After 40 Seasons, Ralph Lawler to Retire as More Than ‘Voice of the Clippers’
LOS ANGELES -- Stars don't just walk the streets in Los Angeles; they also line the pavement beneath their feet. In March 2016, the Hollywood Walk of Fame—which counts Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson among its honorees—welcomed a less assuming personality into its ranks near the iconic corner of Hollywood and Vine: Los Angeles Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler.
This season is both Ralph’s 40th on the mic for the Clippers and his last go-round, though even the legend himself can't quite believe he's retiring.
“I try not to think about it, to tell you the truth,” Ralph tells CloseUp360. “I've told the ball club I want this year to be the best year of television I've ever done. I want the telecast to just jump right off the screen. That's really my focus—is just to do a great job.”
Ralph Lawler goes over his notes before a Clippers game. (Los Angeles Clippers)
Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Ralph has been the “Voice of the Clippers” since 1978. After working for the late broadcast impresario Dick Clark out of college and covering professional teams in San Diego and Philadelphia, he returned to Southern California to work for the Clippers and followed the franchise to Los Angeles in 1984. Whether on TV or radio, Ralph has missed just three of the team’s games in that time.
“When you talk about longevity, you want to follow in his footsteps,” says Corey Maggette, who played eight seasons for the Clippers and now works as a broadcast analyst for the organization.
Adds Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who presented Ralph with his star on the Walk of Fame, “In fact, I've had the ability to play in a game that Ralph called and coach a game that Ralph called. That makes me the lucky one at the end of the day.”
Ralph’s voice has become synonymous with the Clippers brand. Night after night, the veteran commentator gives each game a special touch with "Lawler-isms"—like "Oh me, oh my!" and "Bingo!", each of which began as an off-the-cuff comment that caught fire among fans—that he howls into the mic with reckless abandon.
“When you think about Clipper basketball, if you're a Clipper fan, you associate Ralph with the Clippers,” says Sam Cassell, who played for the Clippers for three years and now serves as an assistant coach on Doc's staff. “’Bingo for a three’—that goes down in history.”
Despite years of commentating both good and bad (but mostly bad) basketball, Ralph, 80, is as animated as ever. He breaks down each game with equal parts passion and expert knowledge, and never lacks enthusiasm when he's on the air. He loves his craft as much as the players love the game, and he’s enjoyed every second of perfecting it over the course of his career.
“You always want someone to do what they love,” says Clippers assistant coach Armond Hill. “He's been doing it for so long, you know he's had a fulfilled career.”
But it isn’t just his one-of-a-kind commentating for which he will be remembered. For those fortunate enough to know the real Ralph, it’s his heart for the organization and how he’s devoted himself to the team that stand out.
While fans remember Ralph for his voice, Clippers personnel regard him—and his wife, Jo, whom he met while working at a real estate office in San Diego—as family. For as long as Ralph has been part of the Clippers, Jo has been right there beside him, supporting him at every game. She even travels with him on the team plane for each road trip.
“You have this grandfather, grandmother type of feel [with Ralph and Jo],” Corey says. “They talk to you, they tell you about the past and the present, and things they've dealt with. … It's important that you have people that can be completely honest with you and hold you accountable. I'm going to miss that.”
Ralph's example of dedication and consistency continues to leave a lasting effect on the players and staff.
Ralph's Most Famous "Lawler-isms"
“Oh me, oh my!”
“The lob, the jam!”
When he’s not behind the microphone, he takes time to encourage and connect with players, proving that no matter what the scoreboard says, he cares about the players as people.
“He's the heart and soul,” Armond says. “He's got the history of the Clippers. He's seen everything. He's been here so long. He's the best.”
That extensive experience has sharpened Ralph's call for not only games, but also how the team will fare based on the personalities in the locker room.
The Clippers celebrate Ralph's 3,000th game on the mic in 2016. (Los Angeles Clippers/Jacob Gonzalez)
Sam, for one, got a glimpse of that in 2005, before just his second game as a Clipper.
“Sam, it's gonna be a tremendous year,” Ralph said to him while Sam was getting his pregame stretch on the court at Staples Center. “I can tell… The positive vibes you bring around this team, I've never seen a player do that in this organization.”
Sam was taken aback.
“Your energy means everything to these guys,” Ralph continued, “and I can see how these guys respond to you the way you're trying to teach them how to win.”
"I was, like, 'Wow, that was a tremendous statement,'" Sam recalls. "I will never forget that."
Sure enough, Sam went on to lead the Clippers to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
These days, playoff appearances are more the rule than the exception for the Clippers. And where once Ralph was the one who pumped up the players, they now get excited by the mere mention of his name.
“Goddamn GOAT right there! Ya damn right!” Patrick Beverley blurted out to a room full of reporters at Clippers media day. “Him and his wife—they're just super dope. They're down-to-earth, good people. This year is real big—not for us, but for Ralph. We want to do right by him.”
Despite his noteworthy tenure with the Clippers, Ralph remains modest. The focus is never on him—it’s always about the team. But as it is Ralph’s final year, the franchise is honoring him with his signature on their Nike City Edition jerseys, to be worn throughout the season, and with his very own bobblehead, to be handed out on “Ralph Lawler Night” at Staples Center, for the team’s final regular-season game.
Ralph speaks to fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which closed in 2016. (Los Angeles Clippers)
After 40 years of calling games, and imparting wisdom and encouragement on the Clippers, Ralph will look ahead to life after retirement. Once the season ends, the Lawlers will make their permanent home far from Los Angeles—in the small, scenic town of Bend, Oregon, where Ralph and Jo have spent their summers for years. Surrounded by friends, family and grandchildren, Ralph will adjust to life as a retiree by dedicating his time to his loved ones, and maintaining his house and garden with Jo.
“I talked to a friend the other day who retired a few years ago from radio, and he said he had a difficult period of time trying to feel relevant,” Ralph says. “I'm going to have to find something, aside from being a good husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, which is pretty rewarding. But something else to feel relevant. And I'm not sure what that is, but I'm gonna find it.”
At the end of the season, the Clippers will lose a legendary piece of the organization. So, too, will the broadcast world part ways with one of its most indelible voices. In a building where no Clipper has yet had his jersey retired, Ralph figures to be the first, even though he never suited up at Staples Center. In time, the team hopes to see him enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as well.
“I've loved every second of it,” Ralph says. “I've loved every preseason game, every game we're down by 20 points in the first quarter back in the day and certainly the playoff run. Every single night was exciting.”
Whatever his successor does to try and fill Ralph's shoes in the booth next season, the denizens of Clippers Nation will never forget the gusto he brought to the game, night after night.