Bob Ryan: a Scribe everyone likes, deservedly so

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Try as I might, I can’t be objective about Bob Ryan’s autobiography, Scribe: My Life in Sports, published by Bloomsbury.  Ryan is one of my all-time favorite sports writers.  He first won my admiration in the 1970s, when he wrote in the Boston Globe:  “The Celtics used to stand for something.  Now all they stand for is the national anthem.”

It’s not just that he’s a superb writer, tenacious reporter and entertaining
TV commentator, he’s also a genuinely fine person.  He’s never acted like a big shot.

We’re not close friends – he’s based in Boston, while I’ve worked the southern circuit – Orlando, Atlanta, Houston.  But one time we were both in New Orleans to cover the Sugar Bowl, and I stepped into a bar where Bob was sitting by himself at a table.  He motioned me over, and I joined him for a pleasant conversation, of which there would be many over the years.  He’s an engaging raconteur, whether on the page or in person.

Sports writing is a cut-throat business, but Ryan is so secure in his ego that he’s always been willing – even eager – to help other reporters do their jobs.  When Buck Harvey, another of my favorites, was with the Boston Herald and competing on the Celtics beat with Ryan, he said, “A lot of my stories I get from Ryan.  He knows so much he can’t possibly write it all, so he’s happy to share.  And I’m happy to get his leftovers.”

As you’d expect, this book is plush with riveting anecdotes and incisive vignettes about basketball, baseball and football.  This should be mandatory reading for anyone contemplating a career in sports journalism, but I can’t imagine any sports fan not finding much to enjoy here. 

Ryan was born in Trenton, N.J.  His father worked in various sports marketing jobs.  He died when Bob was 11, but the sports interest had set in.

Bob joined the Globe as an intern and errand boy.  At 23, he found himself in 1969 covering the Celtics at a time when that beat was not coveted by many staffers.  The NBA office in Manhattan had only eight employees, including the commissioner, Walter Kennedy.  Boston’s hockey team, the Bruins, drew twice the crowd to the Garden as the Celtics did.

But in a sport craving media attention, Ryan found the Celtics players and coaches welcoming and happy to share their knowledge with someone interested in them.  So Ryan became their friend, dining with them and even visiting with them in his apartment.  He admits he became “too close” and thereby undermined his objectivity.

But he would not be the expert he is if not for hanging onto every word of Red Auerbach, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and others in the procession of Celtic legends.  When the NBA boom began, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joining the league in 1979 and a new commissioner, David Stern, introducing the league to modern marketing, Ryan was ready to capitalize.

And while his chumminess with those he covered made it difficult for him to wield a hammer, it was rarely called for, given the usual excellence of the team, 

Ryan insists his favorite sport is baseball – “the greatest game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man.”

He’s covered it as a beat and has columnized extensively on baseball, but he’s best known for his reporting on basketball.  He invented a style of game coverage that’s highly analytical and opinionated – a column even when not labeled as such.

Former Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn complained that Ryan wasn’t  interested in his postgame thoughts but wanted only to inject a few quotes that fit a story he already had constructed. 

Though he’d never say it, Ryan knew readers wanted his thoughts – in the way he expressed them – more than they wanted Heinsohn’s. 

Inevitably, Ryan would cover plenty of football, even though he was one of the earliest nationally known writers to inveigh against its barbarity.  In a chapter titled, “I Can Hardly Believe It’s Legal,” he writes: “If they stopped playing football in the next five minutes it wouldn’t bother me at all. . . . In a more civilized, more genteel society, no one would even think of sanctioning such an activity.”

Even so, he can’t resist watching the Super Bowl or the national championship college football game.

And he’s always put as much effort into football coverage as he does his basketball or baseball writings.

Here’s an excerpt on New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick:

“It is said he may have the largest private library of football books in the world. . . .  He may know more about Paul Brown than Brown’s son Mike does. . . . He can discuss the technique involved in every position on the field in minute detail.  Ask the right general football question and he is a one-man seminar.  He loves dispensing football knowledge.  He’s not as good about dispensing team knowledge.”

Ryan, 68 and semi-retired, is an unabashed fan.  He makes no attempt at detachment, which he considers no virtue for a sports writer.  The book jacket shows him sitting not in a press box but in the stands of Fenway Park.

He and I differ in viewpoint.  I’ve always believed a sports reporter should not be an ally of the team he or she covers.  In my opinion we should be impartial, like movie reviewers (which Ryan, a film buff, is qualified to be) or political reporters.

When a beat writer gets too close to the team, he tends to overrate the stars he’s covering.  Ryan saw lots more of Robert Parish than he did of Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Moses Malone, Willis Reed, Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon.

So he occasionally makes statements that seem unintentionally hyperbolic.  Was Parish really “one of the top ten centers” of all time?  Was Havlicek the “best all-around player in NBA history?”

That said, it’s hard to dispute his assessment of Bird:  “Michael Jordan is the greatest virtuoso who has ever played the game.  But he never did something I saw Larry Bird do on more than one occasion – dominate NBA games without taking a shot.”

This book has hundreds of opinions, and you probably won’t agree with all of them.  But even when he’s wrong, which he rarely is, Ryan makes you think.  And causes you to enjoy sports more than you would without him.

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