Whatever you may suspect, the Voice of the Clippers is not
Vincent Price, and the Face of the Clippers is not Lon Chaney
(who is not to be confused with ex-Clippers coach Don Chaney,
who is not to be confused with ex-Clippers coach Don Casey).
Rather, through 11 coaches, 20 seasons and some 1,000 losses,
the radio Voice and television Face of the frequently horrifying
Los Angeles Clippers has been Ralph Lawler, an unthinkably,
unsinkably well-adjusted fellow who could teach us all a lesson
about how to be happy at work.
On Saturday night in Anaheim, Lawler will call his 1,500th
Clippers game. It will almost certainly be a loss, like 67% of
all Clippers games during his tenure and 100% of this season's
Clippers games through Sunday. No matter. "My record?" Lawler
asks before you can. "I have never lost a game."
Alas, the Clippers have--1,075 times since Lawler joined the
team in 1978. Previously he had worked in Philadelphia, where
the Flyers won a Stanley Cup under Lawler's narration. Since
then, Lawler's job has been to speak the unspeakable and to
watch the unwatchable. During a game two years ago, Clippers
coach Bill Fitch wandered over to the press table, picked up
Lawler's pager and idly scrolled through the out-of-town scores
rather than watch his own team. But Lawler gazed, unblinking,
into the abyss, immune to the Clippers' contagion. "I only
remember happy times," he says. "The bad times seem to disappear
into some kind of a haze."
Aristotle said, "Hope is a waking dream," which may explain
Lawler's blissful existence. He has won two local Emmys. In his
hands each Clippers loss becomes a beautifully embroidered L,
like the one on Laverne DeFazio's sweater. "I try always to
remain hopeful," he says of his broadcasting style. "I try to
temper any hard remarks about players not playing well or not
being ready to play or not being in shape." Lawler allows
himself a small sigh before saying unnecessarily, "And we've had
all those things.
"But this isn't sports talk radio," he adds. "It doesn't do any
good to use a hammer on a player or coach. Generally, people
watching Clippers games are Clippers fans."
Lawler, 60, grew up in Peoria, Ill., when Chick Hearn was the
Bradley University basketball announcer. Hearn broadcast one of
Lawler's own basketball games at Peoria Central High in the
mid-'50s, and went on to become the most famous announcer in the
history of the sport as the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers. "In
another city I might get more recognition," says Lawler. "But
that's not why I do it. I do it because I love this job."
We should all feel so lucky, so fulfilled, so blessed by our
work. Lawler's excitement is genuine. It was inadvertently
summed up in a single sentence he once spoke on the air, a
memorable metaphor for his unflagging enthusiasm, his epic
optimism. A few years ago Clippers broadcasts were sponsored by
Reebok, and Lawler was obliged to read the company's advertising
slogan before he could cut away to commercials.
After one such announcement, analyst Mike Fratello looked
quizzically at Lawler during the break and asked, "Do you know
what you just said?"
"I said, 'Life is short, play hard,'" replied Lawler.
"No," said Fratello. "No, you didn't."
Lawler drove home that evening with a deep sense of foreboding,
screened a videotape of the broadcast in the privacy of his own
living room and was forced to acknowledge the full, Freudian
truth before him.
He didn't say "play." He said "stay."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO