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Ralph Lawler returns early from vacation to ‘a different world’

Ralph Lawler is interviewed before a Clippers game on April 10, 2019.
Ralph Lawler is interviewed before a Clippers game on April 10, 2019, shortly before his retirement from broadcasting.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Ralph Lawler did not know what to expect upon arrival Monday morning in the United States. He didn’t foresee that San Francisco’s typically bustling airport would resemble something out of a movie set.

Shops were closed. Security queues were empty. He spent nearly an hour of his layover watching a runway and didn’t see a single plane take off. Even by the standards of someone who watched Clippers home games during many lean years, the place was remarkably empty.

Yet the 81-year-old Hall of Fame broadcaster and his wife, Jo, were grateful to be there, feeling healthy and strong. Consider their alternative: being stuck in quarantine on the other side of the world during the coronavirus outbreak.

They were among the thousands of Americans abroad in recent weeks who scrambled to return home before flights were canceled and borders closed, watching from afar as the world they knew flipped upside down. Lawler’s vantage point just happened to be from Down Under, during a vacation to Australia and New Zealand.

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“It’s a different world,” he said, “from the one we left three weeks ago.”

What Lawler called their “escape route” began Monday in Christchurch, New Zealand, and continued to Sydney, Australia. But there was no guarantee it would end back home. A gate agent in Sydney, he said, informed a group of travelers they would need to be quarantined for 14 days. She was, however, able to secure the couple a flight to the U.S.

“Oh my God,” he said. “She finally found something, some way to get us in.”

When Lawler and “Sweet Jo,” as his wife was known on Clippers broadcasts — a reference that became as much a staple of his broadcasts as “Bingo!” and “Oh me, oh my” — left for Australia on March 4, the spread of the coronavirus had entered the national discussion but hadn’t altered their plans. The monthlong vacation was a gift from the Clippers upon Lawler’s retirement after 40 seasons last April. They figured it to be their last chance to see bucket-list sites such as New Zealand’s South Island.

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But his past and present collided within one week, when the NBA became the first major sport to suspend its season following a positive test by Utah’s Rudy Gobert. Lawler was proud the league took decisive action. The suspension of play also put on hold one of the best opportunities the Clippers, a franchise long associated with losing, had to win a championship, behind a roster led by all-star forward Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

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Thinking about that potentially lost opportunity felt trite, Lawler said, when close friends were out of work and hospitals were packed because of the virus.

“I’m a lot more concerned about the welfare of the nation and the health of our population than I am about a basketball team or a basketball league or anything,” he said.

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Still he has thought deeply about basketball for the past four decades, and he continued to watch nearly every Clippers game this season from his home in Bend, Ore. It was hard not to consider the effects on the game he loves.

“I hope that this thing gets back on track because we’re losing one-fourth of a season of [Leonard’s] play along with George together and you may only get one more year of that if things don’t go well,” he said, referencing that both George and Leonard can opt out of their contracts following the 2021 season. “Things should go great, but as we have found out things don’t always go great.

“I hate to see LeBron James, at 35, lose a season where he’s certainly had a championship hope and a realistic one because at 35 you don’t get that back. Are we ever going to see Montrezl Harrell wear a Clipper uniform again? Another three or four guys who’ve been contributing guys on or off the bench are on one-year contracts. And how’s all the free agency going to get sorted and the draft — it’s kind of mind-boggling.”

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For 60 years, Lawler spent his career amid crowds, narrating action as it unfolded in front of him. But he has never seen scenes like those he witnessed on the news and up close since the virus became a global pandemic and sent entire cities into isolation. In Wellington, New Zealand, last week, the couple boarded a ferry bound for the country’s South Island, only to be informed that the captain no longer wanted them aboard because they had been in the country for less than two weeks.

Days later, at their hotel in Christchurch, he and his wife received a phone call from the front desk advising them not to leave their room. They discussed renting an apartment in Christchurch for two months. Unsure about the availability of flights to the U.S. later this spring, they ultimately cut short their vacation by about 10 days.

They never did see South Island. But they were back home Monday, and felt fortunate.

“Now that we’re back in the States, we’ll be counting the days to try to get to 14 days and realize, OK, we escaped that vacation without getting the damn virus,” Lawler said. “If we can avoid it in Oregon, that will be good.”

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The new reality means new routines. They’ll talk to their friends and family in Bend via video chats, rather than in person. Restocking the refrigerator will be done early in the morning, when grocery stores set aside senior-only shopping hours. He and Jo need new after-dinner entertainment, too. It had been their custom to turn on the Clippers and listen to old friends such as Brian Sieman, the current play-by-play broadcaster. The team was supposed to play the Knicks on Monday.

“Jo’s going to be tempted to say, ‘Who’s playing?’” Lawler said. “The answer is nobody. That is really, really bizarre.”


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