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Q&A: Ralph Lawler on 'Bingo!: Forty Years in the NBA'

The former longtime voice of the LA Clippers shares his standout NBA memories, discusses his new book and more.

Ralph Lawler spent 40 seasons as the voice of the LA Clippers and retired in 2019.

In 2022, basketball legends of every era congregated during All-Star weekend for the NBA’s 75th Anniversary. Legends from Jerry West and Julius Erving to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and LeBron James were all in attendance to celebrate the illustrious history of the league.

For any fan of the NBA, it was a momentous occasion. For one fan — Hall of Famer Ralph Lawler — it prompted first-hand memories of great NBA moments.

As the voice of the Clippers, Lawler’s epic calls of “Bingo!” or “Oh me, oh my!” ring in the ears of any basketball fan who’s watched the team’s games over the years. Lawler has been an avid basketball fan throughout the NBA’s existence, with his prolific broadcast work in basketball leading to the most prestigious accolades, including induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now retired, his storied life and his well-founded takes on all of the NBA’s greatest teams and players ever, is now chronicled in his book “Bingo!: Forty Years in the NBA.”

Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited. Can you remember the very first NBA game you watched on your TV?

Ralph Lawler: I remember the league beginning in 1946. Dad and I were excited because the only thing we knew about professional basketball was the fact that George Mikan was a part of it, and we were Mikan fans because he played for DePaul against Bradley University in Peoria and we attended all the Bradley games. Mikan and was busy becoming what they called Mr. Basketball at the time, winning championships for the Minneapolis Lakers.

In my mind’s eye, I can compare the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s to the Celtics’ dynasty of the ’50s and ’60s, because I’m not just reading about them, I’m not just watching a clip of tape about them. I saw them all.”

— Legendary broadcaster Ralph Lawler, on the NBA’s history

But it was very hard to follow the program because the early teams didn’t even have radio, and it wasn’t until 1953 — on something called the Dumont Network — they started televising games. The great Marty Glickman was the first national voice of the sport and of the league. TV was new in our household, it was a little 15-or 17-inch black-and-white screen, but finally with the television set we would be able to watch the game and it was a thrill. I remember George Yardley, Bob Pettit and others. These guys are making shots that nobody in the college game would even attempt to take, and we just would shake our heads in absolute disbelief. From that point on my entire family and I became huge NBA fans. I had no clue that someday it would be such an important part in my life.

In this interview from 2019, Ralph Lawler joins NBA TV to reflect on his career with the LA Clippers.

Are there any recurring traits that stick out to you when considering the greats of the NBA?

I met Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in 1961. It was Jerry’s second year in the NBA, and the team’s second year on the West Coast. The common trait was a focus. Walton certainly had it. Day of the game, they were laser focused on the task at hand. They knew who they were guarding. They knew who was guarding them. They knew what they would be able to exploit, and what disadvantage they had to minimize. Seeing [Bill] Walton prepare for a game against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his great friend and longtime rival from UCLA, seeing these two great UCLA centers go ahead to head was worth the price of admission. It was like Wilt [Chamberlain] against Bill Russell decades earlier.

The great ones knew it all. They were so detail oriented. They didn’t rest on their amazing skill level, or say for example athletic ability that Elgin had. They would’ve been great without that level of skill, because they just were so fine tuned on the task at hand. That certainly is true of one Larry Bird, he positively had that in a very special way. Jordan, Kobe [Bryant], LeBron. For LeBron, a night off is typically watching NBA League Pass games, and Chris Paul is absolutely that way. Other guys’ night off is going to a movie, or going out on a date, or playing with the kids, or some other worthwhile activity, but not one that drives you to the level of greatness in your profession.

As an NBA fan today, to hear about all these legends and not have readily available access to enough footage is frustrating. For example, I’d read all of the stories around Elgin Baylor, and how he was like Mike before Mike, in spite of playing while he was also in the military. I just wish there was more footage to fully appreciate these greats.

I feel like I’m in a unique situation. I think maybe Jerry West, Bob Pettit — and (broadcaster) Al McCoy in Phoenix — might be the only other people on planet Earth who has spent the bulk of their career in the NBA, and remembers the beginning of the league. A lot of people have written stories about the 75 years of the NBA or about the all-time five greatest players or the greatest teams or what have you, but they haven’t seen them. I’ve seen them all from George Mikan, who I got to know later in my life, and Elgin Baylor, who was a close friend (may he rest in peace). I saw all those great players. So in my mind’s eye, I can compare the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s to the Celtics’ dynasty of the ’50s and ’60s, because I’m not just reading about them, I’m not just watching a clip of tape about them. I saw them all.

I think it’s almost impossible from my vantage point or anybody’s vantage point to truly compare today’s NBA player to the players from the ’40s, ‘50s or ’60s. The game was so different, the rules were so different, so what I do in the book is I compare them starting with the pre-shot clock-era from 1946 to 1953, then decade-by-decade all the way to the present, as well as looking ahead to the decade of the 2020s. So in other words, comparing them within their own timeframe. I think we can pick the five best players right now, or the five best players from a decade ago, but to compare them from something 30, 40 or 60 years ago is folly.

What is your favorite Bill Walton story?

No story about me would be complete without spending a lot of time talking about Bill. One of the great experiences that my wife and I ever had, was when Bill called and he says ‘I want to take a bunch of friends white water rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon’. We live in Orange County, Calif., at the time. I said ‘Well that sounds kinda cool, how long is it? …18 days and nights?’ I checked with Jo and she was, God love her, good to go with it, and so we went on this amazing trip with 15 or 16 people — the only two of whom we knew was Bill and his wife, Laurie.

We went about 200 miles through all sorts of weather, through some of the wildest white-water rapids that exist on the planet Earth, and each and every day was a new and special adventure. By the end, we were all dear friends, and as we parted there were hugs and tears everywhere. Jo and I have been fortunate enough to travel in life in part because of my association with the NBA, and the travel they provided us with. We traveled all over the world for basketball games, but nothing stands out to the two of us as we go through our memory book any more vividly or any more dearly, than those 18 days and 17 nights.

Making friends for a lifetime on that amazing river with these huge towering walls on both sides which formed the Grand Canyon. It was special, and Bill made sure that nobody spent a penny. It just was an amazingly generous gift which kind of tells you who Bill Walton is. He’s the most generous man I’ve ever known this side of my father, he loves to give. If he hadn’t been hurt, he would go down, perhaps as the greatest player of all time, certainly in the top three of all time. And he just keeps giving to friends and loved ones. He calls me his best friend but, I tell ya, dozens of people who know Bill are his best friend. He just has that way of treating people who are important to him. He makes you feel like the most important person on earth, and I get goosebumps just talking about him to tell you the truth.

Ralph Lawler and Bill Walton share a laugh — and Lawler’s catchphrase — before a game in 2019.

What is one main lesson you hope people take away from reading “Bingo?

To me, my life is not typical, but there are common threads in all of our lives, all of us who aspire to have some sort of career. No. 1, you have to have a dream. And I had the dream early on, it started in college when I switched over to a major that included ‘introduction to radio and television.’ The first time I heard my voice come on the speaker in the radio department at Bradley Hall in Bradley University, I was hooked. I knew from that point on at the age of probably 19 or 20 at the most, that this was my life‘s work, my life’s goal and I know many people in their 20s, 30s or 40s who never find that dream to latch onto. And all I wanted to do was be on radio, and I got a chance to work full-time while I was in college. It took me an extra year to finish school because I was working full-time but I was working in radio, so it was never work.

I got fired probably four or five times during my career. I got fired twice by the Clippers when I started with them in 1978 and I was near giving up my broadcast hope and my dream of being an NBA team announcer. But I just kept at it and through the perseverance of my lovely wife, Jo, who helped keep me directed and reminded that my real dream was professional basketball broadcasting (although I was having some success in real estate). She urged me back to my dream. And I did go back and if I hadn’t done that, gosh, I would have had a four-year Clipper career instead of a 40-year Clipper career. So I guess it’s take care of what decisions you make, keep your eye on the ball and just keep on plugging no matter what obstacles get in your way. It has to do with your life’s work.

What does this book mean to you?

I’ve got it on the table here in front of me and I find myself just looking at it from time to time. There’s 270 pages of dialogue and 45 pages of photographs and I look at this and I hold it in my hand, and that pretty much is my life. I knew late in my career that I had a book in me. I just didn’t know how to get it out.

Ralph Lawler entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.

After retirement I thought a lot about what I wanted it to be. I was really thinking about a historical look at professional basketball and the publisher said he wanted some memoir in here too, so it winds up being a part memoir, part history book of the league. And certainly of my 40 years with the LA Clippers, and a lot of personal stuff as well. A lot of it isn’t flattering to me. I wasn’t always as good a person as I would’ve liked to have been. I certainly wasn’t as good a husband and father in my prior marriage as I would’ve liked to have been, but with my sweet Jo, I have become a better man. And all of that growth is displayed in that book, as well as the end results.

What is your favorite NBA game in history?

1976 NBA Finals, Game 5, Phoenix-Boston.

What is your favorite game you ever broadcasted?

In 2015, when the Clippers beat the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, and Chris Paul made a drive and bank shot over Tim Duncan to win it. They were the defending champions at that point, I mean it was just spine-tingling — it was unbelievable.

Which player did you enjoy watching the most?

Pete Maravich. ‘The Pistol’ was a show unto himself, if he had the 3-point basket throughout his career, he would hold all of the Steph Curry records that exist today. Every pass seemed to be a no-look pass, he brought joy to the game a decade before Magic Johnson did the same.

“Bingo!: Forty Years in the NBA” is available at, or wherever books are sold.