NBA

Bill Oram: Trail Blazers succeed by canceling call to leave broadcasters at home

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Of all the emails I received over the weekend regarding the Portland Trail Blazers’ misguided plans to leave their broadcasters at home while the team hit the road, one stood out.

It comes from Ralph Lawler.

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Now 84, Lawler was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019 after 40 years with the Los Angeles Clippers. A stately device at the sidelines with his neatly trimmed mustache and a microphone in hand, still in hand, Lawler was often the only source of positivity for the long-lost Clippers. He called over 3,000 plays for this franchise, many of them alongside a towering, wordy redhead named Bill Walton.

Most of those 3,000 were casualties. Half of them were on the road.

In his later years, the Clippers not only put him on the team plane, they also reserved a seat for his wife, Jo.

Because they knew how important Ralph was to the Clippers and their fans, this was their gift to him.

After retiring, he and his “Sweet Jo” left Southern California and settled in Bend.

His thoughts on the Blazers’ new strategy?

“It makes me realize that I retired at the right time,” Lawler wrote.

If I’ve heard of a Hall of Famer like Lawler, then I wonder who Blazers president Dewayne Hankins has heard of. Was it the people who filled my inbox: Marvin and Jesse and Tom and Brian and Ann Marie and my aunt Jan? It may have been Chris who wrote: “I hope they reverse this decision – Blazers fans have been through enough.”

Whoever it was, the Blazers listened.

“We’ve heard from all the fans,” Hankins told radio hosts Chad Doing and Dwight Jaynes Monday night.

The Doing and Jaynes duo are credited with first highlighting the issue last week and causing a revolution among the Blazers faithful. But the team itself gets the most props for its willingness to change.

Hankins insisted that prior to last week’s eruption of comments, the Blazers were still considering their options, which included only sending in backup reporter Brooke Olzendam or only moving TV broadcasters and the leaving the radio voices at home.

But the wheels were very clearly moving. The backlash from the fanbase stopped those deliberations in their tracks.

Now, when the Blazers open the season Oct. 19 in Sacramento, you’ll hear the game called by the folks there. Kevin Calabro, Lamar Hurd and Olzendam on Root Sports and Travis Demers and Michael Holton on KPOJ-AM. They will all be on the ground.

It’s a good reminder that fans still have power in what, especially in recent years with the Trail Blazers, has often felt like an unrequited romance.

“Our fans really feel like they own the team and that’s something I think I need to remember,” Hankins said.

It’s a good day for democracy in sport.

People in the NBA asked me this week if I thought the Blazers would give in. I did not know. But I was worried that the management would stubbornly want to prove they had the right idea and force a bad idea.

They did not do it. And that says a lot about the people who are making decisions right now.

In Los Angeles, Lawler’s Law is the pledge that the first team to score 100 points wins a game. In Portland, the Blazers ran to make a 180 and in doing so were 100% successful.

Before Lawler retired, the then Staples Center media entrance was renamed in his honor.

It narrowly missed airing during the pandemic. No doubt he would have hated being away from the team.

“It makes no sense to the advertiser,” he said. “So many valuable materials are picked up on the road. I rarely talked to the players about basketball, and the planes, buses, and shootings were fertile ground for collecting story after story about life, interests, family, etc. of a player. There was no better place than the road to pick up these jewels.

The exasperated Hall of Famer added, “Don’t get me started.”

Fortunately, Ralph can retire.

We all can.

Technology has changed a lot in the four decades since Lawler started calling Clippers games. A few years ago, a family member found an old record celebrating the Blazers championship in 1977. When I put it on the turntable, Bill Schonely’s voice pierced through the din of delirious fans.

Was it the best audio quality I’ve ever heard? Certainly not. But it was Schonely who strove to be heard among the celebratory masses that made him so sweet.

We shouldn’t kick the Blazers out for trying to push the envelope with their spread. Hankins said he plans to use stats from analytics provider Second Spectrum to provide real-time numbers.

Do I think the average fan needs Damian Lillard’s changing field goal percentage floating above his head as he moves from place to place on the pitch? Not really. I don’t think that’s what a general audience wants. But it still looks like the Blazers have some innovative ideas, and hopefully we can still see them.

There are many ways to improve delivery. Removing announcers from the stage wouldn’t have been one of them.

Before Lawler signed his email, he shared that he had written a memoir which will be released in the fall.

If this sounds like any of his shows, it will be a richly told story.

It made me wonder: if he had spent all those years thousands of miles away from the team, alone in a studio with his mic, what on earth would he have been writing about?

— Bill Oram | boram@oregonian.com | Twitter: @billoram

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