A Voice Undefeated
The Story of Ralph Lawler
LOS ANGELES – The scene’s informal yet uniquely tense, with reporters gathered all in a corner, making small talk and staring in the direction of a door at the far side of the room.
Chairs don’t wait for the incoming media members – as they do in many cities – as this is not the typical NBA pregame press conference. There’s nowhere to sit, there’s no microphone for the coach and this coach isn’t standing in front of a Spurs backdrop.
Pregame media sessions, and media sessions in general, with San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich are infamous for being as short and direct as his answers.
The normally stoic coach begins waving his hands from side to side, dancing and singing “Hollllllywood”
When Popovich enters, he stands in front of a semi-circle of reporters, sometimes starting off with a comment, otherwise perfectly content keeping an awkward silence moving. He can be verbose and eloquent, but in these sessions he’s typically taciturn and brief. If a question only requires a “yes” or “no” answer, that’s what it will receive, occasionally with a sarcastic comment to follow. Sometimes, if he finds a question particularly lazy or dull, his response can come off harsh and brunt to the point of insulting.
On this day, though, “Classic Pop” is nowhere to be found.
He appears almost jovial as he enters through the door, purveys the room, and makes eye contact with one person in particular. A slight grin starts creeping slowly from cheek to cheek. The normally stoic coach begins waving his hands from side to side, dancing and singing “Hollllllywood” as he greets Ralph Lawler, who had just received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his 37 years and counting as “Voice of the Clippers.”
Players give their best Ralph Lawler impressions.
“That’s cool, nobody else here has a star there,” Popovich says, his dry sense of humor coming out. “Keep the pigeons off of it.”
If Popovich seems unflappable, of course it was Lawler to prove otherwise. Lawler’s the more approachable of the two men, but they both share a similar ability to keep a stern countenance while making jokes.
That’s something Clippers’ radio play-by-play announcer and close friend of Lawler’s, Brian Sieman, realized the first time he formally met Lawler during broadcast meetings in New York – only, Lawler didn’t want it to be so formal.
Sieman remembers trying to say hello to “Mr. Lawler,” shaking his hand, and getting nothing in response. Confused, he repeated the same approach the next day: “I’m excited to work with you, Mr. Lawler,” Sieman said.
Eventually, Sieman realized it was the formalities of it all that bothered Lawler. He was Ralph, not “Mr. Lawler,” and even now, at 77 years old in his 40th year in professional sports, Ralph doesn’t act above anyone.
That’s just Ralph, following the lead of the people who guided him from the start to the eventual job he knew he’d never want to leave.
"Angels in our life"
Seventy years before he kneeled on top of his name, engraved in a highly coveted star on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, 8-year-old Ralph stood at that exact same spot with his mother, father and sister on a visit from his hometown of Peoria, Ill.
Ralph grew up listening to Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals games in Central Illinois and wondered if he’d end up going the baseball route, but his true love was basketball. That was evident throughout his life, staying in Peoria to attend Bradley University in the late 50s and early 60s, not far from where another sports broadcasting legend made his name.
“Bradley basketball was a major NCAA power in those days,” said Ralph, who at one point thought about being a coach before going the broadcasting route. “I went to every single game. The games I didn’t go to on the road, I listened to on the radio. Chick Hearn was the broadcaster for many of those years.”
Bradley basketball garnered enough attention that three radio stations broadcasted their games. But Ralph had a favorite, listening to Hearn from the time he was 10 years old. And when Ralph was playing in a state tournament growing up, he’ll never forget the moment Hearn broadcasted his own game.
“I remember running up and down the court, hearing him say, ‘Ralph Lawler,’” Ralph said. “I almost dropped and said, ‘Did you say Ralph Lawler?’ That was just so cool.”
No one could’ve known at the time both young men from Central Illinois would become legends in their field calling professional basketball games in Los Angeles, Ralph eventually doing so at STAPLES Center on the corner of Chick Hearn and Figueroa.
For Ralph, Hearn was an inspiration long before everyone knew him as a Lakers broadcaster.
“Most Peorian sportscasters went north to Chicago and broadcasted Cub games and White Sox games,” Ralph said. “Chick started the migration, Tom Kelly followed, then I eventually followed.”
If not for the late Irv Kaze, someone Ralph described as an angel in his life, that may never have happened.
As 8-year-old Ralph – who grew up a fan of the entertainment industry because of his father, who began his career as a movie theater usher and eventually owned a string of theaters – stood on Hollywood Blvd., there’s no way he could’ve predicted 15 years later, fresh out of Bradley, he’d be back in California in 1961 as a college graduate working for a radio station in Riverside owned by Dick Clark.
That began his work in California, before Kaze hired him to work for the Chargers in San Diego in the early 70s. Ralph then went off to Philadelphia, where he’d cover the Flyers, 76ers and Phillies, encouraged by Kaze to take the opportunity.
If there’s a sport, odds are Ralph’s covered it at some point – from basketball, to baseball, to football, to hockey, to golf, to tennis, track and field, lacrosse, auto racing and boxing.
Eventually, Kaze brought Ralph back to California for what Ralph described as “an ill-fated shot” at the American Basketball Association in San Diego in the mid-70s. It didn’t work out.
“The team folded and I was able to keep my job back in Philadelphia, fortunately,” Ralph said. “Then, when the franchise swap of Boston and Buffalo took place in 1978 and the former Celtic owner wanted to move the team to San Diego, they hired Irv as general manager.
“I’m working television in Philly, on top of the world pretty much, and he kept calling and calling and calling, ‘You’ve got to come back.’ And I was like, ‘You know, I feel like I’m going backwards.’”
But basketball was always Ralph’s love, and the chance to work full-time for a team in San Diego – albeit for less money – was too much to turn down.
That was the start of Ralph Lawler, Voice of the Clippers.
“I really owe it all to Irv Kaze,” Ralph said. “He was just a great help, supporter and mentor to me. The minute I got it, I said it’s the last job I ever want to have.”
And by moving to San Diego, Ralph found the only woman he’d ever want by his side from that point forward.
It’s impossible to tell the Ralph Lawler story without “Sweet Jo,” as he affectionately calls his wife.
The risk involved in the move to San Diego would make anyone think twice. Ralph took a pay cut of more than half of what he was making working television in Philadelphia, thinking it might pay off in the end.
His foresight paid off, but not immediately.
“I realized after one year of that I wasn’t going to be able to exist and raise a family on that amount of money,” Ralph said. “So I started working in real estate in the offseason – Jo was doing the same thing.”
They met in 1978 in the same real estate office and happened to be single at the same time, but Jo made Ralph work to earn Jo’s love. They didn’t start dating until 1981.
“And I started wanting her to marry me about 15 minutes later,” Ralph said. “Twenty years later, she said yes. I’m a bad salesman.”
But a persistent one.
And, he found the one person who might love the Clippers more than he does. Jo was a Clippers season ticketholder in San Diego when they met, and Ralph’s guessing she’s seen more Clippers games than he has. In fact, he’s willing to bet she’s seen more Clippers games than just about anyone.
On a recent road trip, Ralph returned and suggested the two go watch a movie. Jo said the Spurs were playing. The decision was made.
“If you think I feel good or bad after a game, you ought to see her after a loss,” Ralph quipped.
“We’ll watch the Spurs and Memphis play on a Thursday night rather than just get away from it. She’s a great fan. I’m so lucky to have her by my side. Basketball-wise, life-wise, family-wise, every wise, she’s my angel.”
Where Ralph goes, Jo isn’t far away, even during the season, where Jo has a permanent seat next to her husband on the Clippers’ plane.
Early on in their relationship, Jo was working Monday through Friday and could only occasionally find time to escape and fly to meet Ralph. Since 2006, however, she’s flown basically full-time with the team.
“Ralph was going to retire shortly after I did, and here we are still flying and going to basketball games,” Jo said. “We’re lucky the Clippers make that arrangement.”
And, if not for Doc Rivers agreeing to continue that arrangement once he took over as head coach and president of basketball operations, it’s possible Ralph would be in Bend, Ore., enjoying retirement. Ralph and Jo already had their bags packed in their apartment in Marina Del Rey when FOX asked Ralph to emcee the news conference where Rivers was introduced.
Ralph wanted to talk to Rivers beforehand, just to say hello again. They weren’t strangers, after all, with Rivers having played for the Clippers in the early 90s. So, he went to Rivers’ office, and he told Rivers that Jo had traveled with him in the past and asked if it was OK for that to continue.
“I go home, we start unpacking boxes immediately, decide to stay,” Ralph said.
“It’s true,” said Jo. “I had more than a few boxes packed already.”
Jo will be always be Ralph’s No. 1 supporter, though the list is extensive and includes the legendary broadcaster from Illinois who began the West Coast broadcasting migration.
Hearn never forgot about Ralph through his moves from city to city. Once Ralph got the job with the Clippers, he’d place his arm around Ralph’s shoulder before games against the Lakers and impart words of wisdom or encouragement.
“You ever need anything – anything – you let me know,” Hearn would tell Ralph, who received just as much wisdom from Hearn’s late wife, Marge.
At The Forum in the 1980s, when the media gathered for dinner before the game, Ralph would often sit at a table with Marge, another Peoria native. That gave them a starting ground for conversation, though their talking points covered a wide array of subjects.
One day, Marge approached Ralph and told him how nice and friendly he came across. Her advice: Use that personality on the air.
“She said, ‘You’re a funny guy, be funny,’” Ralph recalled. “I thought, ‘Really?’ So, I was taking it very, very seriously. I thought it was really sound advice.”
And those on-air attributes would only develop further while working with Bill Walton, a man he considers his best friend. He helped loosen Ralph up.
Funny Or Die: A Day in the Office with Ralph Lawler
"One of the hardest things to do, especially on television, on the radio, too, is to be yourself,” Ralph said. “You’re trying too hard to be a broadcaster, you’re trying to sound like other announcers that you’ve heard or a group of announcers you’ve heard and taking it way too seriously. It’s fun, you should be having fun, and the fans should realize you’re having fun.”
With Walton, there was no other way.
Passing It On
Ralph remembers vividly the day he first met Walton.
The top pick in the draft always held a mandatory news conference the first time he visited each NBA city. Ralph, in Philadelphia at the time, was introduced to Walton in 1974, though not punctually.
“I was a lost sailor wandering aimlessly, helplessly, hopelessly, spiraling out of control, and I came across him again.”
“We were waiting forever for this guy to come in, and finally he does,” Lawler said. “He’s got his hair in a ponytail, he’s got a lumberjack shirt on and jeans and boots. He finally sits on the table, sprawls his leg up on the table and says, ‘OK, what do you want?’”
Walton, admittedly, had “absolutely no idea” what he was doing when he entered the league and wasn’t prepared for all the league entailed, particularly off the court. But as the years went on, especially once the Clippers signed Walton in 1979, Ralph got to know a person far deeper than the one he met that day in Philadelphia.
“There began a great friendship,” Ralph said. “He’s really a fun guy, and most of the stories are just stories of love and friendship, because that’s what it’s all about.”
Walton couldn’t agree more.
If not for a chance occurrence at a 7-11 in Pacific Beach in 1990, the Ralph Lawler-Bill Walton broadcasting duo that existed throughout the 90s may never never happened.
“I was a lost sailor wandering aimlessly, helplessly, hopelessly, spiraling out of control, and I came across him again,” Walton said. “As he has done every step along the way, he rescued me. He saved me. He gave me the life that I have today, and I could never thank him enough.”
Ralph received enough help along his journey that offering it back only came natural. He remembers seeing Walton by chance at that store on a summer beach day. The two had stayed in contact, but not close contact, when Walton left the Clippers as a player in 1985.
When injuries ended his career early, Walton pondered his next move.
Ralph knew he’d called some Continental Basketball Association games for no cost. So when Ralph, always willing to lend a hand, reconvened with Walton, Ralph suggested the idea of calling games together.
“He said, ‘Really, you think they’d do that?’” Ralph remembered. “I said, ‘You are Bill Walton.”
That was the beginning of a broadcasting tandem that would work together for more than a decade, with Walton bringing his renowned, quirky and sometimes notorious flair, often taking broadcasts to lengths that toed the line.
As Ralph remembers it, Walton, who would also do packages for the Mavericks, would get fired about twice a year by Dallas for saying something too outlandish. But as uneasy as the Clippers got at times, Ralph says it was just Bill being Bill, and it was OK.
Walton jokes that those years together probably ruined Ralph’s life, but they also helped Ralph grow. Much like the wins and losses of the team they covered, Ralph put up with all of the ups and downs.
“Here was just this absolute man of the world with so many interests and so much knowledge and so much experience, and he had this willingness to share it with ‘Little Billy’ with his red hair and freckles and goofy look on his face and horrendous speech impediment,” Walton said. “Here was Ralph willing to say, ‘C’mon Bill, you’re coming with me.’”
Ralph’s helping hand didn’t end with getting Walton the job. Walton says he’s a lifelong stutterer, so Ralph would work with him on that, beginning with a weekly special on the radio that Walton said Ralph would carry.
According to Walton, there was no further leap of faith than to think he would ever be a broadcaster or media personality. Ralph, however, was willing to take it.
“What he did for me and what he continues to do for me, Ralph is the inspiration in my life,” Walton said. “Broadcasting with Ralph Lawler is like playing basketball with Larry Bird, is like playing music with the Grateful Dead, it’s like talking politics with David Halberstam and David Axelrod. It’s the joy of my life. I couldn’t wait to get to work every day because of the level of excellence and perfection that Ralph Lawler brought and still does to this very day.”
Regarding the speech issues, Ralph worked with Walton, who credits Ralph for teaching him perspective and patience. To this day, Walton said people still stop him to tell him how much they enjoyed listening to the duo.
“It was just fun,” Walton said. “It was so full of life. It was that way because of Ralph Lawler and his passion, his enthusiasm, his work ethic, his commitment, his sacrifice, his discipline. All the things I tried to do, it just flows from Ralph effortlessly.”
And, Walton can never thank Ralph enough.
“Ralph Lawler has changed my life and made it better than almost anyone in my 63 years,” Walton said.
Ralph’s willingness to lend a hand didn’t stop with Walton.
A Legacy Continued
It continued on with the broadcasting partner he still calls games next to today.
Ralph was in Salt Lake City with the Clippers when he flipped on the television to see a BYU basketball game. Mike Smith, who, like Walton, had spent time as a player with the Clippers, was doing color commentary.
He also happened to be neighbors with Ralph in Orange County.
“But I’d kind of lost track of him after he went over to Europe a year or two after us and came back,” Ralph said. “I’m listening and I’m going, ‘Man, he’s pretty good.’ So, he lived just about two streets down from me.”
Ralph got a hold of Smith and asked if he had any interest in doing play-by-play for the Clippers. It was the summer of the lockout, and as Ralph remembers it, the Clippers were in search of a replacement for Rory Markas, who wound up doing Angels games.
So, Ralph spent the summer prepping Smith to see if it could work.
“By September or so, we’d work in front of a television set and he’d fake broadcast games off of a cassette and we’d then critique it, and I was brutal with him,” Ralph said. “Then, I said ‘OK, this is pretty good.’”
Ralph took the tape to Andy Roeser, the Clippers’ president at the time, and suggested Smith join the team.
“Andy listened and said, ‘It sounds just like you,’” Ralph remembered. “I said, ‘Well, there’s probably some reason for that.’ He got hired, and when I was doing TV, he’d do radio. Otherwise, he worked as my color guy on the radio, and it worked out great.”
Again, that still wasn’t the end of Ralph lending support to former players.
When Corey Maggette’s career ended, Ralph couldn’t help but think he’d be a natural moving on to the broadcasting world. Maggette was calling Mater Dei High School playoff games, and Ralph went over those videos with Maggette.
“He seemed really enthusiastic,” Ralph said. “He was very receptive and he was a good student and didn’t make the same mistake twice. I knew right quick that he was going to have a chance to be good. I gave a heads up to the people at FOX that this guy would be a great asset.”
That was the beginning of Maggette’s post-career television life in professional sports.
“I consider Ralph a friend,” Maggette said. “I’ll never forget, I’m at a Clipper game the year after I retired, I just had knee surgery and back surgery, and Ralph said, ‘Hey, I want you to talk to somebody with FOX, it might be something good for you to try.’”
Maggette sort of shrugged it off at the time, but Ralph remained steadfast. He stayed on Maggette about it. If not for Ralph’s nudging, Maggette doesn’t think he would’ve ever made the transition.
“It means a lot,” Maggette said. “He was the one that kind of opened the door. It was really cool, and I really, really appreciate that.”
Change With The Times
Covering the Clippers since the late 70s, Ralph would inevitably work alongside a bevy of different color analysts, some remaining close friends and none more than Walton.
With each change, Ralph had to adapt, which helped him develop as a broadcaster. Many of his partners were former coaches, from Hubie Brown, to Kevin Loughery, to Mike Fratello, a man Ralph had known since Fratello was an assistant at Villanova.
Working alongside coaches in the booth helped Ralph build his knowledge of the game.
“You traveled around the country and have nothing to do but talk basketball,” Ralph said. “These guys, they just see the game in a way that former players or broadcasters have no chance of it. It’s just really educational, but Fratello was just a really fun, classy guy.
(He also liked going to dinner with Fratello, who Ralph says knew every Italian chef in the country.)
Every year or two, it seemed Ralph had a new partner, up until Walton and Smith. The constant change made for difficult transitions, and after more than a decade with Walton, it would take time to mesh with a new partner.
Ralph’s role made a 180. As far as on-air personalities go, there couldn’t be two more polar opposites than the often outlandish Walton and the more serious and analytical Smith. With Walton, Ralph needed to be more like Smith. With Smith, Ralph needed to be more like Walton.
Live action calls like only Ralph can.
The ability to switch roles was crucial to the sanctity of the broadcast.
“I had to kind of redevise who I was to adjust to Mike, and Mike had to get used to my jabs and not take them personally,” Ralph said. “It’s worked out. It’s been a good thing for the both of us and for the ball club.”
Ralph likes to joke that the Clippers may have lost plenty of games he broadcasted, but he remains undefeated.
Despite the years of struggles on the court, Ralph never lost interest and says he enjoyed every moment. If anything, it made him appreciate the present even more.
“It’s really not more fun,” Ralph said. “It’s much easier, which is good. But we went 17-65, then 12-70, I think, one year. I loved all 82 games, those years and every year. I have no control over winning and losing a game. I have a great deal of control over the job I do on television or the job I do on radio. At the end of a game where we lose by 20, I’m going to walk in and say, ‘I nailed it.’
What Ralph had to ensure was there was a reason to keep watching in the fourth quarter of what often was a blowout, particularly in the 80s and 90s. He needed insightful stories and compelling television. That’s where Walton made perfect sense.
“We had some really bad teams but some really good TV ratings, because Bill helped me broaden my scope as a broadcaster and broaden the appeal of the show itself,” Ralph said.
Making a person want to stay with the program, regardless of the score, is where Ralph got his joy. It helped build the bond between Ralph and Walton, who've traveled the world together with their families. Still to this day, Walton will call up Ralph in the middle of nowhere just to talk.
Hours pass by on the phone.
“There’s never a moment that he doesn’t teach me something new, that he doesn’t inspire me to be a better human being, that he doesn’t heal me from my maladies,” Walton said. “I can never thank him enough, and I always close the conversation the same way:
‘Thanks Ralph, I love you.’”
Ralph received his Hollywood star on March 3, a moment the movie and entertainment buff called surreal.
“To walk these streets and see these names, and then being a disc jockey all those years, seeing the musical acts and the singers and bands that are mentioned here and the old radio people, it just doesn’t seem possible,” said Ralph, who called it the greatest thrill of his professional life.
Los Angeles is now home for Ralph, though he has a home in Bend, Ore., and will likely be there whenever he decides to call it quits – just don’t count on that happening soon for the soon-to-be 78-year-old.
Ralph said as long as he’s healthy, he’ll continue to broadcast Clippers games as long as he can.
“It’s just hard to give up,” Ralph said. “It’s so darn much fun. My wife loves it so much, and this club is so generous in allowing her to travel with us. How can I walk away from this?”
Much like an athlete, Ralph said there are certain things he doesn’t do as well as when he was younger, but he feels he’s better in certain areas because of his wisdom, such as his understanding in how to keep an audience attentive.
These days, the success on the court is reason enough to tune in, with the Clippers getting set to go to the playoffs for a record fifth straight year.
Rivers admires Ralph for never wavering through the struggles. Of all the wonderful reasons to win the first championship in Clippers’ history, doing it for Ralph is right at the top of Rivers’ list.
Tables turned - Doc Rivers interviews Ralph Lawler
“It’d be the best,” Rivers said. “That’d be the icing, it really would. Of all the guys, he should be the guy on the stage. Really, he represents this. He’s the only guy, throughout everything, that’s still here.”
And, that doesn’t surprise those who know Ralph in the least.
“It’s hard to imagine anybody giving more than what Ralph has done,” Walton said. “Ralph has changed the way we think, the way we live, the way we dream and the way we hope, and as I visualize his impact on everything that we have in the world, I say one more time:
‘Thank you, Ralph, I love you.’”