A Voice Undefeated

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.

Again, nothing.

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.

Photo Gallery: Ralph through the years.

“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.

Meeting Jo

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.

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