Swanson: ‘Bingo!’ Ralph Lawler chronicles 40 years in NBA with new book

If you happen to have one of the Clippers’ “29 fans” in your life, Ralph Lawler’s new book, “Bingo,” will make an ideal stocking stuffer.

That number, by the way, is a joke propagated by Clippers fans who have the admirable capacity to both poke fun at themselves and the writer who once offered that low-ball estimate when predicting how many fans he might offend with something he’d published. (Stoppit; the Clips averaged about 17,000 fans per home game last season.)

It’s a sense of humor reflective of fans who grew up listening to Lawler calling the team’s games – “I’ve gone from brother to father to grandfather over the years,” he says – and appreciating the joy he took in his job.

Even during long stretches of losing, Lawler’s jovial spirit and his colorful Lawlerisms (such as, well, “Bingo!” for every made 3-pointer) made it worth tuning into games.

Thirteen “happy, wacky, fun-filled seasons” broadcasting beside Bill Walton certainly contributed to the lighthearted nature of those Clippers’ broadcasts. (The incomparable basketball legend penned the foreword in the book: “We deftly dodged the endless nonsense and absurdity of Donald Sterling, and put on a great television show.”)

please join us for a raucous romp through the universe with Ralph Lawler’s fabulous new book,

BINGO: 40 Years in the NBA,

I never had such a good time,

you’ll never learn what you don’t want to know,

are you kind,

and will you come with us,

— Bill Walton (@BillWalton) November 8, 2022

But Lawler says it was a conversation early in his career with Chick Hearn’s wife, Marge, that initially freed him up.

“She gave me this line, ‘You’re a funny guy, you should use that on air,’” said Lawler, crediting her observation and Chick’s own witticisms for changing his perspective on a sportscaster’s role. “I was very much old-school, I thought I had to do things a certain way and I didn’t think personality was a part of that.”

Because he realized he could do it a different way, his way, Lawler insists he had “as much fun when we won 12 and lost 70 as when we won 57 games.” (Good thing, because, to quote Walton again: “Ralph Lawler has seen more bad basketball than anyone, ever.”)

Lawler expects he’ll have as much fun reconnecting with fans at three Southern California appearances next week, including one on Nov. 19 at Arena that will mark his first visit back since he retired in 2019. He and his wife, Jo, now split time between Oregon and Florida. He’s stayed away from the arena, he said, because he wanted to give the Clippers’ present play-by-play man Brian Sieman space to get established.

For his part, Lawler established himself as one of several L.A. sports broadcasters who followed Chick Hearn – the iconic voice of the Lakers, who, early in his career, actually called a few of Lawler’s high school games – from Peoria, Illinois, to L.A. That procession of on-air talent also included Bob Starr, the former Angels and Rams broadcaster, as well as Bill King, who called Raiders games.

Lawler’s book details that bit of broadcasting history and pans out to touch on basketball history broadly. But it focuses most closely on Lawler’s life – much more than he’d anticipated when he took on the project right after setting aside his mic. He says he’d ask his publisher, “Why would anyone want to read about me?”

Well, Clippers fans would, for sure. Forty seasons of calling the team’s games earned him entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and makes him the foremost authority on the franchise between 1978 and 2019.

Included among Lawler’s revelations: How devastated he and others in the organization were when Kobe Bryant chose to stay with the Lakers instead of joining the Clippers when he was an unrestricted free agent in 2004: “It pains me to this day,” he writes. “I threw things at the television set when I saw the news on ESPN.”

It was the second time they missed out on Bryant if you, like Lawler, count 1996’s NBA Draft.

He writes that Coach Bill Fitch disagreed with General Manager Elgin Baylor when he wanted to use the No. 7 pick on Bryant. The Clippers instead drafted Lorenzen Wright while the Lakers dealt Vlade Divac to Charlotte to acquire the high school phenom, paving the way for five championships to come, including those in 2000, 2001 and 2002, deemed by Lawler a “mini dynasty.”

But then the Clippers thought they had another shot at Bryant in 2004, when he was an unrestricted and, from their perspective, disgruntled free agent who had tired of playing with Shaquille O’Neal.

“We heard that he didn’t want to leave Orange County, where he lived,” Lawler writes. “So the Clippers made their move.”

He writes of a meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, where Sterling, the former owner, Baylor and other high-ranking team officials made their case. “And, as someone in the room told me directly, Kobe loved the pitch. In fact, he got so excited at the idea of having a chance to beat the Lakers as a member of their crosstown competition, he said on the way out of the meeting, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.’”

Lakers owner Jerry Buss intervened, of course, and the next day O’Neal was traded to Miami. A day after that, Bryant re-signed with the only team he’d play for.

“We just knew we were not full citizens of the city, and that to the basketball fans in Los Angeles, this would possibly get us up there, and we would go shoulder to shoulder with the Lakers,” Lawler said this week ahead of another Lakers-Clippers showdown Wednesday, when the “visiting” team in purple and gold will try to snap an eight-game losing streak against the hosts.

“But,” Lawler added, in his expert, biased opinion, “it’s all worked out OK. The (Clippers) ball club has found its way now. Any measure you want to use, from ownership to coaching to involvement in the community, to the presentation of the game on game night, the Clippers are the superior franchise right now.”

There’s still a matter of championships, of course. The Clippers still are chasing their first and the Lakers won No. 17 in the Orlando bubble in 2020. (“Put an asterisk by that one,” Lawler said.)

Lawler believes the Clippers’ title is coming, and he’s probably right about that part, at least.

“This franchise, with Steve Ballmer as the owner, is as good and solid a franchise as exists in professional sports,” Lawler said. “And I think if they can win a championship and make the move (to the soon-to-be-constructed Intuit Dome) in 2024, then it can be not just a Laker town and not just a Dodger town, but also a Clipper town.

“I think this city is big enough to handle everything. And I think there’s always room for another champion.”

Scoff at that sentiment if you want. Maybe outright laugh. But about that, neither Lawler nor the team’s good-humored fans are joking.

The 29 Clippers fans are so angry even though I put them third in Power Rankings. There is no pleasing people.

— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) January 5, 2021

The LA Clippers are ranked 2nd in NBA Adjusted National TV Ratings. Those 29 fans are really putting in work.

— Farbod Esnaashari (@Farbod_E) February 22, 2021

29 fans #ClipperNation

— Clips girl (@clipsgirl) July 23, 2022

Dear Ty Lue,

Please play Brandon Boston Jr tonight. A lot. Please. Asking for a couple dozen friends. #ClipperNation

29 Clippers Fans

— Trey_B (@Ben_Monroe_the1) November 1, 2022

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