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A conversation with Ralph Lawler

by Darnell Mayberry Published: February 23, 2014

Ralph Lawler is the long-time play-by-play announcer for the Los Angeles Clippers.

He’s been with the team since its inception and now considers himself a walking historian on all things Clippers. During his tenure with the Clippers, Lawler has become famous for several catchphrases, including “Bingo!” “Lawler’s Law” and “Oh Me, Oh My!”

In a Q&A with The Oklahoman, Lawler talked about his tenure with the Clippers, his broadcasting roots and, of course, his memorable catchphrases.

Q: What’s kept you broadcasting this long, especially for one franchise?
A: Well, I love the game. I started off in Philadelphia, and then I did ABA and then caught on here in 1978 when the team was really formed in San Diego. And I knew when I got the job that it was the last job that I ever wanted. And to have that happen is kind of unique and very special. And I was right. I’ve never wished for anything other than this ever since I got the job 35 years ago.

You’ve got experience with television and radio, so what made you stick with television even though you have an affinity for radio as well?
Yeah, I do. I started off in radio so radio is my roots and I love it. I do radio for the games that are nationally televised that we don’t televise ourselves. So I’ve got the best of both worlds right now. But it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to go into TV because there is just so much more money involved in it. We’re not in it for the money. We’re in it for the love of the game. But when somebody says ‘you can make this much doing that and this much doing that,’ the carrot is just too sweet to pass up.

I was told that you attended Bradley with two other legendary broadcasters. Who were those two broadcasters?
Well it’s more than two. There was a time in Los Angeles, and it’s more Peoria than it is just Bradley. Peoria is the city in Illinois where Bradley’s located. But in Los Angeles, Chick Hearn was broadcasting the Lakers, I was announcing for the Clippers, a fellow named Bob Starr was announcing for the Anaheim Angels and the L.A. Rams in those days. Bill King was doing the L.A. Raiders in those days. A guy named Bob Steinbrink was doing UCLA football and basketball in those days. And Tom Kelly was doing USC football and basketball. We were all from Peoria and I can’t tell you why.

What impact did that have on you, being around that group of guys?
Well it was great. Being with a number of those guys in Peoria was a great training ground and great peers to have. Chick Hearn started the migration to Los Angeles from Peoria. And then Tom Kelly followed. And then I followed and then others. Bob Starr followed. Bill King followed. It’s just an amazing path because nobody on earth can figure out why this little town of Peoria, 150,000 people or something, has spawned so many major league broadcasters. Some of them went to Chicago. Chicago can tell a similar story.

Are you aware of how the rise of NBA League Pass has made you, I don’t even know the right way of putting it, but sort of a cult figure you’ve become with people being able to watch you in any market in the country?
Well, it’s kind of cool because I never had a desire to be a national broadcaster, or even a regional broadcaster. I like being a part of the team. And so here I’ve kind of got the best of both worlds because things that you do, things that you say kind of reverberate around the NBA community nationwide because of League Pass. And that’s pretty cool. And to have people recognize you when you go to cities that you’re only at once a year, Cleveland or whatever, and a guy says ‘I watch you all the time.’ Well, that’s very cool, especially if it’s Cleveland because they’re staying up until 1 in the morning to watch our darned game.

In terms of covering the Clippers for so long, what’s been the best part about being with one franchise and seeing it for as long as you have?
Well, it gives you a sense of history. I’m kind of like a walking historian for the franchise now. That’s just kind of a neat role to have. I’ve seen every player, every coach, two owners, God knows how many general managers and public relations guys. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years. I’m so closely identified with the franchise, whereas if you franchise hop you’re not. I just love just being a real significant part of the franchise’s history and being a part of the fabric of the team, who it is and where it’s going.

Obviously the Clippers have had some struggles over the years. What was that like going through the rough times before now seeing one of the peaks in the franchise’s history?
It hasn’t affected me as much as people think that it would because I’m a broadcaster. You’re a writer. I don’t know if you will enjoy writing a game more when the Thunder win than when they lose. Probably not a big difference to you as long as it’s a good game and you’ve got a good story angle. That’s your job. My job is to try to put on a good radio broadcast, a good telecast that the fans will enjoy, whether it’s a good game or a bad game, whether it’s a good team or a bad team. My job is to put on a good show. That’s how I grade myself and how I look back at a year much more than whether the team was great that year.

Best Clipper in franchise history?
Oh, I think it’s Chris Paul right now. It’s just his third year with us so it’s maybe early to pass that out to him. But I think Chris Paul is going to go down as a positive Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the greats that ever played his position. And he has almost single-handedly transformed this franchise by his very presence.

When it comes to your expressions or catchphrases, how did they come about and how did you develop them?
They just happened. I think it’s a big mistake, and I have young broadcasters ask me ‘How do I get a catchphrase?’ I say you don’t. It’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen. It doesn’t have to happen. But if it happens and people start parodying it back to you then you say, ‘Oh, I guess that kind of works.’ Then you start using it. Every city we walk into people will go “Bingo” to me. I can hear it behind me. When somebody scores 100, I hear people behind me yell “Lawler’s Law.” Scotty Brooks will say ‘Every time we get 100 I think, OK, there’s Lawler’s Law.” It becomes kind of ingrained because I’ve been around for so darned long and people have heard it for so long that it’s not a matter of my greatness it’s a matter of my longevity.

How did “Lawler’s Law” start?
I stole it from a friend of mine who was a trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers doing Sixers games back in the 70s. He used to say it, and in those days everybody scored 100 points in a game. He said ‘You watch. The first team to 100 always wins. They always win.’ And so when I got the full-time job in San Diego in ’78, I thought ‘Well, I think I’ll use that.’ And I liked the alliteration of “Lawler’s Law” and just adopted it as my own. Now people think I created it. I just stole it.

What was that guy’s name in Philly?
Al Domenico.

Do you have a favorite catchphrase?
No. I mean, “Clippers win” I guess would be my favorite. (Laughs).

You’re starting to see a lot of them these days.
Yeah, I am.

How much more enjoyable is it to now be able to follow a team that has Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, or were you able to enjoy it all along?
I enjoyed it the year we won 12 and lost 70. I mean, I enjoyed them all. But this is more fun. There’s no question about it. My wife travels with me, which is a unique perk this ballclub has given me, and she’s an unbelievable Clipper fan. She was a Clipper season ticket holder when I met her. She’s a lot happier when we win so that makes me happier.

The fact that you guys have become such a good team now with star players and a bunch of people jumping on the bandwagon, you’ve got the “Lob City” phenomenon and everything, how does that make you feel that people are now all of a sudden coming on board in a notoriously Lakers town but now the Clippers are dominating the headlines?
It’s great. But what I really am happy about is that the long-time fans who were there before there was a bandwagon, is that they’re getting a chance to really savor and enjoy what’s happening. Those are the people I’m happy for. Because they’d show up at the old L.A. Sports Arena, 7,000 or 8,000 of them a game only, and then maybe 12,000 a game when we moved into Staples Center in ’99. And they had been loyal for a decade, two decades, three decades, some of them. Those are the ones that I’m thrilled about. The bandwagoers, they’re welcome to join. There’s still room for more. It’s the old-time fans that I’m really thrilled for.

Can the Clippers ever become the team in Los Angeles?
As soon as we win 16 championships. That’s how many banners the Lakers have hanging up there. It’s a Lakers town. It’s a Dodger town. But it is a huge, huge city. There’s plenty of room for two of everything. There’s two hockey teams, two baseball teams, two basketball teams, someday again there will probably be two football teams. There’s two major college football and basketball programs in USC and UCLA. There’s room for everybody. So it’s not just going to be a Lakers town or a Dodger town. There’s room for all of us and people are really latching a hold to this ballclub, which is great.

The Clippers covered up the Lakers banners this year. What were your thoughts on that? Good move? Long overdue? Out of line?
I thought it should have happened in 1999 when I suggested when we moved into the building and said ‘We can’t play here with those Lakers banners hanging up there and the Lakers’ retired numbers.’ Elgin Baylor was our general manager and his Lakers number was hanging in the rafters. But the club just didn’t have the influence to make it happen. And Doc (Rivers) came in and said ‘That’s not going to happen.’ And the ballclub had enough stature, and Doc had enough stature himself that he could make it happen. And the building now is clearly a Clipper building on nights when it’s our home game, as it should be. And it’s a Laker building on nights when it’s their home game. That’s exactly the way it should be.

Special thanks to Ralph Lawler for his time.

by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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