A SIGN OF THE (L.A.) TIMES: A RALPH LAWLER BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME CAMPAIGN? FASTEN YOUR … YOU KNOW THE REST
By Tom Hoffarth
A few more points to consider after the posting of our L.A. Times media piece that makes a case for Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler to be considered for the Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019 — which would be a classy way to top off Lawler’s 40-year run with the team after his retirement this summer:
== As we pointed out, there are some not-so-obvious hurdles that need to be cleared for anyone to be considered for this lifetime achievement award. One is how to stand out from a broad range of candidates — those who’ve worked in the NBA and college, play-by-play and color, sideline reporters, local and national. The other is there isn’t a lot known about who is on the committee that ultimately decides who gets nominated and voted upon.
David J. Halberstam, a longtime sports media observer and historian, and one of the voters for the Baseball Hall of Fames’ annual broadcaster award, said he has discussions recently with John Doleva, the organization’s president and CEO, about how to frame this award so the public might be more aware of what it represents.
“I asked Doleva this fall if the Hall would go to two selections a year instead of one, breaking it down by either network versus local, or pro versus college, he told me it was doubtful but that he would check with members of the board,” said Halberstam. “I followed up and he said there’s no consensus or inclination to do so.
“Personally, I think the Basketball Hall should and also do as the Baseball Hall does — develop a transparent method to select winners. Frankly, it would generate more interest for the Gowdy Award.”
In essence, the Basketball Hall has as much unnecessary secrecy as the Football Hall of Fame, and perhaps the Hockey Hall of Fame as well (which has included the Kings’ Bob Miller and Nick Nickson in its broadcasting honors over the years).
The Baseball Hall, for example, has its Ford C. Frick Award, given out annually since 1978, with a committee of historians and former winner that now breaks it down into three-year cycles that cover different eras, trying to capture the wide history of the game’s voices, past and present, nationally and locally.
Halberstam points out if one were to put Lawler’s candidacy up against other NBA broadcasters currently working, his tenure would be about the same as Gary Gerould (Sacramento), George Blaha (Detroit), Neil Funk (Chicago), Steve Holman (Atlanta), Gene Peterson and Bill Worrell (Houston) and Kevin Calabro (Portland, Seattle).
Halberstam also notes there are several notable names of those who haven’t received the Gowdy Award. Starting with Brent Musburger, the longtime voice of the CBS coverage of the NCAA finals, as well as the network’s main voice on the NBA Finals.
Politics? Personal agendas? It’s something that has to be assumed but you can’t really know with the way things are dealt with there.
Why, too, have we not seen Bill Walton, Dr. Jack Ramsey, Mike Fratello, Mike Breen, Ian Eagle or Dan Shulman among the nationally-recognized voices (considering the last three honorees have been nationally known Doris Burke, Craig Sager and Jay Bilas)?
== We wanted to include more testimonials from broadcasters who spoke on Lawler’s behalf but, for space reasons, were not fully included.
Brian Wheeler, the radio voice of the Portland Trail Blazers since 1998, told us about how he was able to survive a 21-win season with the team because of advice Lawler gave him.
“He said he taught himself that he has one of the luckiest jobs, and on a given night he can see some of the world’s greatest athletes do something he’s never seen before,” said Wheeler, who grew up in L.A. listening to Chick Hearn. “There were many nights the Blazers took the court and I knew they weren’t going to win, but taking that attitude — not basing enjoyment on whether the team will win or not — gave me a good perspective to get through that. It’s a sound strategy that got him over some rough games and seasons. “
Wheeler adds: “Sometimes, it seems longevity can be a bad thing, not just with announcers, but with people in various businesses for some reason. A new boss will come in and assume if someone has been around for a long time, they’re making too much, they’ve become toot stagnant in their approach, so there’s a desire to bring in new people who will work cheaper. We once had a team president who only gave broadcasters one-year deals. When we’d ask the director of broadcasting why, he’d open a drawer full of demo tapes, showing us there was a whole batch of young broadcasters ready to go.
“I think most teams value their announcers but when think of all the different people Ralph has had to deal with over the years, for him to be a consummate constant for a franchise that didn’t seem to have a lot of direction, the one thing that had to be comforting for a Clippers fan was to have Ralph around every year. For Ralph to thrive and prosper speaks to his professionalism. It is also a credit that he is just as good on radio as he is on TV, going back and forth, working without a headset and holding the mike in front of him. No one does it like that as well.
“Ralph is a good man. He’s always been kind and generous with his time and I’ve definitely admired him from afar.”
More from Brian Sieman, the Clippers’ radio voice:
“Ever since they’ve moved his broadcasting spot (from courtside to Section 111), I see fans coming up all the time now, taking selfies with him in the background. He’s been great about visiting with fans — which isn’t a surprise.
“When I first started, Ralph would tell me about how Bill Walton really freed him up on the broadcast. He’d say: ‘You’re too serious, too focused on where the ball is. You need to loosen up. Let go.’ After games where we would lose, I might be exhausted, but Ralph would be upbeat. ‘We had a great show. We had fun.’ And I’d go back to the tapes of the games and listen. I’d ask myself: ‘What is he doing to make it so fun?’ By and large, he and whomever he was with had a great rapport, and it opened my eyes to relax more. My greatest resource is self deprecation and I will turn it on myself to lighten the mood. I got that from Ralph. I was serious about wanting to have all my facts right — that’s obviously important. But if you’re giving the game as a lecture, no one cares. If it’s more self deprecating, you’re going to have a lot of fun. Ralph has got another gear I’m not sure anyone else has. I’m not sure anyone would have stuck around as long. But he has loved it. I don’t think you could have had a better announcer for this team than Ralph Lawler.”
A story from John Ireland, the Lakers’ radio voice who worked for the Clippers with Lawler for four seasons from 1997-2000:
“My time with the Clippers wasn’t a full time job — I just did the games when Ralph was doing TV. Back then, every game wasn’t televised, so I ended up doing about 35 games a year.
“In March of one of those years, I was covering the Dodgers for KCBS/KCAL in spring training back in Vero Beach, Fla. I was getting ready to fly home one morning when I got a call from my boss, Jeff Proctor, letting me know that KCAL needed to add a Clipper game to the TV schedule that night. So he needed to re-route me to San Antonio so that I could call the game on radio, because Ralph was moving to TV.
“The problem was that this was before the internet had really taken off. Most of it was dial-up, and it certainly wasn’t available on planes. This is also before I had a cellphone. I knew nothing about the Spurs that year. I hadn’t called any of their games, and I probably hadn’t done a Clippers game in two or three weeks. I had no idea how I was going to prepare for that game, which I was doing solo.
“I landed in San Antonio, called the Spurs from the airport, and asked them to drop off any media information they could at the hotel. I had less than two hours to get ready, and I’m a prep junkie, so I was kind of worried. It normally takes me two-to-three hours to make my shot charts, so I have a road map when the game starts.
“My hotel phone rang and it was Ralph.
” ‘I know this was kind of thrown at you last minute, so I made additional copies of all of my charts for you,’ Ralph says.
“It was the equivalent of somebody giving you the answers to a test you hadn’t studied for, right before you were about to take it.
“I was shocked. Talk to any play by play guy in any league, and they’ll tell you how competitive this is. People would kill for these jobs. I had never heard of anybody doing that, but I’ve never forgotten it. As the true voice of the team, he cared more about the product than anything else. And strangely, I had a really good game that night. I don’t think anybody could tell I had flown in that day.”
More from Mike Breen:
“I happened to be in L.A. for a Lakers game on the day they were giving Ralph his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so I went to the ceremony. Here was a man so humbled, and thrilled, and it was a wonderful day to see all the Clippers there. You could see what it meant to him. He deserved it. What he’s done for that team year in and year out, maintaining that energy and enthusiasm. The rest of us are in awe to see anyone do it this long. You could make the claim that he’s the most famous Clipper of all time and an extension of the fans.”
Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach who just might have developed into a candidate for the Gowdy media award had he not jumped into coaching after his playing days, offered this up after a recent practice when asked if he learned anything from Lawler’s style: “I think he celebrates the game, which I enjoy. I’m going to carry a stick microphone from now on.”
== Longtime L.A. sports media man Steve Vanderpool brought up another interesting angle to this story, which Halberstam tried to quantify (follow the thread):
== One more note from Halberstam from a column of observations he had for his SportsBroadcastingJournal.com site:
“Lawler is still sharp and rarely if ever makes a mistake. He almost never fails to identify the correct player, his voice is strong and his pacing remains in perfect lockstep with the speedy flow of the NBA game. … Last night, the (Clippers) game against the Dallas Mavericks was on Turner, so Ralph was on KLAC Radio.
“At some point early in the game, the Clippers’ 6-foot-8 Mike Scott was inbounding the ball.
“Lawler: ‘Mike Smith brings it in … Freudian slip, Mike Scott brings it in. …’
“He never skipped a beat, continuing his call of the game. Ex NBAer and former BYU star Mike Smith was Ralph’s TV partner for 19 seasons until he was dropped at the end of the 2016-17 season.
“Ralph realized instantly that he called Mike Scott, Mike Smith, so he amusingly added Freudian slip. I guess Ralph misses his old partner. In his valedictory year, Lawler is working with a rotating cast of commentators.”
== And for what it’s worth: A piece we did on Lawler for Halberstam’s SportsBroadcastingJournal.com site when it was announced this would be Lawler’s final season with the Clippers.