Bob Ryan covered 11 Olympics in his sportswriting career, as well as dozens of World Series, Super Bowls, Stanley Cup finals and NCAA championships across multiple sports. He spent 44 years, give or take, chasing and breaking stories big and small for the Boston Globe, worked in local TV in that sports-crazed market and still entertains, informs and cracks wise on a global stage as a frequent ESPN contributor.
But he set a standard for NBA coverage during his years on the Boston Celtics beat and, later, as a Globe columnist that arguably never has been surpassed. And while Ryan’s new memoir, “SCRIBE: My Life in Sports” (Bloomsbury USA), set for release Tuesday, cuts across all the sports he has covered in his career, it returns again and again to pro basketball. And the Celtics. And the NBA.
“The NBA was the centerpiece for me,” Ryan said in a recent phone chat. “It launched my so-called career and it gave me the chance to make a name for myself. I grew up playing basketball – it was the one sport I could play through prep school.
“If I’d been presented with the opportunity in 1969 to cover the Red Sox, I’d have been a very happy baseball writer. … But I’m very proud of my basketball-writing career and, frankly, I think I wrote game stories as well as anybody wrote ‘em.”
Game stories, for fans who might not be familiar with them, were newspaper accounts of what actually transpired in the previous night’s game. Now it is assumed that everyone already knows that from TV and the Internet, so writers working a game wind up spinning forward a little mini-feature or quickie analysis instead.
Newspapers? OK, for fans who might not be familiar with them…
“I’m so glad I did it when I did it,” said Ryan, who retired from the Globe in 2012 and spent eight months of 2013 working on “SCRIBE.” “I’m grateful. There’s no way it’s as enjoyable now. Because of the relationships and the access.”
Ryan, 68, did some MLB coverage, columnist duty and TV work in his early-to-mid career but returned time and again to the Celtics beat in Boston in the 1970s and ’80s. Back then, he could chat up players in the locker room before practice, then sit in the gym to watch the entire workout. Teams flew on commercial flights same as the writers back then, so a delay or cancellation would keep them elbow to elbow in coffee shops or airport lounges. And the players’ six-figure salaries didn’t dredge the moat between them that exists in an eight-figure sports salary world.
“The two biggest things to ruin life for the beat writers were charter flights and the Chicago Bulls,” Ryan said. “The charter flights are self-evident – you no longer traveled with them. The Bulls, because they became the rock-star team that traveled with security and then they built the Berto Center [practice facility] where you could no longer even figure out where their cars were. And because they were successful, naturally, everybody wanted to follow suit. That changed everything and it’s never going back.”
Ryan’s memoir is more thematic than chronological, though the early chapters track his youth and steps toward scribe-dom in straightforward fashion (“Trenton Born,” “Boston College,” “Becoming a Reporter”). He devotes chapters, too, to baseball, football (“I Can Hardly Believe It’s Legal”), hockey, golf, ESPN, the Olympics and major college sports (“Smitten By a Lady of Low Repute”). He saves room near the end to write about music, another of his great passions alongside hoops and his wife Elaine.
But Ryan’s embrace of the NBA permeates the project. He gives Red Auerbach, the Dream Team, Chuck Daly, Bob Knight and the 2008 Celtics title season their own chapters. And there is no mistaking the topics addressed in those entitled “This Guy Ain’t No Hick” and “Michael v. LeBron.”
Former Celtics center Dave Cowens, however, gets both a chapter of his own and the prologue. Ryan starts the book with the tale of Cowens’ unexpected decision to retire at age 31 in October 1980. Cowens wanted Ryan’s help editing his retirement statement and he wanted it to run in the Globe:
The truth is it was very nicely and powerfully written, which did not surprise me because this was not the first time I had recognized his writing ability. …
“I’ll need some time,” I told him. “Maybe an hour.”
He was heading out the door when he turned around. “Do you mind if I call Red first?” he inquired.
Excuse me? Do I, Bob Ryan, mind if he, Dave Cowens, calls the hallowed Red Auerbach, Mr. Celtics, on my phone to inform him he is retiring from active duty in the National Basketball Association, effective immediately?
I gave him my blessing.
“He’s the most interesting person I’ve covered by far,” Ryan said of Cowens on the phone. “I love Larry [Bird], Larry and I are friends, and watching Larry play was a joy. But watching Dave play was an other-worldly experience and watching him compete against [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar and [Bob] Lanier and [Willis] Reed and everyone else, spotting those guys size and running them into the ground and being their equal and very often their superior was a fan-inviting experience.
“But knowing him was the payoff. For his world view on basketball and on other things… He’s one of those guys who is a standard of something that people try to compare others to and find the next one, and in vain they have not found the next Dave Cowens.”
Ryan considers the Celtics’ John Havlicek to be the most underappreciated player he covered. “When he first retired, there was no issue, he was a demigod,” the writer said. “But Jordan comes and now LeBron, other guys come, and when the dust settles 36 years later, he’s still the greatest forward-guard, two-position player there ever was – and don’t give me Scottie Pippen.”
Given Ryan’s press-row seat before, during and after the dual arrival of Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979, he can attest that the NBA was in trouble for several years prior to that. “A down period artistically and every way,” he said.
“The great fallacy is that Bird and Magic instantly saved the league,” Ryan added. “They stopped the slide. They focused attention on the game, the passing was great and they revived Kareem, which was good. It’s interesting to think how [Abdul-Jabbar] would have been regarded if Magic had gone to another team and he stayed in that [bored] attitude that he had in the late ’70s. I think he would have quit probably two or three years into the ['80s] and gone on to do something else.”
Here is Ryan at one point on Bird:
For me, his arrival was as if I were an art student and into the classroom walked the new professor – Michelangelo. Who could be prepared for that? … I had been covering the NBA for 10 years. … I didn’t expect to be surprised and educated and thrilled by anything new.
And Ryan on officiating:
I came to realize that in any given game the referees had an influence that made them the equivalent of a good player, if not necessarily a great one. Referees decide who will stay on the court and how the game will be played. They cannot be ignored. I didn’t reference the officiating every night, and not all references were negative. But I was always on the lookout for exceptionally smooth, well-officiated games.
Then there’s the serendipity of his own career, which began at age 11 with his self-published column “The Sportster” growing up at home in Trenton, N.J.:
I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on many occasions. I received a Globe internship interview when my roommate turned it down. I was handed the Celtics beat at age 23 because there was no one else in the department with either the interest or the basketball feel to take the job. They got very good after one year and I rode the wave. I lucked into doing a TV show because the guy who bought it was an old friend.
Had someone else taken over the show, he would have hired his friends. Some great things have happened to me over which I had zero control.
As for Ryan’s take on the growing debate of Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James, you can read the book in search of his answer. Over the phone, Ryan just said: “Do I think that Michael is clearly a ruthless competitor and his six championships will stand the test of time in the non-Bill Russell category? Yes. But I’d rather watch LeBron play. I just love the full scope of his game.”
Ryan’s memoir gives you the full scope of his game, from filing stories by wire with a young Chris Wallace (future news anchor) at a Western Union office in Harrisburg, Pa., to his appearances on “Around The Horn,” from his very modern squabbles with the analytics crowd over their beloved WAR theories to the irritated phone call he received one day from Amelia Earhart‘s sister.
Said Ryan, “I was thinking 37 years was the statute of limitations.”