- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Drive your car to the nearest freeway on-ramp. Merge into traffic. Then describe everything you see at 70 miles per hour.
Did you notice that the Ivanhoe Middle School Honors Student bumper sticker on the metallic green Toyota Corolla is fraying at the corners? That the overhead sign for the 101 North exit which, for years, read "Hollywood" in large white letters now reads "Ventura"? That the guy with a crew cut in the silver late-model Volvo C30 to your right is wearing a Bluetooth headset on his left ear and chewing gum?
If you're a student of the Los Angeles Clippers' longtime play-by-play announcer Ralph Lawler, those details flow freely in your description.
In the summer of 1998, Clippers color commentator Mike Smith was under Lawler's tutelage. Following his career as a professional player in the NBA and Europe, Smith had spent a few seasons working as an announcer for his alma mater, Brigham Young University. He and Lawler knew each other as neighbors in Orange County. While in Salt Lake City with the Clippers, Lawler turned on the television in his hotel room and heard Smith calling a BYU game. Lawler was impressed, and when the Clippers' radio play-by-play job opened up a few months later, he encouraged Smith to pursue broadcasting as a full-time trade.
"It was a real learning process for Mike, and Mike is a very bright human being," Lawler said. "We spent that summer working and he became really good."
Smith credits Lawler for that improvement. A few times a week, the two would meet at Lawler's home where Lawler would give Smith a battery of drills and exercises -- like doing play-by-play on the 405. Every waking moment offered an opportunity to tell a story and illustrate a picture. For Lawler, the game on the court is merely an extension of the world we live in.
"We'd be in a meeting," Smith said. "And Ralph would say, 'Describe everything in this room as fast as you can, as clearly as you can, as loud as you can, with as much detail as you can. You are the radio listener's eyes.'"
Following the NBA lockout, Smith started his first season in the booth with the Clippers, while Lawler began his 20th with the team. After Clippers games, the two would carpool home together from the arena and Lawler would often pop a cassette of Smith's broadcast into the stereo.
"It was like you just took a math test and you were riding with your geometry teacher," Smith said. "I used to dread those drives, but he was making me so good."
When admirers praise Lawler, they generally first speak of his longevity. Thirty-two years ago, the NBA's Buffalo Braves played their final home game at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. The franchise moved to San Diego, where Lawler announced the team's inaugural season as the Clippers in 1978-79. More than 2,500 games later, Lawler has established himself as both the voice and the institutional memory of the team.
Lawler has endured a career during which the Clippers have dropped nearly two out of every three games. That futility sets his job apart from many other broadcasters in the league. Most fan bases can fall back on nostalgia when things get rough. They can conjure up a string of consecutive playoff appearances or look up at the rafters and find legends who define the franchise's prouder moments. Clippers fans have no such memories. The team has put together winning seasons only twice since arriving in Los Angeles and you won't find any Clippers jerseys hanging in Staples Center. There are very few YouTube moments and no ESPN Classic games to memorialize. Many Clippers fans can't even confide in their family or friends -- the people closest to them in the world -- because those folks are often absorbed in their own drama, one that features a surefire Hall of Famer and a certain head coach with 10 championship rings. Instead, Clippers fans turn to Ralph -- as Lawler is known to the Clippers faithful -- to be a friend, therapist and spiritual counselor.
"Ralph has been the one ongoing constant that's been there game in and game out," longtime Phoenix Suns play-by-play announcer Al McCoy said. "He's been the one consistent positive for the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles."
Those who root for the Clippers know what they've gotten themselves into. They don't tune in for a thrill ride or to bask in the warm glow of a seven-game winning streak. These beleaguered basketball souls need a voice that will be empathetic, reassuring, but also honest. In a world of freak injuries, dashed expectations and mounting losses, Clippers fans need someone they can trust. For 34 years, Lawler has given them that measure of comfort.
Lawler appreciates that Clippers fans gauge relevancy on a different scale than most. What might seem like a meaningless matchup to the impartial observer looking for a game to watch on a Wednesday night in late March holds serious import to a Clippers die-hard who still hasn't had his fill of DeAndre Jordan slams.
"I've never called a game that I didn't think was meaningful, whether it's a preseason game on radio or a March game when you're 25 games out of first place," Lawler said. "There are people watching or listening, and they deserve my absolute best preparation and my best work."
That game preparation is generally a four- or five-hour process and includes the creation of a scannable menu of factoids better known as "the sheet." Working off a template created on Microsoft Word, Lawler is able to cram individual stats, team notes and trivia into a snug 11 by 8½ inch page.
"I scour in the Internet for stories, ideas or other little things that make people go, 'That's interesting,' which is a large part of our job," Lawler said. "I'm always hunting for things that give people a compelling reason to keep watching."
Lawler loves the hunt. The bookshelves of his home study are lined with Official NBA Registers dating back to the 1950s and the browser window on his PC is always open. His search for a fun trivia question to stump Smith is like a foodie's quest to find the best taco truck in town.
"I enjoy the preparation about as much as the game itself," Lawler said. "It's almost a corollary to a coach like Larry Brown who enjoys practices and game preparation more than the agony -- as it often is -- of a two-and-a-half hour competition."
Tune into a Clippers broadcast and you'll never be deprived of the proceedings on the court -- a shot attempt, a fast break ignited by a steal, or a lead change -- but Lawler's observations capture so much more.
"Ralph will say, 'When you describe Lamar Odom, tell them he has a bald head with sweat drops glistening off his forehead. And that his broad shoulders stick out twice as far as his waist does. And his arms hang down to his knees. And he's long-limbed and left-handed. Do not leave anything out,'" Smith said.
Good prep and attention to detail can help guide an announcer through a broadcast. It can ensure that the audience knows that Rasual Butler is about to surpass the franchise record for 3-pointers in a season, or that the Clippers have lost nine games during which they've led by double-digits, or even that Baron Davis' beard looks particularly healthy. But smart facts and artful impressions don't tell the whole story. Storytelling also requires mood, and that task is particularly daunting when the tale in question is often a sad one.
"We have to retain some sense of entertainment value because our team so often is not very entertaining," Lawler said. "The thing that expands the audience is being likable."
By "we," Lawler means Smith and, prior to Smith, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who served as Lawler's partner for more than a decade, from 1990 until 2002. As dedicated as Lawler is to detail, he's even more committed to the rapport in the booth. The comedic timing and witty banter that amuse and distract Clippers fans when the team falls behind by 19 in the third quarter didn't happen serendipitously. Lawler, who loves the theater as much as basketball, has a gift for interplay.
Apart from his endurance and steadiness, the most impressive achievement of Lawler's career might be the pivot he made when Walton left the Clippers in 2002 and was replaced by Smith, who moved over from radio to be Lawler's full-time partner. As sensibilities go, Smith and Walton have little in common. Walton's currency is hyperbole, while Smith is a literalist. While Walton bemoaned the hooooooorrrrrrrrrible, Smith veers toward a sober critique of strategy. Both men needed a counterbalance on the air, albeit of a completely different sort.
"With Bill, I was the straight man and Bill was the goofball," Lawler said. "Now Mike is the straight man and I'm the goofball because I recognized his personality is different than Bill's."
Lawler's grasp of what the broadcast needs at a given instant -- whether it's some back story about a player ("A former Bradley Brave!"), a jolt of energy (BINGO!) or a wry rejoinder to an overstatement by Smith ("Settle down, Mike Smith") -- is partly instinctive, but partly a product of self-evaluation.
"I've got a pretty good ear," Lawler said. "I watch my stuff. I'm not one of those guys who doesn't hear himself on the air."
Lawler has a perfectionist's work ethic -- but he isn't perfect. In November, he and Smith were suspended by Fox Sports for one game after a light exchange about Iranian center Hamed Haddadi, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Smith used the EYE-ran pronunciation and joked that Haddadi might be "Borat's older brother." After Haddadi delivered a nice pocket pass in traffic, Lawler remarked, "Nice little back-door pass. I guess those Iranians can pass the ball."
Lawler regrets the episode and concedes he should've cut out of the exchange earlier to avoid any misperceptions.
"There was nothing said by either one of us that had any ill intent," Lawler said. "My saying that 'Those Iranians can really pass the ball' is like my saying, 'Those Bradley Braves can really shoot the ball.'"
Lawler's misdeed, as he sees it, wasn't prejudice. But in not applying his own knack for knowing what the broadcast needs -- or doesn't need -- at every instant, he offended some listeners.
"There was an accurate letter in the L.A. Times that indicated that I probably should've had the sense to realize that we were on thin ice and I should've cut it short," Lawler said. "I should've been a self-editor there."
Lawler's self-editing is most amusing and infectious on his Twitter feed. In addition to regular updates of Clippers news, followers of @Ohmeomy ("Oh me o my" is Lawler's signature on-air exclamation) were treated last summer to a travelogue of Lawler's road trip with his wife, Jo, along the West Coast.
Lawler's embrace of new technology isn't merely a source of amusement for him, though he loves the idea of using it to enhance his role as Clippers ambassador.
"I'm all over Facebook," Lawler said. "I really think that broadcasters have to change their message a little bit. It's entertainment. It's not just X's and O's. I think fans expect a lot of information."
"For some people, it's like, 'I'm older, I need to get with it.' It's almost a contrived effort," Clippers radio voice Brian Sieman said. "But Ralph is a guy who can talk to someone who's 85 years old, then turn around and talk to someone who just graduated from high school and have a captivating conversation with both people."
Know many 71-year-olds who follow Coldplay's Twitter feed?
"I should be sitting in the back yard on a lounge chair, but I'm not," Lawler said. "I'm still active at this age and my interests are more contemporary than typical. It's the nature of my job. I spend all my time with young people."
On-air performers are trained to exude charm and likeability, so when you first meet Lawler in the bowels of Staples Center, you expect him to break character at some point. You watch and wait for a full season, but that moment never really comes. You then go out to his desert home for a visit and discuss his backgammon rivalry with his wife, Jo. When you tell him you haven't played the game since college, he quickly responds, "Oh good, let's play for money!"
Three years ago, Lawler and Jo moved full-time from Orange County to a home in La Quinta. They make the two-and-a-half hour commute to Staples Center on game days, and will occasionally stay over in Los Angeles when the schedule demands it.
Southern California has been good to Lawler. "There's not a day my wife and I don't look at each other and go, 'How did we get this?'" he said. "We've got our family here. We have no money worries. We're doing something we love. We're together all the time. It's spectacular."
Good as that sounds, like a veteran player longing for the chance to play for a winner, doesn't Lawler have a similar itch? With the exception of the Clippers' improbable playoff run in 2006, he hasn't called a big game since the 1977 Finals, when he was the voice of the Philadelphia 76ers.
"I never seriously entertained anything," Lawler said. "My family is all here in Southern California. Jo and I have three grown kids and seven grandkids. All but one of the kids lives in Southern California. The thought of leaving here makes no sense at all."
Neither does the prospect of retirement. Asked when he'll know it's time to put down the microphone, Lawler responds, "When they say, 'We're not going to pay you anymore.'"
Lawler may think it's too early to look back on what he's meant to Clippers fans in Los Angeles, but Walton already has made the case that his legacy is indelible. A few years back, Walton wrote a letter nominating Lawler for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame's Curt Gowdy Award -- given annually for excellence in writing or broadcasting -- and spoke for any of us whose long Clipper nights have been made bearable by Lawler's comforting voice: "If [Ralph] doesn't qualify for enshrinement here at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame right now, then we should all act forthrightly to disband this association and affiliation immediately."
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