Clippers’ surge brings new energy to steady broadcaster Ralph Lawler
He is the most visible bridge between the losing and the winning, the humiliation and the hope, Sin City and Lob City.
He has remained sturdy through 36 years of Clippers history, long carrying on his back the numbing weight of bad ownership and empty seats, finally enjoying the lightness of great leadership and national affection.
It figures that occasionally rickety Ralph Lawler refuses to collapse now.
"I might have called it quits last year, there was always this cloud hanging over the club,” he said. "But I’ve been energized.”
That much was obvious this season after the team’s 76-year-old broadcaster was struck with excruciating abdominal pains while walking out of the team hotel in Charlotte, N.C. He worked that night’s entire game while his body was attempting, and wretchedly failing, to pass a kidney stone. He heaved during the producer’s final pregame countdown, swallowed two doses of pain pills during the telecast, but still finished strong. The stone was so big, it later required surgical removal that caused him to actually miss a game.
"My father was a showman who always preached, ‘The show must go on,’ ” Lawler said. "I live by those words.”
Several weeks later, he could have been yanked from another broadcast after suddenly slurring his words at the end of the second quarter of a game against the Lakers. Team doctors asked him whether he wanted to take the rest of the night off, but he refused.
"The old horse in me said, ‘No, I’m fine, I’m great,’ " said Lawler.
He slurred some more words at the end of the game, but a battery of ensuing tests cleared him of any neurological issues, so he figures the whole thing was just some weird remnant of a previous night’s food poisoning.
"I’m like, ‘Ralph, you’re like a machine, how do you keep doing this?’ " said his longtime partner Michael Smith. "Yeah, sure, I worry about him, but he just always finds a way.”
Finally freed from the Donald Sterling stain, Lawler is relishing his role as the treasured ancient relic in this new Clippers culture, a new era of fans reciting his Lawler’s Law while repeating his cries of, "Bingo” in voices from another generation. Thousands of fans nationwide are embracing Lawler’s and Smith’s rollicking telecasts filled with equal parts wisecracks and wisdom.
"Sometimes I’ll go to a game and a group of young kids will come over to me and be positively adoring, and that’s hard to walk away from," Lawler said. "It’s nice to have people love you, it really is.”
It’s this sort of love that could soon be visible on a national level as Lawler’s name is expected to be involved in discussions that could end an injustice and finally land him in Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. While broadcasting counterparts in places such as Portland, Phoenix and Cleveland have already been honored, Lawler is still waiting for the hall key known as the Curt Gowdy Media Award. Now that the Clippers are winning, there finally might be a sense of appreciation for the grace and dignity he showed in broadcasting all those years of losing.
Said Smith: "I honestly think that, even at this age, he’s at the top of his game."
Said Lawler: "I have made a conscious decision to never think about the Hall of Fame, but if it would ever happen, I’d definitely go to my father’s grave and shout all about it.”
While Lawler sometimes spends as much as eight hours preparing for a telecast, he is completely ignorant of the personal statistics that would help land him in the Hall. He can’t recite a Chick-Hearn type streak. He doesn’t know exactly how many games he’s worked. He’s the third-longest tenured broadcaster in the league and, by most accounts, he’s missed only three of more than 2,700 games dating back to the team’s arrival in San Diego from Buffalo in 1978.
The story behind one of those absences resulted in a life-changing decision typical of Lawler’s devotion. While driving to Staples Center from his desert home, he missed a game after he was stuck in a six-hour traffic jam behind an overturned truck. So chagrined, he promptly moved to Marina del Rey.
"I don’t know much about the numbers because it’s all kind of a blur,” Lawler said. "I just know I’ve loved every single second, even the losses, we went 12-70 one year and I enjoyed all 82.”
It is a love he shares with his real broadcast partner, his longtime wife, Jo, with whom he travels to every game. During the regular season, she even flies with him on the team plane in a rare perk that was continued under new Coach Doc Rivers because of Lawler’s legendary status.
"I’m so grateful to everyone on this basketball team who has given me the green light to do this,” he says. "I can’t imagine two weeks on the road without my wife. She is so much a central figure in my life.”
It is a love that was momentarily drained from his life in 2009 when he and Smith were suspended for one game for mispronouncing "Iran” while describing Memphis center Hamed Haddadi. They called it, ”Eye-ran,” resulting in one angry email from a season-ticket holder that led to Fox officials to controversially bench the duo.
"It was terribly unfair, and I am angry about it to this day,” said Lawler. "I didn’t say one word that could remotely be called racist. Listen to the tape, read the transcript, not one word, being a racist is so far from who I am."
His reputation continues to speak louder than any of his words. The announcement of his name often elicits the loudest cheers among Clippers fans. His presence commands such respect that even the coolest of Clippers defer to the old Midwestern guy with the barbershop mustache.
If the Clippers were ever allowed to build a statue outside Staples Center, yeah, no question, it would be Ralph Lawler.
"I’m not doing this to be remembered,” he said. "I’m going this because I love it.”
Finally, it’s loving him back.