By Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY Sports
October 15, 2014
At an early age, Bob Ryan developed a love of sports and words, and he combined those two loves into a rewarding, prolific and Hall of Fame career in sports journalism.
He covered Boston, national and international sports stories for more than 40 years at The Boston Globe. ESPN's Tony Kornheiser, who also used to work for a newspaper, once called Ryan "the quintessential American sports writer."
It's a tag that rings true and one deep down that Ryan appreciates. He concedes anyone younger than 40 years old who knows who he is knows him from ESPN's Around the Horn. He knows TV changed his life – fame, more money – but he made his name writing words. He says with great satisfaction, "I'm a writer. When I look in the mirror, I'm a writer. I still see a writer. Writing is still what matters to me."
Ryan's new book, Scribe: My Life in Sports, was released on Oct. 7. It is part memoir and part historical account of Boston's professional sports teams, especially the Celtics, during his career. On the Celtics beat, he helped shape a more modern way to write "game stories," injecting analysis and opinion. (Grantland's Bryan Curtis covers this topic wonderfully in this story.)
"I believe writers are entitled to a point of view," Ryan said. "If you like certain things about basketball or baseball and you see them either upheld or violated, you have a right as a writer to write your point of view."
USA TODAY Sports' Jeff Zillgitt sat down with Ryan for a Q&A:
JZ: You have a section in your book on the Olympics, and it's clear you enjoyed covering them. I also once heard you say on a bus at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics that many stories coming out of the Games are "drive-by-reporting." Why that phrase?
BR: That's not the only circumstance in which that takes place. That's a very frequent occurrence for any of doing one-shot columns on high schools or colleges or anything. Quite often, that's a reality. It's a definite drive-by story.
JZ: What's the secret to doing those stories well?
BR: I'm speaking, trying to act as if I did that well. I would say having a curiosity and a breadth of background about enough sports that you might have a relevant question for an ice-breaker. You might have some cross-reference. I always think it helps to have some ice-breaking material or maybe some background that will help them open up and then they do their work for you.
JZ: How do you reconcile your enjoyment of the Olympics and the political maneuverings at the very top of the International Olympic Committee?
BR: I've always enjoyed the adventure, and the only reason I went to my first Olympics was because of the (1992) Dream Team. I kind of rattled my sabre and stomped my feet because I was off the Celtics beat at that time. We had beat people. But I just thought clearly that should be my bailiwick, and they sent me. While I was there – and I only wrote columns on two other subjects that year. One was Ron Villone, a left-handed pitcher who later had a Major League career but he was from the University of Massachusetts. The other was an assassination, a rip-job I did on Ben Johnson prior to him racing in the 100. Funny thing about that one, and it's not my nature. I never viewed myself as a ripper. You can deliver the hammer when you have to but something about him really set me off. That got me in the APSE top 10 columns, which I never got into with those people. I said, 'Is that what it takes?' If that's all it takes, I can go out and rip people 20 times a year. But that's not who I am.
JZ: After Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa in 2007, we were at a table in the media hospitality room and you said something along the lines of this about football, and this is paraphrasing but you said few want to know how the sausage is made. It is a violent sport and we've seen several stories, some very sad, about ex-players with serious brain damage among other long-term disabilities. In your book, you began a chapter on football titled "I Can Hardly Believe It's Legal, with this sentence, "If they stopped playing football in the next five minutes it wouldn't bother me at all." You have a distaste for that side of it, but you also enjoy football. How can you do both?
BR: I wrote about this (on Sept. 21). I had a column about football where I identified myself as an enabler. I didn't get into any of the stuff that's going on here specifically. I talked about the idea that this is America's favorite sport and what does it say about America that this is its favorite sport given the nature of it, which is carnage. It's a game that is designed where you hit and you're going to get hurt, and so on and so forth. However, I come to you as somebody who goes back six decades watching football, and I've come to a new rationalization I guess which is with all the evidence out there, anybody who plays now cannot go in blindly that he isn't going to get hurt and if they're OK with it, then well, I'm OK with it. If that's what they want, fine. I still enjoy it.
I know enough about football and No. 2, I have a professional obligation to stay on top of it as long as I want to keep doing television programs on ESPN and Comcast and being on radio show and getting paid to do so. I have to have a professional obligation to stay aware and enough of a residual appreciation of the game once I can just put the injury thing aside to enjoy it. So what I do last Sunday (Sept. 21)? I watched the entire Patriots game and the entire Seahawks-Broncos game. The first one is a mixture of obligation and interest and the second one primarily is a professional obligation so I know what's going on, and that was a game that needed to be seen.
JZ: You mention your TV work. You talk about your TV career in the book and it started at local TV long before ESPN's The Sports Reporters. Do you look at yourself as a pioneer for opening the multimedia doors for traditional print journalists who now have more opportunities to get their name or brand out there and of course, make extra money?
BR: I see pioneers before me. The No. 1 pioneer was at my paper, and it was Bud Collins. He eventually went from being a fulltime columnist at the Globe to making a fulltime living out of tennis coverage on TV and a part-time living writing for the Globeand for tennis magazines. I actually succeeded him in briefly in 1976 as a columnist when he left the Globe fulltime to go into television.
Take The Boston Globe itself. Will McDonough is from The Boston Globe. Lesley Visser is from The Boston Globe. I'm from The Boston Globe. Peter Gammons is fromThe Boston Globe. Michael Smith is from The Boston Globe. Michael Holley is fromThe Boston Globe. There's a span there starting with Bud of over 30-some years of people making the move to TV. It really started in 1962 when Bud started doing some tennis commentary for Channel 2, the public station in Boston.
As far as I'm concerned, The Sports Reporters changed my life. It's the second-most important professional thing that ever happened to me. The first was obviously getting hired by the Globe as an intern and staying on as a writer. The second one was joining The Sports Reporters. The first 15 years, I tried pretend I wasn't doing TV. I tried to never let it interfere with my real job at the Globe. I never talked about it in the office. I wanted to pretend it didn't exist, and I tried to work around my Globe schedule and work in these Sports Reporters appearances.
Talk about coming full circle. While Don Skwar was still the (Globe) sports editor in 2002, Around the Horn came into being and low and behold, the Globe signed a contract with ESPN to provide talent, namely me, and construct a TV studio in our sports department, which they did. That was the nature of the beginning of theAround the Horn – the five newspapers involved put TV studios in their newsrooms or in their sports department. That's how far it came. We were actually in partnership with them. Didn't have to hide anything anymore. But in the beginning, I tried to work around it. I would never do anything that would jeopardize my Globe situation by showing up on The Sports Reporters on Sunday mornings in New York. And to see it evolve into where the Globe is a partner with ESPN, it kind of made me laugh.
JZ: In your book, you wrote that before the digital world, you would relax by walking around the arena before the game began. That's not possible today. Would you like to be covering sports for a newspaper today in your 30s or 20s in what is almost a 24-7 news cycle with Twitter, blogs, video, stories, features, analysis?
BR: Long before I got out, I got out two years ago, my last official act was the (men's basketball) gold-medal game at the London Olympics. Long before that day, I said I would never go back into it knowing what I know now. I would find another way to channel my sports interests. I probably would've tried to channel it into working in the profession directly on the other side, going with a team, a league, a conference. I would've gone on that side knowing what I know now, knowing what I knew then about the way it has evolved. It is simply too much. It is not as enjoyable as I knew it. I can't imagine – I've said this countless time – being a beat person on any of the four major sports. I can't imagine. I'm very grateful I did it when I did it under the circumstances in which I did it.
(Parenthetical aside: At the 2012 London Olympics, I took a picture of Bob Ryan putting away his laptop after that gold medal game. The tweet is still there. Unfortunately, the photo-hosting service I used at the time is no longer working. Here's the tweet:)
The venerable Bob Ryan packs up after writing his last column as a fulltime Boston Globe staffer:
JZ: And that's regardless of the direction the newspaper industry has gone?
BR: If you want to go there, I just don't see a happy ending. I can't see it lasing as we know it. How long? A long time ago, I foresaw it. I was saying by 2025 that newspapers as we know them will not be around but there will be maybe one last gasp for print for the elite who still want news and commentary delivered in that form. But the daily habit of print and putting it in your hand is going to be gone and that's pretty evident that's exactly what's going to happen.
JZ: You have a section in the book and write often in the book about Dave Cowens. He was ahead of his time when it came to flopping, and he wrote a well-reasoned treaty against flopping in 1976. He was ahead of time. What are your thoughts on flopping?
BR: You're not going to change Dave's mind, obviously. The letter in there is an incredible defense and rational defense and rational objection to the act of flopping. My feeling is this: Referees should not be susceptible. Referees should know better. They should be able to tell, especially once they've been around a while and learn the habits of various players. Referees can prevent a lot of this by knowing when a guy is flopping. I can't believe so many referees fall for flopping at every level. I just can't. I put the blame on them. I really do. It's not that difficult to govern. When David Stern came up with the flopping fines a couple of years ago, I wrote that this isn't necessary if the referees were better and could do their job. If certain people are notorious floppers and you see these circumstances, they should know. When a guy sells it – quote, unquote – falling three, four steps and falling down when clearly there wasn't enough force to knock him down, they should know that's not an offensive foul. It's nothing. It's a no-call. I really feel that way and don't understand why referees can't handle the situation better.
(Parenthetical aside: This is a portion of what Cowens wrote about flopping in 1976: "Fraudulent, deceiving and flagrant acts of pretending to be fouled when little or no contact is made is just as outrageously unsportsmanlike as knocking a player to the floor." Cowens' full letter to the Globe, is included Ryan's book.)
JZ: You were around for some great moments and Hall of Famers in Boston sports, including championships in the four major pro spots – multiple NBA titles, NFL titles, MLB titles and a Stanley Cup. Were you aware at the time how fortunate you were to cover all of that or did you realize it later in life or as you were writing the book?
BR: I believe I was always aware of it in the '70s and '80s but never more so than in the first part of the first part of the 21st century. We're the only city with eight parades. We're the only city that has had a championship in each of the four major professional sports (in that time). It was very important to me, in a satisfaction sense, to have some direct role in covering the Bruins in 2011 to give me the final piece of the puzzle. It was a lot of run. It turned out it was great. I didn't cover all four series. I didn't jump into until the third series but when I got into it, I was into it immensely, and the whole thing was wonderful.
I am so grateful. I can start here. I'm grateful that I joined the Globe when I joined the Globe at a writer's paper led by one of the great 20th century editors of all-time, Tom Winship, whose spirit permeated the entire newspaper, not just the news section. I was grateful that the Celtics got good for me. It gave me a vehicle. That was my vehicle. There's no question that if I had been in Kansas City or somewhere else, I wouldn't have become whatever it is I've become because I wouldn't have had the platform. The Celtics were amazing platform for me, and I'd like to think I made the most of it. But believe me, I was presented with a vehicle, and I was able to use that vehicle. It kept going and going. I went from the Havlicek-Cownens era to the Bird-McHale-Parish era and eventually to the second Big 3 era (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen) and meanwhile the Red Sox ended the so-called curse and I was around for that. The Patriots, who were buffoonish, trust me, were buffoonish in their imagery before (Bill) Belichick as a legacy became the Patriots and finally the Bruins win one year before I'm going to quit and provided me with that little ride.
Meanwhile, I get to cover all kinds of good college stuff even though we're not a great college town. I covered 29 Final Fours and ultimately BC wins four hockey championships, and I'm a BC guy. That was very gratifying, too, even though I only covered one of them.
To answer your question, I was always grateful, then it just got laughably ridiculous at the end. I'm totally grateful and I expressed it as often as I could.
JZ: Your book is part memoir, part historical Boston sports story. Was that your intent when you started to write this book?
BR: There was actually more meaty, personal life included than I thought there was going to be, and like all books, it was edited down. I turned out more copy than they needed and George Gibson did such an amazing job of shaping the book and figuring out a way to present because I just dumped 130,000 or so words on his lawn and said, 'Go to it.' I didn't write it chronologically. It was going to be thematic. If you look at it, he's got it arranged so that the first half is reasonably chronological until the end of the '87-'88 basketball season and the second half is more thematic.
But there was personal stuff, and if there was a part he didn't feel was warranted, I would've easily acquiesced because I wasn't sure how much of that was warranted. I wasn't sure where I was going. I didn't know I was going to end up writing that much about Trenton, N.J. Trenton was essential to my formation.
The big thing, I had never written about father in public at all. I never really sat down and analyzed it. That was and I don't want to go overboard and say cathartic, but it was important to me. It was very gratifying getting it out there and let the world know there was a man named Bill Ryan who lived this life. I'm totally a product of that DNA.
JZ: Your dad died when you were young and you tried to find out more about him. Your dad was in sports marketing and always on the fringe of the next big sports marketing bonanza but never got there like a Bill Veeck did.
BR: That's true. I found out in that column that I quoted from by Joe Logue, the local sports writer, I found out when I was doing the research for the book in the Hamilton Township library which has the Trenton Times archives and I had never seen that column. I had other stuff, but I had never seen that one. It so amplified and confirmed the thought of who he was. I didn't even know that Joe wrote that. Everything I wanted to convey, he said it beautifully. My mother had that quote in there, but to have it from a non-blood relative source was very gratifying and I didn't know that existed until I got involved in the research part of this book.
JZ: So there were unintended benefits to writing the book?
BR: I didn't see it taking that turn when I started. I was more thinking about which parts of my career I would get into. How much detail? What are you going to leave out? Then the whole father thing took on a life of its own after I got started.
JZ: You make no bones about being a fan while covering the Celtics. In journalism, there this whole idea of being objective and impartial in but we all have our biases and our fandom. Many of us can compartmentalize pretty easily. How were you able to cover the Celtics?
BR: I never had trouble. I could root for them during the game, and then when the game's over, then I put on the writer hat. I had no trouble making that shift in my mind. I don't believe in objectivity. It's a farce. There's only selective subjectivity. You're looking for fairness. Forget objectivity. There is no such thing. Everyone word you choose – every "a," "an" and "the" is a choice. It's fairness and balance and common sense. Not objectivity. That's a farce. I never had any problem doing that at all. So much of what I wrote was a viewpoint coming from a fan, and if there was one thing I want to stress is that I'm still a fan and always was. So many guys in the business, as you know, are detached observers and they will tell you they don't care who wins, they just want the story. Well, that's fine. That's OK. But I did care who won and I had no trouble writing the story. I think my stuff stood up.
It's your personality. There are plenty of very good writers who don't give a damn, and they're terrific writers and that's fine. There's room for all of us. This is my niche. One thing I wanted to portray in the book – and the phrase I always use is point of view and I believe writers are entitled to a point of view. If you like certain things about basketball or baseball and you see them either upheld or violated, you have a right as a writer to write your point of view.
I would like to portray in this book that my calling card was enthusiasm and love of the game, and I made that point. People so often say, 'I write about people.' That doesn't impress. If you can't write about people, you don't belong in this business. If you can't do that, you're not a writer to start with. I've written a lot of good player profiles, I think. That's not the point, ultimately. If you don't have the games, who would care about the people? You wouldn't even know about the people. The game has to be there first. That's one point I always tried to stress.
JZ: Red Auerbach had his 11 principles for playing basketball that he included in his 1952 book Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach. They were similar to John Wooden's aphorisms, and some of Red's thoughts on playing basketball still apply today such as "Don't hold the ball too long. Look for men cutting."
BR: Some of the stuff is dated, no question. But some of the stuff is apropos, no doubt about it. Red was a gigantic figure in the world of sports. It was translated into many languages and had a long shelf life. My copy was one year afterward and it was 25 cents. I still have it. I persevered it. Right now, it's sitting downstairs in a baggy in my office so it doesn't get damaged and I got him to sign it. That's one my proud little possessions.
JZ: You love to watch Larry Bird. You would take Michael Jordan in championship but LeBron James encompasses everything that a basketball player can do on the court. You dedicate a chapter to the greatest of all time. Who is it?
BR: I really ended that chapter with a waffle. I'll have my cake and eat it, too. You've got to go with Michael, but I'd rather watch LeBron. LeBron encompasses everything I think. He's a better rebounder than Michael. He's a better passer. Michael had that undefinable cutthroat instinct of winning you can't deny. The record is clear. He never even got to a seventh game in the Finals. That's how incredibly dominant he was. Fine. But LeBron is just exquisite. I just love watching LeBron. I think his heart has always been pure and as I wrote, the thing he had to do was get a little more selfish. That's a chapter I'm glad I included. I hope people take something away from that chapter because I think they're a very interesting comparison.
JZ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
BR: I'm not naïve or Pollyannaish, and I know there's a lot things wrong with sports. That wasn't my point. My point was to celebrate a gratitude of somebody who was able to make a living in sports and had fun with it and satisfied my two passions – sports and writing. I love words. I've always loved words. I love composing. The thing I'm most proudest of frankly is deadline writing. I'll leave you with this one and I didn't mention it in the book because I didn't know how to shoehorn it in quite frankly. You know the Best American Sports Writing book, right? It's been around in one format or another since 1944. I spent hours and hours and hours and hours reading every available copy in the school library at Lawrenceville when I was there. It was a dream to get in the book someday, which I finally did a couple of times.
I'm hanging my hat on this one. For years and years and the book was originally about deadline writing. It was all about covering events and there were a couple of pieces that were magazine pieces. It's evolved over the years and it's an entirely different book now. If you look at it every year, it is nothing but magazine pieces, newspaper takeouts in which people have all the time in the world to write what they want to write. The last story in that book that was a deadline story was written by yours truly in 2003. It was after the Aaron Boone home run after Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and the column I wrote made the book and every year, I pull my Don Shula 1972 Dolphins, and I open the book and go, 'Yesss!' I am the last person with a deadline story in that book. It may be the thing I'm proudest of. I think I have a pretty good chance of going to my grave having opened the metaphorical bottle of champagne every year.
I'm a writer first. If I'm known in America by anybody under 40, it's because of TV. I know that. It's great. I'm grateful. It's changed my life and put two kids through college. I love it. But I'm a writer. When I look in the mirror, I'm a writer. I still see a writer. Writing is still what matters to me.