Ralph Lawler has never lost his enthusiasm with the Clippers

The 70-year-old play-by-play announcer, who has worked for the team for 30 years, continues to be 'relentlessly optimistic' even as another dismal season comes to an end.

April 15, 2009|Diane Pucin

'Novak for the win," Ralph Lawler says, his deep voice climbing up the sound ladder with each syllable, in perfect rhythm with Steve Novak's three-point shot as it arcs and settles into the net.

As time runs out, there is Lawler's voice, sweet sounding as any symphony, musical and exuberant and just so heartfelt.


It is as if the Clippers won the NBA title, a surprise release of joy, the signature one-word exclamation of childlike wonder from this 70-year-old play-by-play man who has seen much more losing than winning, with a team that makes an NBA season feel like years instead of months.

In fact, this win over the New Jersey Nets last month was just the Clippers' 16th.

Bob Miller, the hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Kings, says there is no harder job than calling the action of an awful team, game after game, minute after endless minute.

Lawler has been doing that for the Clippers for 30 years, but the losses -- 1,583 -- have not defeated him.

Straight-backed and broad-shouldered, with a tan perfected by the desert sun at his La Quinta home, Lawler loves being the voice of the Clippers, who are 19-62 with one game left. Only his white hair and mustache hint at his age. Before a recent game, he walks around Staples Center with steps so long -- he's 6-foot-2 -- that people have to run to catch up. He is looking forward to the next four hours because, he says, the Clippers still could win.

"It's always more fun to do the winning broadcast, of course," he says. "But there's a certain satisfaction in knowing that you're prepared whether they win or lose."

The losses he knows well. One dismal season after another, the Clippers have closed out April with a string of losses more often than not.

For good teams the month of April is usually about fighting for a playoff spot or fine-tuning for a title run. Usually for the Clippers, that isn't the case. Between the 1982-83 season and last season, the Clippers were a woeful 80-174 in April. On Monday night they lost again, making them 1-6 this month, their playoff hopes long gone. After tonight's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers will just be glad the season is over.

Yet, every April, there is Lawler, studying his notes, checking the stats, finding what he refers to as "interesting tidbits" for his viewers.

He may be the voice of losing in a world where winning is everything, but you wouldn't know it listening to him.

When Novak -- who is polite and hard working and a little undistinguished, which makes him a perfect Clipper -- knocked down that three-pointer, Lawler's words were as exacting as the shot.

His words always are, making even the Clippers worth your time. For example:

"Oh, no," he says, "that ball just trickled out of the reach of Zach Randolph."

Or, "The Clippers are in desperate need of a win tonight."

Lawler says that a lot.

"It is impossible to be optimistic about the 10 guys Coach Dunleavy had on the floor tonight."

Lawler doesn't sugarcoat. He is not irresponsibly positive after the Clippers' collection of castoffs, fill-ins and backups get walloped, even by Oklahoma City, a team with a record as execrable as the Clippers.

"There is no reason for me to not tell the truth or try to hide the truth," Lawler says. "I love covering this team, but the idea of covering it means telling the fans the truth. If the truth isn't positive, it's not my job to make it positive."

Yet Lawler's 80-year-old sister, Jean Bell, calls him "relentlessly optimistic."

Lawler grew up in Peoria, Ill., where his father owned a chain of movie theaters and where his mother encouraged her children to be appreciative of words. Lawler figures he never had a choice. His life was given over to words so he could keep up with his father, who spoke to any group that asked.

In high school, though, Lawler played basketball -- loved the game, its statistics, its angles, its beauty. But his on-court days ended at Bradley University in his hometown.

"The reality was obvious," he says. "I was a speaker, not a player."

At the time the voice of the Bradley Braves was Chick Hearn, and Lawler dreamed of following in Hearn's footsteps.

Lawler later worked at a Peoria radio station, which bid for Bradley basketball. "If we'd gotten that contract," Lawler says, "I imagine I'd still be doing Bradley Braves basketball. I'd have been there 50 years, happy as can be."

"This isn't where the Clippers expected to be at this point of the season."

Lawler says this during a recent game at Staples, the 52nd loss of the season. It is not the first time he has said this.

The numbers are stark: The Lawler-era Clippers have only 844 wins so far out of 2,427 regular-season games and a mere 25 playoff games. In contrast, the Lakers, across those same seasons, have been in 371 playoff games.

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