially stark here in LA, which was roamed by broadcasting legends like Chick Hearn and Vin Scully.
It’s the broadcaster’s job to bring events and people to life while blowing excitement through the mic and into everyone’s ears. Hearn narrated “Showtime” and the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal teams. Scully described Kirk Gibson’s World Series homer in 1988. Lawler explained Benoit Benjamin. Who had the tougher job?
An enduring throwback
He weathered a franchise relocation, the working conditions in the dumpy LA Sports Arena, a string of crummy injuries to Danny Manning … and Ron Harper … and Shaun Livingston. There was the failed promise of Michael Olowokandi and, of course, the weird rise and shameful fall of owner Donald T. Sterling.
Yet, as the Clippers’ seasons ran aimlessly into each other, Lawler survived and thrived. As team broadcasters tend to become part of the family to their audiences as they age, Lawler transformed from your older brother to uncle to father to grandfather to great grandfather. And undertaker, to those in the audience he outlived. In fact, he’s only missed three games in his 40 years on the job.
His punch-lines and signature calls endeared him to fans, and up until the franchise began winning more regularly a decade ago, were pretty much the best thing going for the Clippers.
“Lawler’s Law” meant the first team to 100 points wins the game. The “oh me, oh my” reaction was pure excitement. Lawler would warn fans to “fasten your seatbelts” to prepare for a tight finish and shouted “bingo!” each time a former Clipper named Bobby “Bingo” Smith scored a hoop. When Bingo left, “bingo!” stayed. And, Lawler is the only NBA broadcaster who speaks into a hand-held microphone -- because he finds it easier.
From 1978-79, his first season, through 2010-11, the Clippers only had three winning seasons, but don’t reach for a hanky on Lawler’s behalf. He’s had the best seat in the house and let the record show he never lost a game.
“I realized early on, back in the early ‘80s that I have no control over winning and losing, so why should I get too invested in winning and losing?” he said. “I invest 100 percent of my energy into the broadcast. We’d lose a ballgame and I’m going, `Man, we had a good show.’
“Look, I wish they’d won 10 championships. I wish they were the Boston Celtics. But I love the craft. I love to broadcast, the challenge of bringing a bad game to life and making it entertaining and informative. I have loved every single second. There was a year we won 12 and lost 70 and I loved every one of those 82 games.”
Besides, Lawler’s been with champions. He began his career in Philadelphia with the NHL’s Flyers and his timing was better than Rolex, because the city celebrated two Stanley Cups. He didn’t know a red line from a blue line, and it didn’t matter, because he could articulate a brawl and the “Broad Street Bullies” had plenty of those.
“The gloves are off and there they go!” Lawler would scream; the audience ate it up.
Changes a constant in career
He left for San Diego for the great weather and an NBA team that moved from Buffalo and renamed the Clippers, and a legacy began. It was actually interrupted twice, when management tried to replace him for no reason other than to go with someone different.
The first time was in 1982 when he was doing Clippers radio and the station changed owners. As the season began, Lawler worked in real estate and, one day, he and his future wife Jo went for a walk on the beach near a house he had listed.
“Here comes Donald Sterling walking toward us,” Lawler recalled. “I turned to Jo and was like, 'My God, do we want to have this exchange?’ So we walked up and made small talk. I said, 'Hey, we got a house with a jacuzzi, might as well jump in and have some wine.’ He said yeah.
“At one point he said, 'Why don’t you work for me anymore?’ I said 'because you didn’t hire me.’ He said, 'we gotta change that.’ Next day I got a call from the general manager saying we need you back. Were it not for that walk on the beach I’m quite sure I would not be here today.”
When the Clippers moved to L.A. in 1984, then-GM Carl Scheer wanted a flashier presence on the mic and broke the bad news to Lawler. So back to real estate he went, and a guy named Eddie Ducette took over, and two weeks into the season, Lawler’s phone rang. It was Scheer, sounding desperate.
“We made a big mistake,” he said.
Officially, then, Lawler has missed only three games. One because of LA traffic -- Lawler at the time was still commuting from his home in La Quinta, between LA and San Diego. The mother of all jams happened and it took him six hours to go six miles. Stuck on the 405, he turned around at halftime.
The second time, he needed surgery to remove kidney stones. He scheduled the procedure in the morning so he’d make the game that night … but a tube stuck down his throat stole his voice temporarily.
The third time, he and broadcast partner Michael Smith were suspended for one game in 2009 for comments made about the homeland of Memphis Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi. That one burns Lawler to this day.
“I pronounced Iran wrong,” he said. “It was 100 percent unwarranted. I did absolutely nothing wrong. One person wrote an email saying he was offended, and this was the same guy who came down and asked for an autograph and photo when the suspension was over.”
It was the first time anyone in the organization can recall the normally mild-mannered Lawler turn angry, but not the last.
He was deeply hurt by the behavior of Sterling and the release of tapes where the former owner was overheard making racially-insensitive remarks about black players on his team as well as about NBA legend Magic Johnson. All of that, and more, led to Sterling being banned for life by the NBA and, eventually, his trust selling the team in 2014 for $2 billion.
The team gave Lawler a prepared message to read over the air before the next game, and while his stomach still churned, he never mangled a single syllable of that statement.
“I felt sick,” he said. “What he did embarrassed me. It hurt that I had represented this man for the previous 30 years. That’s a weekend that will live in infamy for me and the franchise.”
Not that Lawler didn’t see this coming. There was a time when he and Sterling were on solid terms, especially during the early years in San Diego, when “I was Ralph to him and he was Donald to me.”
But soon: “It was Mr. Sterling to me, or DTS. He liked to be called by his initials, all of a sudden.”
Not long ago, Sterling attended a coach’s meeting in training camp and Dave Wohl, an assistant coach at the time, turned to the owner and said: “Don, this is what we have to do … “
Sterling quickly corrected him: “Mr. Sterling, please.”
Exciting times afoot for Clippers
Lawler does say this much: “If that hadn’t happened and Sterling wasn’t removed, Steve wouldn’t be the owner today and that would be unfortunate.”
That’s Steve as in Ballmer, the software billionaire who took control of the club three years ago and essentially opened the windows in the building and let the stench out.
Lawler said: “He’s exciting and encouraging. He’s ‘Call me Steve.’ Last year we’re walking into the tunnel and going through security screening, and a security woman, who’s been there for years, she walks up and says, ‘Hey Steve, how ya doing?’ That’s who he is.
“He had a big meeting with the entire staff and handed out his email address to everybody. If you have any problems, he said to let him know, he’ll get to it. Look, he’s demanding and a tough taskmaster. He’s not going to be patient for long periods of time but he is everything the coach and GM want in an owner.”
Lawler gets emotional about two others, one a former member of the organization, one current.
Bill Walton suffered through a series of foot surgeries which prevented him from becoming the franchise savior when the team began in San Diego. He partnered with Lawler on team broadcasts in the 1990s and their friendship deepened. They vacationed for 18 days in the Grand Canyon, rafting the Colorado River. Their conversations always ran thick, and with Walton, how could it not?
“Working with Walton on TV changed me, made me better,” said Lawler. “That was a graduate course in having fun. It really helped me turn the corner in terms of how I approach the job.”
Also, Lawler was diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 years ago and within moments of returning home, there was a knock at the door.
“Bill and his wife,” said Lawler. “And then he came back the following week and took us out to dinner. The nicest, most generous human I’ve ever met outside of my dad.”
The other difference-maker for Lawler is coach Doc Rivers. Lawler was ready to quit the business 10 years ago, but then Rivers arrived and the culture changed. The “Lob City” era reinvigorated Lawler and the Clippers’ fan base. The club suddenly made a habit of making the playoffs. And seat belts were being fastened on the couches of Clippers fans watching at home.
Suddenly, winning mattered to Lawler, after all.
“This was the kind of stuff you dreamed of having, after all those dark years,” he said. “They have made it tough to leave. So this is a very emotional closing act for me. It will be almost impossible for me to replace this.”
And so on his final game this season, right after the buzzer, the only NBA broadcaster who holds a hot mic will let it drop after 40 years, and when it hits the floor, it can only make one sound: bingo!
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.