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."