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T.J. SIMERS

A night to remember in Memphis for Ralph Lawler and Clippers

A sportswriter from Memphis paper takes on long-suffering Clippers broadcaster, but Lawler gets the last laugh after 27-point rally gets the team only its 12th playoff win in Lawler's 30-year career.

April 30, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • Longtime Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler called his 26th playoff game on Sunday night in Memphis.
Longtime Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler called his 26th playoff game… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

MEMPHIS, Tenn -- Imagine waking up here Monday morning and realizing you really are a loser.

And now everyone in the country who watches TNT or ESPN knows you're a loser, your team built on grit, grind and "Believe Memphis," but rolling over like a submissive dog when pressured.

I was a Memphian. I worked in this Mid-South sweatbox 32 years ago, never returning until forced to do so now. But I can tell you after all these years the place still smells like no one showers.

Elvis is buried here forever and I cannot imagine how upset he must be.

The city's highlight is Beale Street, a rundown slab of bars with police running a wand over anyone wanting to enter the area Saturday night. It's a nice reminder to folks coming downtown that not everyone is likely to make it home safe.

As nasty as this place can be, it shouldn't have been a surprise to read what was in the local paper, the Commercial Appeal.

The name of the shopper is an inside joke on the locals because there is nothing appealing about it. I'm already way ahead of you: I worked there, so I fit right in.

This weekend the shopper greeted the arrival of the Clippers by belittling broadcaster Ralph Lawler in the hopes of firing up the Grizzlies' faithful.

I've never understood why a sportswriter would trash a city just because it's matched against L.A.; just another inside joke that will fly over the head of Memphians.

But who picks on a 74-year-old broadcaster who has dedicated his life to making the very best out of what is usually a very bad basketball experience?

The columnist here did just that, calling out Lawler and sidekick Mike Smith because they called Memphis' first-round playoff win over the Spurs a year ago a fluke.

"Which makes Lawler and Smith both arrogant and dumb," wrote the columnist.

Here's Lawler, a pro's pro and an upbeat soul who has had to sit through more than 2,500 Clippers games. It's been his life's work, more than 30 years now and deserving of Hall of Fame consideration as he's about to broadcast only his 26th Clippers playoff game.

How excited must he be to read he's considered both dumb and arrogant.

Beyond being irresponsible, it's just plain cruel, the writer going amateur in his zeal to stir the pot.

"They're the perfectly insufferable spokesmen for a perfectly insufferable team," the guy writes of Lawler, Smith and the Clippers.

Right away I check whether Lawler agrees Smith is insufferable.

"I wouldn't argue," he says, as usual his humor a reminder he's never failed to keep things in perspective while sentenced to hard time as a Clippers announcer.

But I would argue anyone who writes such things about Lawler without ever meeting him before Sunday night is dumb.

And as the playoffs begin and as irony goes, the shopper guy is writing from the Don Poier Media Center in the FedExForum.

A plaque just outside the media room door pays tribute to Poier, the voice of the Grizzlies who passed away in 2005 after 10 dedicated years on the job.

Imagine how much more Memphians might have loved the guy had he been allowed to be on the job like Lawler -- three times as long.

And so imagine what a Clippers playoff win might mean to Lawler. He's seen only 11 in his career, but right from the start here Sunday night they are getting clobbered.

"I'm thinking it's over and it's the first quarter," Lawler says.

But then usually by now Lawler's season is over. "And I'm home chasing the wife around the bedroom," he says with a grin.

Just his luck. "She's not as fast as she used to be," he says, but now he's working overtime and getting nothing in return from the Clippers.

With a little more than eight minutes to go, the Clippers are down by 24, "and a team doesn't come back in a preseason game down by 24, let alone a playoff game," Lawler says.

But the Clippers do. They are making history with Lawler providing the commentary. They rally from a 27-point deficit to win.

And Lawler's wife, who is sitting in the stands with the team doctor, finds her husband and hugs him.

"She loves the game so much and she's so excited and I'm just glad the team doctor is there," Lawler says later. "I thought she might need him."

It's Clippers bedlam, and how often has anyone been able to write those words?

"The single most momentous moment in franchise history," Lawler proclaims. "I'll be talking about this one when they start shoveling dirt on me: 'Hey, wait a minute, folks, let me tell you about that night back in 2012.' "

He tells his producer to get him a video copy of the fourth quarter so that he might treasure it forever.

Back at the team hotel after the game, Clippers players, coaches and staff and the Lawlers meet in a restaurant to replay something they still cannot believe really happened.

"The guys are just pinching themselves," says Lawler, no one wanting to leave and it's almost 3 in the morning. "I'm hugging Chris Paul's mother and it's just so cool.''

For a second, he concedes, he gives a thought to the Memphis columnist who has labeled him dumb and arrogant. He wonders how his night might be going, he says, but then Lawler is feeling too good to really care.

"The whole thing is just so surreal for anyone who is there," he says. "I woke up and I had to go find a newspaper in the morning just to confirm it really happened."

It's just the first game of the playoffs, the 12th Clippers playoff win for Lawler, and he's saying, "Our absolute goal now has to be not to come back here."

Ever again.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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