The last time I heard Ralph Lawler call a game was in his final season, a year ago. He was sharp, descriptive and his commanding voice was in fine fettle. Ralph certainly didn’t sound 81. A born and raised Midwestener, Lawler spent the last 35 years of his career in Los Angeles, moving north with the club from San Diego in 1984. He was never afforded an opportunity to follow a champ. Not close. In Los Angeles, he continued to chronicle the ongoing failures of one of the worst franchises in NBA history. The powerful columnist Peter Vecsey dubbed them, the Paper Clippers.
Many of those years, he worked in the shadow of icons Vin Scully and Chick Hearn. It wasn’t until the Clippers were competitive that fans recognized that Ralph was among the best handful of voices to ever call games in Southern California. Think Scully and Hearn, of course, Dick Enberg, Bob Miller and Ralph.
Lawler quit cold last season. He didn’t do it gradually, by cutting down on his schedule. In 2018, he announced that he’d be leaving and then proceeded to give it his all in his final year.
After decades of routine, he faced an abrupt change in lifestyle; stepping out of the limelight and leaving basketball. It couldn’t have been easy. Many other broadcasters continue to work, although their voices have faltered, their sharpness dulled and their word retrieval slowed.
Ralph and wife Jo now live in Bend, Oregon. I asked Ralph to tell us in his own words why he retired and more importantly how he’s adapted to a complete change in his everyday life.
by Ralph Lawler
My first year of retirement has certainly not gone as we expected.
I stepped down from broadcasting Los Angeles Clippers’ games on radio and television in May of 2019 after 40 seasons with the team. It all started well enough as my wife Jo and I spent last September traveling along the East Coast from Maine through the Florida Keys. We had a great adventure that allowed us to not even notice that late September was a time of year that had seen me gearing up for an NBA season for the past 40+ years.
We got back to our Central Oregon home just as the season was beginning. The NBA was gracious enough to provide us with an NBA League Pass subscription and we started watching games just about nightly as we had done for decades on end. The first thing I missed were the people in the traveling party. There is a real sense of camaraderie in that group of 50 travelers that included players, coaches, the large player support crew, security and us radio/TV types in the back of the plane.
I don’t miss the games or even the detailed prep for the games. I don’t miss the practices or the shoot-arounds. I miss the people. I miss the gang on our Fox Sports West TV crew, Doc Rivers and the coaches, Gillian Zucker and the team’s extraordinary front office staff, the ushers and dining room attendants at Staples Center and around the league. I miss them all. These are wonderful people who are just thrilled to be a part of the great NBA game.
Jo and I had a long-planned trip to Australia and New Zealand set for March of this year. It was a much-appreciated retirement gift from the Clippers. The trip started perfectly. Then, on March 11th we were shocked to hear that the NBA had suspended its season. The coronavirus was little discussed in Australia at the time and hardly at all, once we arrived in New Zealand.
That would change in the days ahead and we were forced to cut our holiday short by ten days to assure that we could catch a flight back to the States. We returned to an environment very little like the one we had left less than a month earlier.
Schools, restaurants, barber shops and other establishments were shuttered. Toilet paper was in short supply. Masks and hand wipes were on back order. It was as if we were in a land more foreign than the ones we had left Down Under. This is where retirement went off-script.
We have family all over the country from Oregon to San Diego to Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida and across the Atlantic in the U.K. Our vision was to see them all and see them often. Covid-19 restrictions have had us house-bound. Our groceries are delivered. We do not go out to eat or to have a drink. (Talk about sacrifice).
We have not seen any of the four family members who live only minutes away here in our hometown of Bend. So, this is not retirement as planned. But, we are healthy and thankful for that and all the other blessings in our life. We have it far better than most. We are just hoping that things return to some sense of normalcy while we are still healthy enough to experience our new dreams.
Our kids will ask us: “What do you do all day?” Somehow, the pages of the calendar speed by. There are not enough hours in the day. Jo is learning to play the piano. She knits and sews. She gets out for a healthy walk almost daily.
I do none of those things. I am working tirelessly on a book about basketball in general and the NBA in particular. This is no memoir, rather a basketball book that I think fans around the world will enjoy. I am trying to connect with the right literary agent to assure this gets to the proper publisher. Staying in shape is a never-ending project. So is reading and gardening on our sizable property. Oh, and thank God in this day and age for Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV, Prime Video, etc.
The Pandemic and the NBA Bubble in Orlando make me realize that we retired at exactly the right time. The thought of broadcasting these games from distant sites off a television monitor holds little appeal for me. I am not surprised that Kevin Calabro cut his season short with the Portland Trailblazers. I am sorry that the retiring Neil Funk in Chicago did not get the kind of send-off at age 73 that I am sure the Bulls had planned for him before their season ended prematurely in March.
I wonder if 87-year old Phoenix legend Al McCoy will return to the Suns for a 49th year? I say: “Go for 50, Al.” But then, who knows to what the Hall of Fame announcer would be returning? Games still in a bubble? Broadcasters not traveling with teams and calling games from a studio or a TV truck? The venerable broadcaster lost his beloved wife Georgia in 2012. That certainly has made retirement problematic for him.
It reminds me how lucky I am to have my Sweet Jo. Then there’s George Blaha. He started with the Detroit Pistons when he was just 31 years old. He is 75 now and still going strong.
Retirement is a unique decision for everyone who contemplates it. I was so unbelievably fortunate to have anybody still want to pay me to work all the way into my 80s. I think you innately know when it is your time. I knew, Neil knew. Al and George will know as well.
It is important to have a plan. We had one. It did not work out exactly as we had hoped, but we have that template in place when we get through this world health crisis.
Stay well fellow broadcasters. Wear a mask. Be sure to Vote!