Ralph Lawler returns early from vacation to 'a different world'

Ralph Lawler did not know what to expect upon Monday morning arrival in the United States. He didn’t envision that San Francisco’s typically bustling airport would look like anything from a movie set.

Shops were closed. Security queues were empty. He spent nearly an hour of his layover looking at the runway and saw no aircraft take off. Even by the standards of someone watching Clippers’ home games for 40 years, the place was remarkably empty.

Still, the 81-year-old Hall of Fame broadcaster and his wife, Jo, were thankful for being there and feeling healthy and strong. Consider their alternative: being stuck in quarantine on the other side of the world during the coronavirus outbreak.

They were among the thousands of Americans abroad in recent weeks who returned home before flights were canceled and borders were closed, and watched from afar as the world they knew was upside down. Lawler’s viewpoint happened to be from Down Under, on a holiday to Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s a different world,” he said, “the world we left three weeks ago.”

What Lawler called their “escape route” started Monday in Christchurch, New Zealand, and continued on to Sydney, Australia. But there was no guarantee it would end at home. A gate agent in Sydney, he said, told a group of travelers to quarantine for 14 days. However, she managed to get the pair a flight to the U.S.

“Oh my god,” he said. “She finally found something, a way to get us in.”

When Lawler and ‘Sweet Jo’, as his wife was known on Clippers broadcasts – a reference that became as much a staple of his broadcasts as ‘Bingo!’ and “Oh I, oh my” – left for Australia on March 4, the spread of the coronavirus had entered the national discussion, but had not changed their plans. The month-long vacation was a gift from the Clippers when Lawler retired in April. They thought it was their last chance to see bucket list sites such as New Zealand’s South Island.

But his past and present collided within a week, when the NBA became the first major sport to end the season after a positive test by Rudy Gobert in Utah. Lawler was proud that the league took decisive measures. The game’s suspension also provided one of the best opportunities for the Clippers, a franchise long associated with losses, to win a championship behind a squad led by all-star forward Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Thinking about that potentially missed opportunity felt like a banal, Lawler said, when close friends were out of work and hospitals were full due to the virus.

“I’m much more concerned about the well-being of the nation and the health of our people than about a basketball team or a basketball league or something like that,” he said.

Still, he’s been thinking deeply about basketball for the past four decades, and continued to watch almost every Clippers game from his home in Bend, Oregon this season.It was hard not to consider the effects on the game he loves .

“I hope this thing gets back on track as we lose a quarter of a season of it [Leonard’s] play with George and you may only get a year off if things don’t go well, ” he said, referring to the fact that both George and Leonard can opt out of their contracts after the 2021 season. “It has to go well, but as we have discovered, things don’t always go well.

“I hate to see LeBron James lose, at the age of 35, a season in which he has certainly had a championship hop and a realistic one, because at the age of 35 you won’t get that back. Will we ever have Montrezl Harrell again? Want to see a clipper uniform? Another three or four guys who have contributed guys on or off the couch have an annual contract. And how is all the free agency going to be sorted and the design – it’s quite mind-boggling. “

For sixty years, Lawler spent his career in the midst of crowds, telling the action as it unfolded before him. But he has never seen scenes that he saw on the news and up close, since the virus became a global pandemic and isolated entire cities. In Wellington, New Zealand, the couple boarded a ferry to the South Island of the country last week, only to learn that the captain no longer wanted them on board because they had been in the country for less than two weeks.

Days later, at their hotel in Christchurch, he and his wife received a call from reception advising them not to leave their room. They discussed renting an apartment in Christchurch for two months. Unsure about the availability of flights to the US later this spring, they eventually cut their vacation by about 10 days.

They have never seen South Island. But they were back on Monday and were lucky.

“Now that we’re back in the United States, we’re counting the days to try to make it to 14 days and realizing we escaped that vacation without getting the damn virus,” Lawler said. “If we can avoid it in Oregon, that’s okay.”

The new reality means new routines. They talk to their friends and family in Bend through video chats, rather than in person. Refilling the refrigerator will be done early in the morning, when supermarkets reserve special opening hours for seniors. He and Jo also need new after dinner entertainment. It had been their habit to turn on the Clippers and listen to old friends like Brian Sieman, the current play-by-play broadcaster. The team would play against the Knicks on Monday.

Jo is tempted to say, ‘Who is playing? Lawler said. “The answer is no one. That is really very bizarre. ‘

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