Thirty years ago, when I was a cub reporter in Boston and rolling quarters so I could drive west and get through the tolls to my job, I read Bob Ryan all the time.
He wrote for The Boston Globe. But more importantly, he wrote about the Celtics, and I had loved the Celtics since Bill Russell played center and John Havlicek stole the ball. My roommate, Gregg, and I both loved the Celtics, and we both talked about what Ryan wrote and how he wrote it all … the … time.
Ryan was old-school, a shoe-leather reporter who did the work, a throwback to a newsroom full of characters that seemingly stepped straight from “The Front Page.” In a column last summer for The Globe, he wrote:
The sound of a newspaper office in those days was the clack-clacking of sturdy typewriters. If you wanted to smoke, you smoked. The floor was an appropriate ashtray. And, of course, phones rang constantly. Dial phones, that is.
You can read the rest of that column here.
There’s not many like Ryan in newspapers these days, and there’s not many newspapers staffed anymore like Ryan’s glory years at The Globe. Ryan knows it. We all know it.
The newspaper life he knew has changed — and he hasn’t. He’s not into technology, he’s not so much into Twitter or blogging, and he doesn’t see why people want to watch any kind of game on a tiny screen no bigger than the palm of your hand.
But he’s still at it. He’s on TV, doing a sports podcast in Boston and writing occasionally for The Globe. And now, he’s at HPU.
I saw him Wednesday. He’s the university’s new Sports Reporter in Residence. I sat in on a discussion he had with students, and even at 72, he still sounds like the scrappy Irish kid from Trenton, New Jersey, who learned to love sports early.
He talked about all that.
He told the students how he and his family were always going to or coming from a game. He played every sport in a playground he called The Lot, and he went to a prep school where he played basketball and volunteered as a football manager.
After graduating from Boston College in ’68, he got an internship at The Globe. He scored a full-time reporting gig the next year. One of his first assignments: to cover the opening game of The Celtics.
That’s how it began. Ryan covered the Celtics for decades. As for Boston, he never left. He retired from The Globe in 2012 after 44 years as a reporter, columnist and a man known in the fraternity of basketball writers as “The Commissioner.”
At HPU, he’ll come to campus at least once a semester and talk to students about the ins and outs of sports writing. When he came Wednesday – his third visit to HPU — he sounded like the salty columnist I grew to love to read too many years ago.
Ryan worked for the best sports section in the country in the country’s best sports town at one of the best papers around anywhere. And quite honestly, I’ve always thought sports writers were the best writers at any paper.
I mean, you gotta get imaginative to talk about who won and who lost other than to say, “Well, they scored more points.”
Natural drama. And The Globe grabbed that drama by the jugular every day in a sports crazy town. I found that out my first week in Boston in October ’86.
I was just up from South Carolina, and I had accepted a reporting job at The Middlesex News, a daily newspaper in Framingham, a town 30 minutes west of Boston. Gregg and I both got a reporting gig. We were a package deal, two journalists from the University of South Carolina, two guys who visited 18 newspapers together throughout New England on Christmas break to save money and be remembered.
We scrambled to get a job out of the South. When our friends went farther south for spring break, Gregg and I drove north. We went back to New England and worked for free at two of the papers we liked because we wanted to show them what two USC journalists could do. One of those papers was The Middlesex News.
Thanks to Gregg’s indestructible Subaru, it worked — even though I told an editor in Connecticut we were going to visit a newspaper in GLOU-Cester.
He corrected me, thank God.
So there we were, me and Gregg, with beer in hand that night in October. We sidled up to a bar and watched Game 6 of the World Series in a Irish pub along a street full of bars. From what I remember, I said something profound like, “You know, this is really a big sports town.”
Game 6 was almost over — two outs away from the Red Sox becoming world champions in the first time in forever. People were buying beers, talking all loud about beating the Curse of the Bambino and beginning to celebrate . Then, Mookie Wilson came up to bat.
You know what happened next.
Wilson hit a trickler down the first base line. It rolled through Bill Buckner’s leg.
Seconds later, a pitcher of beer crashed into the window by my head, and a chorus of F-bombs echoed down the street. I knew then I wasn’t in the genteel South anymore. I was in Boston, a hard-knuckle city full of hard-knuckle sports fans — and Ryan was their guy.
During my three years in Boston, there were so many times I’d slip into a chair at daybreak, hear the radiator sing in the middle of winter and dive into a Bob Ryan column. That became a ritual in my apartment in Brighton at the bottom of a hill two miles from Fenway Park.
Two miles, you ask? I know. I walked it. It was a six pack away, all my friends liked to say. But that’s another story. Now, back to Ryan.
So many things he said Wednesday made me think of the great sports writing legend Red Smith, a man with a knack for the vernacular.
Smith said this:
“Writing is very much like bricklaying. You learn to put one brick on top of another and spread the mortar so thick.”
“Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open a vein and bleed it out drop by drop.”
Do love that. And this:
“Any sportswriter who thinks the world is no bigger than the outfield fence is not only a bad citizen, but also a lousy sportswriter.”
Ryan is no lousy sports writer. In 2015, he won the Red Smith Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Associated Press Sports Editors. So, he knows his stuff beyond the outfield fence – and a basketball court.
That showed Wednesday. The Commissioner held court. He talked about much. Like …
“It’s two words. Sports and writing. Millions of people know sports. But not many can write about it.”
The sports writing profession.
“There are a lot of great writers out there, but you need a vehicle to get known. I rode the wave of The Celtics. I was very fortunate.”
Esports and MMA.
“We got enough sports! Who needs this?”
“I don’t need any new music. You aren’t going to come up with something better than what I already know.”
The popularity of watching sports on iPhones.
“Someone who wants to watch the sports on this (he holds up his iPhone) and not a 65-inch screen, I can’t understand that. But it’s the way of the world.”
One student asked him something, I can’t remember what. But I do remember Ryan’s response.
“You have an agenda. Spill it!”
So it went.
Ryan talked about Colin Kaepernick. He supports him. He talked about Duke’s Zion Williamson – “I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like this.” He also mentioned the coming-out party for UNC’s Michael Jordan that made him a basketball superstar.
The Nike commercial produced by Spike Lee helped, Ryan says. But really, it was Jordan’s second year in the NBA during the playoffs when the Bulls played the Celtics. Jordan scored a million points and Larry Bird found religion.
“It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan,” he said.
On Wednesday, Ryan sounded like a sports encyclopedia. In a sense, he is. He has seen it all – and he wrote about it all. He has covered 29 Final Fours, 11 Olympics and at least 20 NBA finals, nine World Series and five Super Bowls.
In his 1987 book, “Forty-Eight Minutes: A Night In The Life of the NBA,” one of 16 books he has written, he dedicated it to his wife, Elaine, the mother of his two children. They have been married since 1969, the year he started at The Globe.
In his dedication, he wrote:
“To Elaine Ryan: In the next life, maybe you’ll get a nine-to-five man who makes seven figures.”
The life of a journalist. Do know that.
Ryan’s last column in The Globe ran August 12, 2012. It was, appropriately, a Sunday. You can read it here. He ended it this way:
I do want it known that I have spent 44 years doing it from the heart. I have never once written to provoke or to attract attention. I have always done what has come naturally, which doesn’t mean it’s always been right. No one is right all the time.
So why now? It’s time; that’s all. I’ve covered the events I wanted to cover. I reached a goal with the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run in 2011 to have covered championships in all four primary pro sports. I’ve covered 29 Final Fours. London has been my 11th Olympics. I even did a dog show. I am fulfilled.
But there is something else. I occasionally come across some things I wrote years ago, and I say to myself, “I did that?” And I know in my heart I really couldn’t match that effort today. That’s all a writer needs to know.
My goal is to gain personal life flexibility and to eliminate obligation. I still have the Globe part-time gig and I still have a bit more TV shelf life, how much I really don’t know. I want to do what I want to do and not do what I don’t want to do. And my wife of 43 years, the former Elaine Murray, is the perfect companion with whom to do or not do whatever it is we’re going to do or not do.
See me in a year or so. I’ll let you know how it’s working out.
Seems it is.
Good job, Commissioner.