Ralph Lawler Q&A: On 'longevity' with Clippers, Oscar Robertson, Chick Hearn & hoops HOF
Ralph Lawler has been broadcasting Clippers games for 36 years, so he's more than earned a day in the spotlight.
From his unmistakable Lawlerisms like "oh me oh my" and "bingo!" to his professionalism and candor, Lawler is as much a part of the Clippers organization as the players, coaches and front office. He's seen thousands of basketball games, so naturally, he has a lot of good stories.
Q: Who's the best player you've ever seen live?
A: That's tough because the eras are so darn different. I broadcast Julius Erving's first NBA game. I broadcast Magic Johnson's first NBA game. Certainly Blake Griffin's first NBA game. And a lot of early games of LeBron James and certainly Michael Jordan. Those are the names, all of which come to mind. I think when all is said and done, he's only 30 now, but I think LeBron James has a chance to be the best there ever was. How cool would that be to have that said about you, that you could be the best there ever was doing what you're doing. He's got a shot at it. Right now it's probably Michael Jordan I suppose.
As a little toddler basketball fan, I've seen every great basketball player to ever play the game, going back to the very beginning when the league began in 1946-47. I was watching George Mikan play college basketball at DePaul in Chicago when they'd play Bradley. I've seen them all. I've seen the whole spectrum from start to, happily this is not the finish, but to today. I have a really unique view of this sport. I know how great Oscar Robertson was. I played a couple of pickup games with him. I went to DePaul University in Indiana and he was from Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis. We graduated the same year. We played some pickup games that summer. He was thoroughly better than I was. I knew that right away. I started thinking of broadcasting that day on the court with Oscar. He was unbelievably good. I think that LeBron James, more mimics Oscar Robertson's game than he does Magic Johnson's game or Michael Jordan's game. Just marvelous talents. I feel so lucky to be able to have this big view way up in the sky and look down and see this whole spectrum of basketball from the very beginning to today.
Q: What are you most proud of about your broadcasting career with the Clippers?
A: I guess longevity. Anybody that does a job they love for 36 years is pretty darn lucky. I'm very thankful for that. When I got the job in 1978, I said 'this is the last job I ever want to have.' It's kind of turned out that way. I didn't think it would last this long, believe me. But it has, and I'm very grateful for it.
Q: In all those losing seasons, was there a time you wanted to get a job with a winning organization?
Gallery: Life & career of Ralph Lawler
A: I had a couple of opportunities to move elsewhere but being in Southern California, first in San Diego, then in L.A., it's pretty darn hard to beat. Plus, all of our family is located in this area. The thought of going to Indiana or Seattle or some place didn't make much sense. I'm not really affected much by winning or losing to tell you the truth because that's not my job. My job is to put on a good radio broadcast or good telecast whatever it is. There have been many years where the team did poorly, but I thought we did a really good job in our telecast. We attracted and sustained an audience and I thought, that's what I'm getting paid to do and if we did that, I could walk away from a 10-point loss feeling like we won because we had a winning show. That's all I can do, really. It's more fun to watch wins, there's no question about it. I just can't control that.
Q: Some of your peers are impressed with how professional you always were broadcasting so many losing seasons, like Bill Macdonald and Adrian Garcia Marquez of the Lakers. What does that mean?
A: Well that's nice to hear that kind of stuff for sure. Any of us like to hear that we had a positive impact on anybody. Billy and Adrian are two good broadcasters. I'm pleased if anything I might have done right has rubbed off on them and not the stuff I do wrong.
Q: How much better is your job now that Clippers are winning and playing well?
A: It's better because I have a happier wife. My wife is the greatest fan there is. She was a Clippers season ticket holder when I met her in 1979. She goes to all the games with me, home and road. She is a diehard Clippers fan. I have a happier wife, and a happier wife makes a happier life, there's no question about it. That's probably the main thing. Plus, I'm happy for Doc and his staff, they work so darn hard. I'm happy for our new owner, our new team president and all the new people that have become a part of the organization and some of the old people who went through some of the tough, tough days and are now reaping some of the benefits. It's much easier to sell tickets, easier to sell sponsors, much easier to keep everybody happy because the Clippers are doing so well. And for the players who work so darn hard, I'm thrilled for all those people. But again, from my standpoint, I'm thrilled when they hand out an Emmy and we get one. I'm thrilled when they hand out a Telly (Award) and we get one, which we just did. That means our TV crew and I personally are doing a good job. That's all we can control. We get rewarded there, and I'm happy. That's like my Super Bowl and NBA Finals.
Q: What's the craziest thing you've ever seen in a game?
Ralph playing ball at Peoria Centerl.
A: There has been some crazy stuff. I had a referee have a heart attack right in front of me. He didn't die, fortunately. He was 10 feet from me in San Diego. Fell right down. You knew immediately he had a heart attack. He just went 'Bam!' down on the floor. That was pretty scary. Saw a fan across the way in San Antonio one year fall over dead in the front row. That was pretty scary. Saw Swen Nater, a center of ours years ago, step on the head of Dan Issel and almost flatten him like a pumpkin. That was a scary moment. Saw Swen lose his shoe once and throw it at somebody's shot in the air. That was pretty bizarre. I tried it one season many years ago to keep a log, a virtual diary of a basketball season because there's nothing funnier than locker room humor or team bus. Hilarious things are said. They're just impossible to have total recall. If I could write them all down. I tried. I still have a log from a roadtrip back in the Midwest years ago that makes pretty fun reading today. If I had 36 years of that, I wouldn't have to write a book. I'd say just print this.
Q: Do you want to write a book?
A: Oh yeah. I've been approached by a couple of people. I have a working copy of a couple of different directions I'd like to go. That's one thing that I would like to do when all is said and done in this business. I don't want to write the Ralph Lawler broadcast story because 200 people in L.A. would buy it and 20-30 friends elsewhere would buy it and that would be it. I'd like to write something that would reach a broad spectrum of people. I think I've watched enough carefully enough that I could express myself in a way that would be interesting enough that people would want to buy a book.
Q: There are so many great, longstanding broadcasters here in L.A. There was the late Chick Hearn. There's Bob Miller and Vin Scully. What is your relationship like with them?
A: I was closest personally with Chick, may he rest in peace, but a good working professional relationship with both Vin and Bob, who I have tremendous respect for. It's pretty amazing. I'm 36 years here and people think I'm older than dirt. I'm only about two weeks short of that. They're pretty accurate with that. I look around here Vin and there's Vin, who's been (66) years with the Dodgers and Bob, who started well before I did with the Kings. I'm like the junior guy. How can that be? I'm just trying to wring out one season after another, hanging on by my fingernails and these guys keep on going and going. They haven't missed a beat. Bob is the same age as I am. Vin is 11 years older than I am. They just keep going. They're an inspiration to me is what they are.
Q: Is getting into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame something you hope for and wish for?
A: It's something I'm embarrassed talking about. I refuse to ever let myself ever get caught up in it. T.J. Simers of the L.A. Times tried a hard campaign to make it happen when he was there. Bill Walton has nominated me for it, and I'm honored by them even thinking about it. It's something I try not to think about but who wouldn't love it?
Ralph Lawler celebrates his 2,000 game.
Q: What's your preparation like for a game?
A: I'd say on average and it varies, 6-7 hours a game. We haven't seen Memphis since November, so what do you include as preparation time? I watched them on television for three hours last night and made copious notes. Then I got up at 6:30 this morning and basically worked straight through until it was 3:45 and time to get in the car and head down here to the gym. However many hours that is. I don't punch a time clock, happily. Some guys in this business can just show up and say who we're playing and be totally entertaining and informative. I haven't got the confidence or the knack or the ability to do that. I've just got to work my tail off and just feel like everything is done. I've got everything on this sheet and all this preparation. If I haven't got that done, my heart is beating too hard and I'm sweating too much to do a good job. That's just my comfort level. Everybody is different. Hot Rod Hundley, a terrific Hall of Fame broadcaster with the Utah Jazz, was once Chick's sidekick with the Lakers and later worked in Phoenix with the Suns but had a long career with the Jazz. He would literally show up 45 minutes before tipoff and just sit down and do a delightful three-hour show. Just be delightful. He was a great story teller. He knew all the players in the league. He had stories about all of them. He would tell them all. He had a great sense of humor and gift of gab. He loved to play golf. He'd play 27 or 36 holes of golf on game day and show up and 'hey, how you doing guys?'
Q: What's your favorite Lawlerism? Oh me oh my? Lawler's Law? Bingo?
A: I really don't. They all just happened. It's not like I said, 'Boy, this is fun to say so I said it.' Something pops out of your mouth sometimes. When people start parodying it back to you, you think, that kind of works so we'll do it again. I try not to overuse any of it. Bingo is a result of the flow of the game. The rest of it, you have to have a governor here and say OK, let's not overdo this or that. It's just been fun. Everywhere we go now, because of NBA League Pass, people watch games late at night on the East Coast, and Clippers games are the last game in town. We'll walk into a building and people go 'Bingo!' I guarantee you, every time we get to 100, whether on the road or here at home, I'm hearing Lawler's Law all over the place. Amazing. It's a silly little thing that doesn't mean anything, except that it's fun. What's more important than that? It's a game after all.
Q: Do you think about retirement each year? And when will it be time?
A: I don't know. I'm hoping I'll know when I get there. We bought a home in the desert a number of years ago thinking as I approach 65 that it would be retirement time. It's supposed to be retirement time. We blew right by that. Instead of just a year or two making the drive from the desert to Staples Center for a game or to the airport or the airport home at 3 in the morning, a 2 1/2 hour drive, five years went by. Two years ago we said we can't do this anymore. We were having too much fun working. We sold the house. We rent an apartment in Marina del Rey which works out great. It's handy to the airport. It's handy to the facility. We just keep on keeping on. Every year the season ends and I don't want to think about it for a week or two weeks. Then, let's reassess where we are, how your health is, which is always critically important. If your health is good, it's pretty hard to turn your back on this, especially with the new ownership and new management here. They're so forward thinking. They're so bright. They're so dedicated to making this thing work in a way that has never worked before. It's tough to walk away from it and see it from afar.
Q: How badly do you want to call a Clippers team that wins the NBA title and do you think that will happen in your career?
A: Yes, I do. I think there's a chance for it to happen. To say it's gonna happen is foolish because there's too many things we can't control. There's a chance for it to happen. It makes it difficult to walk away from that. It would be a thrill. I'm very fortunate in so many ways. One of the ways is they've got now, with national TV, we lose local telecasts after the first round. You used to be able to do two rounds maybe even the first three rounds years ago. Now, local TV is blacked out after the first round. That means Billy Macdonald of the Lakers, when they would go on to a championship run, he was just sitting in the stands watching and wringing his hands and maybe making an appearance on a pregame or postgame show. I get to switch over and do radio. I'm very lucky that because we have a terrific radio broadcaster in Brian Sieman. He's a good friend and a rising young broadcaster, one of the best play-by-play guys on radio in the entire league. Yet, he steps aside graciously. We go in and work with him, Mike Smith and I do. If we ever get to a Game 7 championship round, I guarantee you we'll work it out where we both will get a chance to do some play-by-play that night, both Brian and me. We both have waited a long time for this to happen. It would kill me to be sitting here with my wife, as much as I love sitting with her, to watching a championship game. It would just be agony.
Q: What would people be most surprised to know about you? Any hobbies?
A: My wife and I love the theatre. My love affair with my wife is unique. I can't imagine anybody loving their partner any more than I love her. Every breath I take I'm just inhaling her presence. I just love being with her so much. I'm so lucky in this job where I travel so much that we're able to share this together and doubly lucky she loves it as much as I do. We're off to Houston tomorrow and we're looking forward to where we're going to have dinner and who we're going to see. She's the most special thing I've ever been around. I'm a lucky guy.
Q: What work have you done beside play-by-play that has helped you?
A: I've sold. I've marketed. I've managed. I've been a program director, news director, sports director, production manager, making commercials all day long. One of the reasons I think the play-by-play broadcasters are among the best broadcasters there are is because we have to speak extemporaneously for 2-3-4 hours depending on how long the event is. The earthquake football game Al Michaels did and was so brilliant on a few years ago in San Francisco, he just took over. It was so natural for him to describe what was going on, whether it was a sporting event or not, that's what he does for a living. That's what he was trained to do. I hope there's never a disaster here but if so, those of us who have a play-by-play background are probably better to handle it than most because so many people on the news side haven't had a whole lot of experience covering live events. It's a great training ground. Sometimes guys go from sports into news. I think that's great. It's a terrific background for you.
Lawler with good friend Bill Walton.