Garrett Chorpenning talked to Ralph Lawler about all things LA Clippers – the season, the new players, his career with the team, and what it really means to be a Clipper.
No one else has said it, so I guess I will: Ralph Lawler has got to be the classiest man in professional sports.
In case you aren’t aware, allow me to clue you in with a brief biography of the rightly-dubbed “Voice of the LA Clippers”. Ralph Lawler grew up in Illinois, and ever since he was young, he wanted to work for a sports team. He began working for a news station in Philadelphia as a sports reporter, and soon after began broadcasting games for the Phillies, Flyers, and 76ers. He even called Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s first NBA game. Soon after, he moved to San Diego, where he began his work calling the San Diego Clippers games. He has been with the franchise ever since, and has never quit hoisting his microphone.
Despite spending nearly half his life with the LA Clippers organization, the team is not his greatest passion. That title belongs to his wife, Jo, who travels with Ralph on the team plane to and from every game. Ralph calls her the team’s “biggest fan”, and believes his family is the most important thing in his life.
“Ralph Lawler” is a household name to most Clippers fans. Most would call him a celebrity. However, Lawler is an incredibly humble man, and would never want to brag about his stardom. He represents the Clippers more so than any other player, coach, or mascot that the team has ever had. He feels incredibly lucky and thankful that he is able to carry a childhood passion into adulthood and old age.
When it comes down to it, Ralph is still the person he was when he fell in love with the game of basketball as a kid. He has worked his way to a position in which he can live out his childhood dream, and although it is a “job”, he claims he has never once complained about going to work.
Below are some highlights from our interview. You can listen and follow along with the video below, following the time cues given with each question listed.
Note: The following is from an interview that took place on October 24. The information given in the conversation was accurate to date. The abbreviation “RL” is used to signify Ralph’s response, and “G” is used to signify my question.
"(00:43) G: How did you initially become involved with broadcasting and the Clippers organization?RL: I was working in Philadelphia doing nightly television anchoring, and I’d had a – well it’d kinda been a benefactor over the years – he’d hired me to do the San Diego Chargers game one time, he hired me to work for a team in the American Basketball Association (the San Diego Conquistadors) once, and we just kept in touch and he wound up becoming the General Manager of the San Diego Clippers when the team moved from Buffalo to San Diego in the Summer of 1978 and he kept calling me and calling me and insisting that I come back to San Diego where I’d worked for him before. And so we finally decided to make the move in August of ’78, and I took a big pay cut from my television station in Philadelphia to do it, but I just felt – I really kinda always felt that since I had always dreamed of working for a ball club and have my full-time job be just doing basketball. So I was pretty thrilled with it, and I know when I got the job that it was the last job I ever wanted to have, and that was, well, going on 40 years ago.(02:34) G: When you signed up then, did you ever think that you’d be with the team for nearly 40 years?RL: No I don’t think so. I think everybody certainly at that point in history kinda thought like you know, 65 was your normal retirement time , so maybe I might’ve thought that if I was lucky I’d do this for 20-25 years, but I blew by that 25 year mark and just never really looked back. And now I’ve signed a new two-year contract to continue with this club and it’s just a hard thing to leave when it becomes such a big part of your life.(03:23) G: So what’s made you wanna stay so long?RL: Well, I’ve been very very lucky that the club and a whole big number of coaches have allowed my wife to travel with me. And that just takes the bite out of travel because I have no desire at this point in my life or at any point in my life of leaving her, because being with her is my great pleasure and to give up that, to go on the road whether it’s a one game trip or a five game trip is just not something that is appealing to me at this point in my life. I think I’m the only broadcaster in the league that has that incredible perk to which I am very very grateful; we consider it a privilege, not a right. We’re just very lucky to have that opportunity, and she’s the biggest fan the team has ever had. So it’s very cool and it makes the travel – the road games are almost easier than the home games.(10:31) G: How has it been, from your perspective, like this inside role with the team, to see the culture change over all these years and become a winning team over the last decade primarily?RL: Well, it’s been a lot of fun, it really has been. I mean, it’s been an evolution not a revolution, because a number of things happened. One, the club got very lucky in the lottery one year, wound up with the first pick in the draft, who ended up being a player who is truly a franchise player in Blake Griffin who was available, and so they were able to draft him. I think Vinny Del Negro who was a coach who came after Mike Dunleavy who doesn’t get much credit, somebody who was here two years, but he helped the culture change by having people in the organization – front office, basketball staff – realize that a professional approach to winning, and I think Vinny probably took this club as far as he could in those two years. And then they were able to acquire Doc Rivers from the Celtics, and in the interim there they made the big trade for Chris Paul. So you had Blake Griffin, then you had Chris Paul, you had Vinny Del Negro, a kind of transitionary coach for the club, then the acquisition of Doc Rivers, and then the change in ownership. Those are all of the steps on the ladder that led this ball club to being a perennial contender. Six straight trips to the playoffs, and winning seasons, and I think only San Antonio and Golden State have won more games in the last four years than the Clippers have, average like 54 wins a year under Doc, and this is a great time in the history of the franchise, and it’s every reason to believe this is going to continue for the foreseeable future, and even the future beyond which we can see because they’ve got good young players, they’ve got the basketball staff, and they’ve grown so dramatically that they are prepared to be good as far as you can look ahead in the future and that’s pretty cool, and that’s not an easy thing to do. There are 30 teams in the league, all of em want to win. Only 16 of them get to go to the playoffs, only two get to go to the NBA Finals, and only one team wins the championship each year, so it’s high stakes poker, it really is.(42:03) G: I don’t think there’s anybody that means as much to the Clippers organization, or to the fanbase, as you do. So I’ve gotta know: what do the LA Clippers mean to you?RL: That’s a good, interesting question… Essentially, half of my life – not my adult life, not my working life – essentially half of my life, I’ve spent being a part of this organization, so it has been a huge part of who I am. I cannot imagine not having it as a part of my DNA, so to speak. I’ve made great, life-long friends over the years, both in San Diego and surely in all these years in Los Angeles, so it is just a part of who I am. I can’t separate myself from that. Family is the most important on earth to me, my wife and I have 3 kids and 7 grandkids and a great-grandkid on the way. Nothing is as important as that, but that’s 1a, being a Clipper is 1b. It’s a vital part of who I am and I would be foolish by thinking that I had an identity that transcended beyond that because I am a Clipper."