Stack’s Stats: Shooting Struggles Reign
Players shooting well below career marks, and a Q+A with a Clippers broadcaster.
Seven Questions Or Less
Ralph Lawler, Play-by-play announcer, Los Angeles Clippers (@ohmeohmy)
SLAM: You’ve been doing play-by-play in pro basketball for 36 years. I think that any person working in one job for that long would have phases of boredom with it. How do you stay excited about your job every day?
Ralph Lawler: I can certainly say I’ve never been bored for a second. I spent my early career doing high school and junior college and college sports of all sort. I just always had a dream of working in the NBA and just working for a ball club; not having to do anything other than do pro basketball play-by-play. I tried to get a job with the old San Diego Rockets and got aced out of that job and was broken-hearted.
I finally got my break in Philadelphia with the 76ers and then the call came from the Clippers in 1978. When I got that job and returned to Southern California, I knew for sure this was the last job I ever wanted to have. I was 40 years old at the time. So, I get as excited…we have a game against the Lakers tomorrow night, which is always a big game. But I get as excited about a preseason game against Sacramento as I do a playoff game against Phoenix a few years ago or an intra-city rivalry like this against the Lakers. I just love the job.
SLAM: What’s different about the energy of the Clippers’ fan base now from any other time you’ve been with the team?
RL: Well, it kind of started last year with Blake Griffin because he’s an off-the-charts kind of popular, charismatic performer and a great crowd-pleaser. We saw the growth both in the arena at Staples Center as well as on the road where people were reacting to his presence and his exciting plays that he would make night in and night out.
And now when they add…I mean, the first week of training camp, which was the first week after the end of the lockout, was, I think, one of the more dramatic weeks in the history of any team in professional sports. That sounds like hyperbole and terrible overstatement, but when you stop and think, in the course of seven days, Kyle, this team added Caron Butler, a two-time All-Star without giving up anything. They brought in through this amnesty (waiver) thing with the New York Knicks waiving Chauncey Billups. They bring in a five-time All-Star without giving up anything. And then they matched a contract for a shot-blocking center by keeping DeAndre Jordan in the fold after he got the big offer from Golden State. And then they made the giant trade of the off-season, bringing in Chris Paul, a four-time All-Star. That’s a pretty remarkable week, and that was all done in seven days.
And it just changed the face of the franchise. All of a sudden, ticket sales went right through the roof. The first time there was a rumor the team might sign Chris Paul, I think we sold 500 tickets that morning. It’s remarkable. I guess all cities – all teams – like stars, but there is no place where stars sell better than in Los Angeles. It is the land of stars and Hollywood. They’re used to having great stars with the Lakers and with the Dodgers and with the Angels, and the Clippers are right there with that group right now. It’s made a tremendous difference.
SLAM: I think people tend to forget when they made a big trade in, what was it, 1979, for Bill Walton.
RL: That wasn’t a trade – that was a free agent signing. At the time in 1979, that was the biggest free agent signing in the history of the sport. (Ed note: While Walton did sign with the Clippers as a free agent, the Trail Blazers received Kevin Kunnert, Randy Smith, Kermit Washington and a 1980 1st round draft pick [Mike Gminski] from the Clippers as compensation.)
Bill was a year removed from being named MVP, two years removed from winning a NBA championship with the Trail Blazers and the Clippers signed him to a massive contract at the time. Bill became the NBA’s first $1 million-per-year player. It was a seven- or eight-year deal for a million dollars per year.
Nobody could believe that you’re paying a basketball player that kind of money. He went out and bought a home in San Diego that he still lives in. Unfortunately, he had a string of injuries that really limited his ability to be an effective ball player with a ball club, but it was a bold and courageous move by the team in 1979. The plan there, and then, was to win a championship and make professional basketball viable in San Diego – a city that had struggled with it.
SLAM: You obviously have a few signature calls. My favorite, and the one that is your Twitter handle, is “Oh Me Oh My!” How did you integrate that into your lexicon?
RL: Stuff just happens, Kyle. I get a lot of young broadcasters saying they want to create a signature call. I say to just let it happen. It either happens or it doesn’t. It doesn’t have to happen. If it does, they can probably benefit you. I don’t know when it was. It was probably early in the L.A. years; I would just kind of lament at something on the court, “Oh me oh my!”, and one of the guys in the front office, Rich Huberman, he was our director of marketing, would say, “I love when you say ‘oh me oh my!’”
It never occurred to me that anybody noticed I said it because I hardly noticed it. It just spontaneously came out. And so when you start getting feedback like that, you say to not limit that. Let’s find opportunities to use it one way or another. When I went to get a car a few years ago, the car salesman said “I’ll give you a good deal if you promise me you’ll get personalized license plates that say ‘Oh me oh my” and I said “Okay” [laughs]. I cannot begin to explain why that resonates with people but it does.
SLAM: What’s your routine like on a gameday?
RL: Oh, it’s really busy. I come from an era where all of my boards and my prep was done in pen and pencil on a white sheet of paper. Then I got really modern and used a mimeograph machine. And now, of course, everything is computer-generated. I shouldn’t say ‘of course’ because a lot of guys still use the old-style boards, but I’ve been on a computer-generated system for 15 years, I would guess.
With the Internet, I don’t know how we ever got along without it. There is just, as you are very much aware, the Internet is just jam-packed and stuffed with information. I guess some misinformation, as well. But an awful lot of stuff to sift through and sort through. Instead of being easier, there is just so much stuff that your work is never done.
I started working on Wednesday’s Lakers telecast, also with an eye towards a long road trip we have coming up in February, for about six hours yesterday. I’m in my office right now, and I’ll be working here until about dinnertime tonight. I’ll spend another four or five hours on the phone tomorrow with our producer, putting the final touches on every bit of work. We got a game the next night, so trying to stay ahead as much as I possibly can. People have no idea…I think they think you just walk into the building, sit down and watch the game and talk about it. Maybe some guys can do it that way, but I can’t. If I’m not super prepared, I’m just not comfortable and I need to be comfortable when I start the broadcast.
SLAM: Do you get fatigued calling games all season?
RL: Yeah, I do. And we haven’t been hit with it too much yet this year. We’ve played maybe as few games as anybody, or certainly among the fewest of any team in the League. But starting here now, we’re going to face that compacted schedule. I think in March, for example, we play 20 games in 30 days, which is five or six more than you might expect to play in a normal season. Six of our first seven in February are on the road. There’s a six-game road trip there and a six-game road trip in March.
We make things a little bit tougher than it should have to be because we live two hours and 15 minutes, two hours and 30 minutes away from the arena (Staples Center). So, we’ve got five hours of driving on a gameday. But that’s just a choice we made to live out in the desert in Southern California in La Quinta. My wife goes to all the games and travels with me. We got the carpool lane going for us. But in many ways, being on the road is easier for us, personally, than being at home because we got those five hours available to us for rest and relaxation and getting some work done.
SLAM: With this Clippers team, you have a lot of interest from casual fans this season. Do you and your broadcast partner, Mike Smith, find yourself having to explain some of the game’s fundamentals and ordinary game situations to account for those casual viewers?
RL: I don’t think we’re bright enough to have figured that out, but it is not a real bad idea. Although I think that the casual fans we get are more likely basketball fans…Lakers fans who’ve said, “Let’s see who these guys are.” We have tried to do a job of making sure we introduce our players to them who may not know who some of these guys are. But I think your question is a valid one for all of us in broadcasting to realize that everyone watching is not a hardcore basketball fan.
You have to, from time to time, say something that might seem a little bit elementary to that hardcore fan in a way that doesn’t offend them but also does include somebody who says, “This sport is kind of fun, Blake Griffin is fun to watch jump through the air and watch those dunks.” But I don’t understand, whether it’s the three-point line or the 24-second clock or what have you…those things, as obvious as they seem to be to those of us right in it, sometimes you get too close to the forest to see the trees.
SLAM: I’m always interested in the following part of your job. In your case, it makes sense considering you have an entertaining team to cover. How do you treat the ebb and flow of a basketball game; not getting overexcited at times yet still properly capturing the moment?
RL: I think that’s part and parcel of doing your job responsibly. I’ve always cautioned young broadcasters to not blow your wad when a guy makes a big play in the first quarter of a basketball game. You got to save something for the end. Furthermore, you have to save something for that game-winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I think the fans like to feel and share in your excitement and enthusiasm, but you can’t try to create it when it’s not really worthy of it. So, you have to be careful and walk a line there. But I think fans like enthusiasm and excitement.
It’s very, very different being a team broadcaster than it is working on TNT or ESPN where you have a mandate to be relatively impartial. We do not have that mandate. The people that watch our games – 90 percent of them or whatever the figure is – are Clippers fans. That’s why they’re watching. We’re trying to create and grow the base of fans with our enthusiasm and our job of selling the sport and selling the team and selling the individual players on the team. You always got to have something a little extra special that you’re saving for that very special moment when the super-dramatic happens or when you get a last-second shot. We had that two games in a row, one which we made, one of which the opponent made.
I screamed “Bingo!” in both cases because last-second 3′s were made. But the level of enthusiasm of the “Bingo!” when our team made a game-winning shot was a little bit different than it was when Minnesota made a game-winning shot. And I think the fans expect that.