For 2,000 Games, a Voice in the Clipper Wilderness
It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the team’s long series of false, fractured moves, but the Clippers nearly botched the one thing they undeniably got right in their bumbling history.
In 1978, after moving from Buffalo, N.Y., to San Diego and changing their name from the Braves to the Clippers, they hired Ralph Lawler as their play-by-play announcer, beginning an association that has lasted nearly three decades.
But six years later, when Donald Sterling assured his employees that they would retain their jobs after first flooring them with the news that he was moving the team from San Diego to Los Angeles, then-general manager Carl Scheer wondered aloud whether the club might be better served by hiring a new voice for its new home.
Lawler, taking the hint, told him to go ahead and make the move, staying behind in San Diego to tend to a side business in real estate while the Clippers tapped Eddie Doucette as their first L.A. voice.
“It wasn’t two weeks into the season before Carl was calling me and saying, ‘You’ve got to come back,’ ” Lawler says, smiling at the memory.
Filling in on about a dozen broadcasts that inaugural season, Lawler was back behind his hand-held microphone full time for the start of the next season and, through thick and mostly thin, hasn’t missed a Clipper game since.
Today’s game against the Toronto Raptors will be his 2,000th Clipper broadcast, his 1,590th in succession since the Scheer folly of the 1984-85 season.
You might think that describing all those years of failed efforts and multiple missteps -- the Clippers have lost two of every three games he has broadcast -- would have dulled Lawler’s enthusiasm. You might think that, if offered, he would jump at the first opportunity to leave, that he would long for greener pastures, that he would have long since given up hope of ever following a championship contender.
You would be wrong on all counts.
Lawler, 66, loves his job, has turned down numerous offers from other teams and networks and believes that the tortured team, which has never won a playoff series and hasn’t even made the playoffs since 1997, will make a legitimate run for a championship under Coach Mike Dunleavy in the not-too-distant future.
“There hasn’t been a game out of the 2,000 I haven’t looked forward to going to,” says Lawler, who during his streak has worked through colds, fevers and flu, food poisoning and, his most painful memory of all, passing a kidney stone during a broadcast. “I love being in the gym, I love going to the practices and shoot-arounds. I go on the early bus [to road games]. I like being there.
“At home, my wife’s the same way, so she goes early with me, which is great. We just enjoy every minute that we’re there. After a good game, I hate to leave.”
Through 22 losing seasons, the travails of Benoit Benjamin, et al., and only three playoff appearances, he has outlasted 14 coaches, including two stints with Gene Shue, and probably the same number of commentators.
Former sidekick Bill Walton, who worked alongside him for more than 10 seasons, once said of Lawler, “He is a saint who’s going straight to heaven.”
His current analyst, Michael Smith, learned the business from Lawler, who heard the former Clipper working on a regional telecast of a college game in Utah and later called and offered to teach him the ropes over the summer.
“He basically taught me how to broadcast and he taught me how to broadcast preparing the way he prepares,” Smith says of his mentor. “He taught me that anything less than that would be second-best, or not enough....
“What’s amazing about Ralph is that he’s never lost his love of the craft. He’s always loved the game of basketball, for one, but secondly he’s loved our side of the game of basketball.”
Like rookie guard Shaun Livingston, whose selection by the Clippers in the NBA draft in June tickled the announcer, the 6-foot-3 Lawler was a basketball star at Peoria Central High in Illinois.
When his team reached the state tournament in the mid-1950s, its games were broadcast by an up-and-coming announcer named Chick Hearn. Lawler had grown up listening to Hearn when the sport’s most famous announcer broadcast Bradley University basketball games.
“I can recall running by him,” Lawler says of Hearn, who went on to broadcast Laker games, 3,338 of them in a row at one point, “and having him say my name during the game and thinking, ‘God, is that cool?’ ”
He had the same reaction when he heard his own voice on tape.
“I was thrilled to death,” he says. “It just knocked me out, it was so cool.”
Lawler still has a tape of his first words on radio, an airport interview with a Bradley player named Danny Smith before the team left for the National Invitation Tournament.
Through much of the 1960s, Lawler worked at a Riverside radio station. Tapped by Irv Kaze, who would later hire him to work for the Clippers, he landed his first play-by-play job in the early 1970s as the voice of the San Diego Chargers. That led to a job in Philadelphia, where Lawler called games for the Phillies, 76ers and, though he’d never before seen a hockey game live, the Flyers.
In 1978, when the Braves moved from Buffalo, Kaze lured Lawler back to the West Coast.
“I thought, ‘How could it be any better than this?’ ” Lawler says. “You get paid 12 months a year for working six months a year doing basketball games.
“That’s a pretty good deal.”
Basketball, since childhood, had been his love.
“Everything else was kind of like work,” he says. “This never was.”
He loves the preparation. On game days, he’s usually at work on his computer by 7 a.m., updating the crib sheet he’ll use during the broadcast. He works until the middle of the afternoon, often phoning anyone who might know the opposing team in hopes of unearthing “some little tidbit that maybe nobody else has.”
From his ocean-view home in Laguna Niguel, he leaves for Staples Center about 3:45 p.m. for a 7:30 game. Home or away, he arrives long before the crowd.
If the Clippers are struggling, he suffers along with them.
Sometimes more than they do.
“In some years, the players didn’t hurt as much as I did,” he says. “That really [ticked] me off. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what’s this old guy doing, sitting here on the bus being all upset when the guys are laughing and talking about where they’re going to be going out tonight?’ ”
But Lawler has never let defeatism drag him down.
“I kind of compartmentalize it and realize, that’s not my job,” he says. “My job is to put on a good radio broadcast or a good telecast. And there have been times when I’ve been very satisfied in our work when the team is terrible, when the team had a bad game.
“But largely because of the people in our front office and the coaches who have come through the stream, people on the basketball staff, I just feel awful for them when they lose and they lose and they lose.
“I hurt for them. I’m a fan, so I hurt myself.”
His allegiance to the Clippers is so strong that Lawler says he will never leave. Four years ago, he even married a former Clipper season ticket-holder.
“I’m a Clipper for life,” says Lawler, signed through next season but prepared to stay on as long as the team will have him and he’s physically fit. “I felt that in 1978 and I feel it now.
“I have never been even remotely tempted, even by some pretty good jobs. I’ve never had any desire to go out and do ESPN or TNT. I like to have a vested interest in the outcome. I’m a team guy.”
So he will continue trying to find an audience in a marketplace that loves the Lakers and considers the Clippers an afterthought, if it thinks of them at all. He’ll continue to fight the perception -- incorrect, he says -- that working for a team that mostly loses is a losing proposition.
He’ll continue to heed the words of his late father, also named Ralph, a former vaudeville usher and manager and owner of theaters in the Midwest who long ago instilled in his son a show-business work ethic.
“The Lakers are going to get three times or four times the television audience we are, so that’s a bunch of people who aren’t hearing our message,” Lawler says. “But my dad used to always say to me, ‘If there’s one person listening or watching, you owe them your absolute best.’
“I can guarantee you they get the best I’ve got every night, every single night. Whether it’s an exhibition game in Butte, Mont., or a playoff game, I’m going to work just as hard because that person deserves it.”
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