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Oh Me, Oh My! Ralph Lawler Signs Off

After 40 years as the voice of the Clippers, Ralph Lawler will call his final regular-season game this week. His sign-off marks the end of an era in Los Angeles sports, but perhaps the dawn of a new one for the city’s other NBA team.

Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Ralph Lawler, the play-by-play broadcaster of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been around long enough to remember when the Clippers were L.A.’s one true team—if just for one day. It was May 3, 1992, and the Clippers, after four days in limbo, were finally playing in Game 4 of their first postseason since the franchise’s move from Buffalo, a win-or-go-home bout with the Utah Jazz in a best-of-five first-round series. Going home, however, didn’t initially seem like an option, given the state it was in.

L.A. had been razed in the days after Game 3. A jury found four LAPD officers not guilty of the police brutality inflicted on Rodney King, a black California native whose beating was videotaped by a bystander and sent to a local news station. Billowing plumes of smoke scattered across the city’s sprawl, and broken glass lined the streets. More than 50 people died, and thousands were injured. A citywide curfew, from sunset to sunrise, was installed.

The night of the acquittal, Lawler and his wife, Jo, stared at their TV set in the living room of their old, wooden Marina Del Rey apartment in disbelief. “I’m seeing them torching these homes, looting shops in Beverly Hills and all over the city, and I’m thinking, This apartment is like a matchbox I’m sitting in. Somebody could have thrown a torch and the whole thing could go up like a tinderbox,” Lawler says. “That’s the kind of emotions that were going through everybody’s minds and their fears, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on with our city?’”

The curfew made it impossible for L.A. to host a live sporting event. On May 1, one day after Game 4 was originally scheduled to be played, Clippers players were ordered to clear their locker rooms; the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where the team played its home games, had been converted into headquarters for law enforcement and armed forces. The Lakers opted to move their own Game 4 against the Portland Trail Blazers from the Great Western Forum to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Clippers, on the other hand, needed all the home-court advantage they could muster. “The Clippers really wanted to do something local,” Lawler says. “But finding a safe haven was not easy to do.”

The team eventually brokered a deal with the Anaheim Convention Center, roughly a 35-mile drive from the Sports Arena. When players bussed down to the arena on May 3 for a Sunday afternoon tipoff, they found familiar environs; the Clippers court design had magically been transported and installed, thanks to the ingenuity of longtime Clippers employee Carl Lahr. The game earned enormous TV ratings, a rarity for the team then. Clippers center Olden Polynice recalled nearly passing out from hyperventilating due to pent-up energy. “It was so great, because it was the first time since the riots had broken out that you could say, OK, let’s have fun,” Lawler recalls. “It was an awful week. It was a hellacious week for everybody, but now we can have fun, and L.A. can all kind of come together and focus on this game.” It was the first professional sporting event played in Southern California after the riots had subsided. “That was a huge moment in L.A. sports history, and certainly in the Clippers history. It’s a memory I will cherish forever,” Lawler says.

It’s hard to walk away from Lawler, 80, without receiving a few history lessons. To talk to the legendary L.A. broadcaster is to bargain with a gatekeeper who keeps close to his chest histories that time would prefer to be forgotten. On Wednesday, Lawler will call the final regular-season game of his 40-year tenure as the voice of the Clippers, fittingly against the Jazz, with longtime broadcast partner and friend Bill Walton. It’s a Hall of Fame career even if the gig wasn’t one of the toughest in the business.

“To put it nicely, the Clippers were a disaster,” says Paul Sunderland, a former Lakers play-by-play announcer who hosted Dodgers, Lakers, and Clippers pregame shows on Fox Sports in the ’90s. “I mean, it was just horrible, losing season after another, after another, after another. And yet, there was Ralph. Different partners, always with a great voice, always a smile on his face, always with enthusiasm, as if he were covering a team that was vying for a playoff spot. But you look at some of those Clippers teams, [they] were some of the worst teams ever to take the floor in the NBA in the ’90s.”

Despite recent boom times, the Clippers have been the most losingest franchise in the NBA by a considerable margin during Lawler’s run. For exactly half his life, Lawler has perfected the art of turning trash into treasure. His voice has provided an essential counterbalance to the Hollywood myth, perpetuated by the Lakers and Dodgers, that everything here is glamorous. Sometimes the only thing you can control is how much effort you put into making your situation a little more tenable; Lawler’s voice reflected that. The oeuvre of Eric Piatkowski’s nine-year Clippers career didn’t have the gravity to bring the city together, but Lawler’s “Bingo! surely does.

Excellence in the face of its diametric opposition: That is what places Lawler firmly in the L.A. sports broadcasting pantheon, alongside legends like Chick Hearn (Lakers), Vin Scully (Dodgers), Jaime Jarrín (the Spanish-language voice of the Dodgers), Bob Miller (Kings), and Tom Kelly (USC football and basketball), who all lorded over their respective domains for at least 40 years. Lawler is the last active English-language broadcaster of the lot. This season’s young and boundless Clippers have taken up the franchise’s mantle of recent success, marching into the postseason for the seventh time in eight seasons, but for Clipper Nation, the next few weeks and months motion toward an end of an era, not only in Clippers history, but L.A. sports history writ large.

In the late ’90s, Sunderland got a phone call from a Fox Sports producer. Bill Walton was missing in action for a road game against the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Clippers broadcast needed a quick in-house substitution. Sunderland was trained as a play-by-play announcer but felt confident he’d be able to pinch hit as an analyst for a game. No problem, he thought. Glad to do it. Early in the game, with Bucks point guard Terrell Brandon bringing the ball up the court, Sunderland found an opportunity to flex his knowledge of the former Oregon guard, having covered the Pac-10 in the past. Unfortunately, Sunderland lost track of the game trying to nail what he thought was a winning anecdote. Before he could finish his thought, he heard a ringing in his ear. Lawler had cut him off with an exultant BINGO!

“I had talked while the Clippers were on the offensive end and somebody hit a 3,” Sunderland says, laughing. “I learned right away to clear the runway if there’s any chance for a Bingo! coming your way, because I walked right into it.”

Bingo. Oh me, oh my. Fasten your seat belts. Some of Lawler’s most iconic catchphrases are gentle exclamations, blank slates that can seemingly convey elation or melancholy at a second’s notice. Origin stories are out there. Robert “Bingo” Smith, a capable outside shooter, spent his final NBA season with the Clippers in 1979, when the 3-point line was first instituted in the NBA, and Lawler just had too much fun shouting “Bingo!” to drop the call once Smith retired. “Oh me, oh my” was just a Midwestern exclamation he’d occasionally drop on broadcasts that the team’s marketing department demanded more of. Lawler’s Law, which famously states that the first team to 100 wins, was actually cribbed from Al Domenico, a former Sixers trainer who frequently shared with Lawler what he believed to be a universal truth in the NBA. But these are instances where context does not enhance the myth. It’s the voice that sells the call, a voice he’d been honing since he was a child.

A young Lawler didn’t have to look far for his idols. Many of them came from his hometown of Peoria, Illinois, in the mid-20th century. Three different radio stations had their own announcers broadcast basketball games of local Bradley University, which quickly rose as a national powerhouse in the ’40s and ’50s. Lawler spent his childhood nights by the radio, entranced by the detailed accounts of his beloved Braves from the likes of Chick Hearn. Eventually, Bradley vaulted broadcasters like Hearn and Kelly to Los Angeles, and Bill King, the longtime San Francisco Giants announcer, out to the Bay Area. “It was almost like being in a broadcast laboratory hearing these guys,” Lawler said. “They were all so very good, and they were upwardly mobile, and the excitement of they went to Chicago, they went to Los Angeles, I mean, for a kid from Peoria, that was like, ‘Wow.’”

Lawler got his broadcasting break in Philadelphia, where he called a Stanley Cup–winning Flyers team and a Finals-bound Sixers in the mid-’70s. (The irony is not lost on Lawler, who has spent the past 40 years chasing the highs he felt as a novice.) He landed his dream job, however, as the dedicated Clippers team broadcaster in 1978. Soon thereafter, Hearn, once an idol, became a friend. But the best advice he got in his early NBA broadcasting years came not from Chick, but Chick’s wife, Marge. Before a Clippers-Lakers crosstown matchup at the Forum, Marge and Lawler exchanged stories and jokes over a pregame meal before Marge stopped him. “You know, you’ve got a great sense of humor,” she said. “Let it happen on the air!” The notion of divulging details about his life had never occurred to Lawler, who, in his early years, had aspired to be a pitch-perfect broadcaster—what ESPN’s Joe Tessitore would call a “classically trained violinist” in the booth. But Marge’s words stuck with him. He started opening up about his life; specifically about Jo, his wife.

Introducing Jo to the world was awkward at first. Ralph, an announcer who prides himself on the clarity of his words, was concerned that saying something as personal as Jo and I went to the movies last night might have conjured a night with some bar buddy named Joe. Jo soon became Sweet Jo, a fixture in broadcasts as familiar to Clippers fans as his everyday Lawlerisms. “My wife, now Sweet Jo, has become a personality in her own right. She’s posing for selfies, for crying out loud,” Lawler says. “She became a part of who I am, which is the way it should be. Because she is such a part of what I am as a person, she should be a part of what I am as a broadcaster. That just helped me say, OK, I’m going to get naked in front of the world, so to speak. It turns out, people can relate to you better if you’re a real human being.”

There’s a difference, however, between infusing one’s identity into a broadcast and allowing one’s emotions to override the show entirely. With the rise in tanking as a viable team-building strategy, many local NBA broadcast teams have begun to experience, to the deepest extent, the lows that Lawler once had to navigate on an annual basis. “A Game 7 is pretty simple. It kind of just tells its own story. All the drama points are already drawn for you. You don’t have to go out and create anything,” Lawler says. “[But] I love the craft, I really do. That’s why even a year where we won 13 and lost 69, I was having the time of my life, because we were working our tails off to try to give people a reason to listen or watch. That’s not easy to do when you’re down by 18 points 10 minutes into the basketball game.”

Learned experience (and repeated exposure to bad basketball) forced Lawler to understand the priorities of his jobs. Announcers unaccustomed to having to create a cohesive narrative amid chaos and futility are often left frustrated; they lose patience and focus. The notion of the broadcaster as a steward for the fan begins to unravel. It isn’t good TV.

“I watch on NBA League Pass and some of these teams that are down in the doldrums, I mean, the broadcasters are down in the doldrums,” Lawler says. “But you can’t go there. You just can’t. My daddy always told me—and he was a showman from way back—‘If there’s one person listening ... if one person instead of hundreds or thousands or millions, you owe that one person your absolute best.’”

In his time as the voice of the Clippers, Lawler has survived coaching and regime changes; he’s seen the best and worst of Los Angeles; he’s overcome prostate cancer without missing a single game because of it. (Lawler has missed only three games in his entire 40-year career with the team, period; his most recent absence was in 2009, when he was suspended for one game due to insensitive remarks regarding then-Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian player in the NBA.) Hell, he’s even lasted longer than the stink of abject failure that used to emanate from the team like an aura.

“I’ve been the club historian forever. I can give perspective on that kind of stuff,” Lawler says. “I hope they find a way to have somebody do that in my absence, because you don’t want to lose touch with your history. The previous ownership [under Donald Sterling] didn’t like history because the history was largely bad. But history is history. It is what it is. You know, the Civil War is a part of the U.S.’s history. It’s a pretty sad state, but it’s part of the history. And to understand who we are as a country, you have to understand the Civil War.”

Odds are, Lawler’s replacement won’t have much of a connection to the Clippers at all. The franchise’s true icons are few and far between; the team still has not retired a single jersey. There is a generation among us who won’t be able to recall a time when the Clippers were the laughing stock in the league, but even the most senior of that era would only just now be entering high school. The Clippers could bring in Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis in one fell swoop this offseason, and their footprint on the league at large would still be just a speck of dust compared to the overbearing influence of the Lakers, one of the most iconic sports franchises in the world. Lawler is stepping down from his perch at the biggest inflection point in team history, and his replacement will have a real possibility of being the voice of one of the best teams in the NBA. The newcomer will not only have to live up to Lawler’s standard but establish a broadcasting identity on the fly for a team with the highest of expectations.

No one understands that pressure quite like Sunderland, who was only the second broadcast announcer hired by the Lakers in Los Angeles after Hearn’s death in 2002. Despite gaining the public support of Hearn’s wife, Marge, Sunderland struggled to find his own identity as the Lakers’ play-by-play broadcaster—he was a native Angeleno who’d listened to Chick since he was 7, who idolized Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The perch was his to take, but he never felt it was truly his. “Chick’s shadow—and I don’t mean this in a negative—loomed very, very large. With good reason,” Sunderland says. “Irrespective of your generation, he’s the greatest basketball announcer of all time. I mean, the guy was unbelievable. He invented ‘slam dunk.’ He invented ‘crossover dribble.’ I tried to be really, really respectful and deferential to his memory. Because I thought that was the right thing to do.”

Without prompting, Sunderland offers his advice to Lawler’s successor: “I would say, ‘Look. They did a nationwide search. They chose you because they thought you were the best person for the job. Now just do what got you the job. Don’t do anything different. Just be yourself and accept that you have to be excellent to get the job. So just go do your thing.’”

For decades, the Lawler car rides home from games have been a study of contrasts. In the worst of years, a common scene: Jo, who Ralph insists has seen more Clippers games than even he has, would sit, forlorn, crying over the latest loss. Ralph, meanwhile, would grin ear to ear, content with the performance he’d given, all things considered. “She’s just like a typical diehard fan,” Lawler says about Jo, a Clippers season-ticket holder when they first met in the ’70s. “And I’m just bright and happy because we had a really good show.”

But soon, the impending drive to Bend, Oregon, where the couple is relocating after the season, will signal a strange transformation from team voice to team fan. Between Bend brewery tours, cross-country drives, and overseas trips, the NBA might not factor much at all into Lawler’s future. “I don’t know how much basketball he’s going to want to watch right away,” Jo says. “Emotionally, I don’t know how that’s going to go. It’ll be interesting to watch the process. It won’t hit us until training camp. I mean, how do you know until you’re actually in the moment?”

Still, it’s hard to imagine Lawler dropping so quickly something so central to who he is. Lawler’s optimism in the Clippers’ future is unbridled. “This is where the future is. It really is,” Lawler says. “That pendulum [in L.A.] is slowly swinging this way. The Lakers are still way more popular than the Clippers because of their history. But pretty soon, that’s going to be like ancient history.”

At one point in our conversation, my inner Ralph Lawler fan breaks loose. I ask him about my favorite Clippers play, a meaningless alley-oop in the final seconds of a 2001 game that the Clippers had already sealed a victory on, one that has captured my imagination for the past two decades. Sean Rooks heaves an outlet pass to Lamar Odom, who catches the ball in midair with his back turned to the basket, contorting himself into a sort of levitating teapot as he lobs the ball to Darius Miles for an easy dunk. Lawler’s call was explosive, with a level of shock and awe typically reserved for the very best of games. Lawler gives me a knowing smile. That was nothing, it says.

“I feel like I’ve still got a place I’ve never gone,” Lawler says. “And that would be if the Clippers win a championship. I’ve got a spot up here somewhere that I haven’t reached yet, that I always hoped I’d get a chance to reach. But you have to save something for that ultimate moment that only a few teams even get a chance to achieve. It does make me wish I were 10 years younger. I’d love to be here for the ultimate step, but I’ll be watching them from afar instead of from up close.”


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