Bob Ryan’s autobiography ‘Scribe‘ was released last week. He’s spent over 40 years at the Boston Globe and appears regularly on ESPN’s Sports Reporters and Around the Horn. What follows is an abridged transcript of a conversation from this past weekend.
RG: You were a decently big Red Sox fan while you were at Boston College. About two years later, just starting off at the Boston Globe, you ended up getting assigned to go to (then) manager Dick Williams’ apartment to get his reaction to his firing. How did you learn to balance your fandom — and pretty apparent enthusiasm for the games and teams you covered — with your reporting responsibilities?
BR: I found it very easy. I don’t see why anybody would ever have a problem with it. If you’re not a sports fan, why are you in the business? To me, I don’t quite understand people who aren’t true sports fans who are involved in this business.
It’s not that hard. You internally root. You don’t sit there and externally root — you internally care. And you do your job. It’s just not that hard. You see a game, the team wins or loses, you go talk to people, and if somebody stinks you say so. If it’s a good story, you’re positive. I just don’t understand what the inherent conflict is.
RG: Can you go over the chronology between interning at the Globe and later getting haphazardly thrown onto the Celtics beat right before the regular season began?
BR: I summer interned in 1968, and I started in June. I was able to stay on until the end of October because I’d signed up with the US Army Reserve before I’d graduated college, and that was time to do the active duty. So now I’m gone November through January, I come back to the Globe at the end of February, and I’m now given a verbal promise that the next opening on the staff will be mine.
I was basically a copy boy from March until that day in October when the sports editor came up to me and said, “You’re on the staff. And oh-by-the-way you’re covering the Celtics on Friday night.” So that span of time was from June of ’68 to October of ’69.
RG: Covering the Knicks-Lakers Finals and the Willis Reed game at the end of that season, is that when you felt you were on solid footing and would have a sustained career as a sportswriter?
BR: I think before that. I think when I got control of the Celtics beat after about a month or so. Peter Gammons and myself split the first six or so home games, but then I kinda got control of it. I would say by the All-Star Game, I was beginning to feel more and more comfortable. The milestone for the playoffs was getting recognition from the Knicks just to get in the damn building. I sat up in the upstairs press box. The real goal in New York was to get downstairs. That took a year or two, until they recognized you as someone of trusted stature. The first playoff game I covered was Game 5 when Reed got hurt. And then I was there for the historic Game 7.
RG: What was the crowd like that night?
BR: It was a frenzy, naturally, because the Knicks were on the verge of winning their very first championship. As I write in the book, when the team took the floor, it was 10 guys. And then there was a large black man emerging from the runway, and everyone got excited. It turned out to be Cazzie Russell. And then finally a second, even larger black man emerged, and it was Willis Reed. And we all know how the game started — he hit jump-shots the first two times down the court. Never scored again. It didn’t matter because it was Walt Frazier’s night. He’s the one that had 36 points and 19 assists.
RG: Pertaining to crowds, Bill Simmons has often written that the 1980s Boston Garden crowds would be so into it that they’d give a standing ovation all the way through a timeout. Which venues and eras throughout your career had the most electric atmospheres, and are there any nights that stick out in your mind as being the craziest you’ve ever seen?
BR: Yeah, those Knicks crowds were very special. The Boston Garden was great and it was obviously much better in the Bird era. The Chicago Stadium always had a tremendous sound. I loved Chicago Stadium. A crowd that I loved — and people don’t really mention it anywhere — was the Richfield Coliseum in 1976 when the Cavaliers beat the Bullets on a jump-shot by Dick Snyder in Game 7. I covered that whole series, and it was really, really great. That place was noisy.
Everyone had noisy places. Portland was memorable. It’s hard to rank. How do you know? I love it — I laugh — when people throw around “the most” and “the greatest” with things like that. There’s no way of knowing. They can measure decibels all they want, but there’s the nature of the sound that each building has. The Garden sound was not the same as the Chicago Stadium sound, and it’s impossible to really compare. It’s really foolish to try to distinguish the greatest.
RG: I think that one of the reasons basketball crowds in particular are less loud now is that the TV viewing vantage is so good that it really doesn’t make sense for me, for example, to go to any basketball game — whether it’s NCAA or NBA — unless I’m lower level between the baskets. Then you get an incomparable view. The upper deck, though, is a way worse view than TV. When you factor in cost, it makes it a no-brainer.
BR: Are you talking about as a fan, or as a writer?
RG: Both as a fan, and as a writer.
BR: Well, I would disagree with you from the fans’ perspectives. I’d say you’re correct about it as a writer. It got to be as time went on — after we were removed from the floor and placed in these upper regions — that I wondered why even bother? You’re absolutely right about that.
But I would reject the notion that any fan is better off at home. If you care about the team, you want to soak up that atmosphere in a major situation. I’m not talking about January 8th. I’m talking about a playoff or Final Four game. The Final Four is ridiculous but that’s a whole other matter. They’re playing in these football stadiums.
You’re definitely right about as a writer, though. From a writer’s perspective being taken off the floor is a SEVERE handicap, and it does affect your ability to portray the game to your reader the way it should be. As a fan it depends how devoted you really are. If you’re really devoted you want to be there. Period.
RG: I can see what you’re saying with that. But, in football and hockey, if you’re up high there’s benefits of seeing the play develop. But in basketball you just really need to be in the lower level to process what’s happening.
BR: Once again, you’re telling me that you’re a fan and your team is in the playoffs in a deciding game. You’d rather stay home than be there? You’re not a fan. I’m sorry. You’re a fraud. So I reject what you’re saying about that nature.
As a writer, I totally agree. You wind up going to the press room. I understand that. But not as a fan. We’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on this matter, because I’m not giving in on this. As a writer, absolutely, you’re 100% correct. If you’re a fan, it’s not as pleasurable as you’d like it to be, but you want to BE THERE and feel it.
RG: It might be the case that I don’t have an NBA franchise that I really root for, and I just watch the league as a whole, so I’m probably thinking about it more as a writer.
BR: I’m speaking as a fan who happened to write. And I happened to have season tickets for 22 years — from 1978-2000. I still have Red Sox tickets. So I always relate to the fan experience. As far as writing, it’s very annoying what they’ve done to us. They treat the writers like cow dung. They care not one lick about the print press. They are so close to charging us to get in that it’s frightening. That’s a whole other matter.
RG: Wait, at this point in your career, you go and get credentialed and they send you into crappy seats?!
BR: I’m no better off than any other writer. At the Boston Garden they put me with the regular press, which is a terrible seat in the corner. That’s the regular press. The beat men for the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and any of the other New England papers or visiting writers are stuck in the corner. Even home radio is stuck there because they don’t care about either entity anymore.
They care about one thing: Filling the courtside seats with people who have enough disposable income to overspend for them. And they care about television. That’s it. Everything else is a bother.
BR: I don’t get special treatment, and I don’t deserve any. If the regular, day-to-day people can’t get a good seat, why should I? I’m retired. When I go it’s because I feel like it. I want to see a team, or a guy, or I want a night out. I don’t know — maybe I’ll gather something for a column down the road. That’s conceivable.
But no, this is the reality of NBA life now for a newspaper man or anyone who’s not a television person. That’s the reality, and it’s hardly exclusive to Boston. Maybe our seats are better than in some other cities. But there are very, very, very few good seats left for writers. That’s just the reality of the NBA. It’s not fun to go to the game anymore, between the stupid noise and all the ridiculous ♫bum bum bum bum♫ and all that crap. It’s not fun anymore, and I’m so grateful that I did it when I did it.
RG: Which sportswriters and publications do you read now?
BR: My daily diet: I get the Boston Globe and New York Times at home. And then I go and I purchase the USA Today, New York Post, New York Daily News daily at my local newsstand. I read all the New York people, of course. Online I read a lot at ESPN.com daily. I don’t read Yahoo, CBS Sports, and other stuff as often as I should. You can only do so much.
I have people that I love. I always want to see what Jayson Stark’s saying about baseball. Gordon Edes at ESPNBoston.com. I’ve been a friend of Mike Lupica for 45 years so I read him. I think Mike Vaccaro at the New York Post is doing as good a job as any columnist in America right now. I don’t think anybody has figured it out better than he has, so I always make sure I read him.
RG: So there aren’t any blogs that you visit often?
BR: Blogs? No. There’s just a limit, ultimately. Sometimes there’s things going on [at the blogs that I see]. I have a lot of good friends who write online that I try to read — like Dick Weiss on college basketball — who are experts in their field and I seek those out as often as I can, but not every day.
I’m starting to broaden out. I’m following more people on Twitter, and I’m enjoying it. I haven’t really concentrated on that until very, very recently. But there’s only so much you can immerse yourself in or do in a day before you want to do something else. There’s eternal possibilities now, and you just can’t do everything.
RG: Yeah, I was gonna ask whether you find people’s work through Twitter or not…
BR: I am more and more. If you asked me this question a week ago, I would’ve said no. Nothing. Nada. But now, suddenly I’m into it a little bit, and I find myself thinking Oh great. One more thing that’s time consuming! As if it’s not enough that I’m trying to get through six papers a day plus the Wall Street Journal on Friday and Saturday because of their wonderful entertainment section. They’re indispensable. But — that’s hours of stuff! And next thing you know it’s lunchtime.
RG: So when you watch games on TV, you’re not also following along online? Are you texting during games?
BR: No, I think that’s a laughable modern phenomenon, and I’m so glad that I’m not involved. I just can’t believe that this is what people do. I can’t even grasp it. My head can’t even wrap around this whole idea of what people are doing watching these games instead of just watching them.
I mean, I understand the idea — I’d rather watch the game with someone and bounce stuff off of them. YEAH, that’s different. But the excessive tweeting? My friend Bill Plaschke, for example. I looked, and there were like 25 tweets from the last Dodgers game. Every pitching change. For what? Who is he addressing? What is this? I don’t get this. [To answer your question], No, I do not. No no no no no no no. Have I made myself clear?
RG: Yes, you’ve made yourself clear.
BR: But, it truly was such a great time. When I say I’m happy I did it when I did it — if I could turn the clock back to the 80’s or even beginning of the 70’s, I’d change nothing professionally. Do it all over again and change absolutely nothing? I’d do it. I mean that. I truly would.
RG: If you were coming out of college today, is there any way for you to envision what you’d end up wanting to do? Do you try to become a beat writer, or a blogger?
BR: No, I can’t. It’s so different now. I wouldn’t want to be a beat writer. With how much knowledge would I enter this? How much advice did I get from the right people? I wouldn’t know. If you talk to people like me, you’d never want to be a beat writer. I would discourage you. You might find someone else would say the opposite. I don’t think that’s an enjoyable way to make a living any longer. The lack of access is totally frustrating, and the conditions that I just described about how you’re treated like a total afterthought, who needs that?
And newspapers are dying anyway. No, I would never recommend anybody do that, and I wouldn’t want to cover a beat on any major pro or college sport now. Your demands, your requirements to tweet and blog are over and above what should be your primary concerns. The whole nature of the dialogue now is so confrontational and negative. The blame game is played every day.
I’ll give you a perfect example. After the Cardinals eliminated the Dodgers, what do you think was more of the dialogue in America — what went wrong with the Dodgers or congratulations to the Cardinals?
RG: It was definitely more what went wrong with the Dodgers, because it was sort of a baffling decision for Mattingly to sit Puig.
BR: There were three things. Everybody wanted to find blame. Was it Ned Coletti for not giving Mattingly a bullpen, was it Mattingly for not handling the situation correctly, or was it Kershaw for not living up to his Cy Young self? Well what about Matt Adams? But that’s the way we are, and this has been heading in this direction for 30 years. Talk radio is the driving force of the thought process in America for so many people, and talk radio does not thrive on positive stories. Everyone in talk radio knows that, and there’s a whole generation of big sports fans now who are trained to think automatically about what just went wrong rather than what just went right. I don’t want to participate in that atmosphere any longer and I don’t.
RG: But if you were coming up now, and you loved sports and you wanted to cover them, what would you do?
BR: I don’t know what I’d do. Knowing what I know … long before I retired I said that I would not go back into this business if I were doing it today. What I would probably do — as much as I love to write, and I did and I do — I’d want to get into sports on the other side. I’d want to work for a team or a league and work my way through that rather than being involved in the coverage knowing what I know about what that’s like now.
I mean that. I said that 15 years ago. I’m not just saying that now. It’s just too different. It’s not FUN. It was fun! There are people who can’t believe some of the stuff I put in the book. (Then-Celtics coach) Tommy Heinsohn called me from the road every night so I could write my PM story. People don’t believe this but he did. It happened. Today things like that couldn’t happen. The access that we had, the seats that we had. Oh my God. Everything we did. Everything was better.
One of the things I hope comes through loud and clear in the book is that I’m not whining about this. I’m thankful that I had the life I led. I’m grateful for everybody that set it up and all the breaks I got. Everything that contributed to me being in the position to do the things that I did. You don’t do anything by yourself. You need help and you need circumstances. In a large sense I was in the right place at the right time from 1969 until 1988.
As a columnist it’s different because you can write about circumstances without having to worry about quotes. You can slant things to make a point. You can live with the diminished access and everything else as a columnist. But as a beat person, which I thought I was pretty good at and I loved it when I did it, you can’t function like that anymore. I’m just grateful I was able to do it when I did it. I want that to come across loud and clear and I feel sorry for the people who won’t have the same experience that we had. We had it good and we knew it, but we never dreamed it would deteriorate the way it has.
RG: Yeah, but there’s some advantages too. I have every single newspaper in the country at my fingertips the second something gets published. I have two HD TV’s in my living room with every game from every league on live. Changing the subject … This may sound like a silly question, but I’m genuinely curious: Say you were writing up a story for an away game on a typewriter. How did you file it to the Globe? What was the technological process?
BR: In the beginning, it was all about Western Union. In every arena in America, there was an apparatus for a Western Union guy. You typed it up, and you handed it directly to one of him directly, or some runner.
Then he typed it up on this machine, like a typewriter — it’s called the Telex — and it would get to the office on another Telex. They ripped it off, sent it to the copy desk, and assigned someone to read the story and write the headline. The headline was written on a separate piece of paper and GLUED on top of the copy. The copy was rolled up, stuck into a pneumatic tube, sent downstairs to the composing room, typed into the Linotype machine, and then eventually printed.
Then came the advent of the copier machine on-site in the Western Union. Now you used 3M or some other brand, and put the copy in. It revolved around and around like a surgical drum, and it printed out a page every six minutes. And they got that at the other end, and went through the same process that I just described with the copy desk.
Eventually, as we get to the 80’s, the first machines came in that were kind of computer-like. Some of them were cumbersome and awful and heavy. Some of them had ability to print copy for you, others didn’t. There was all different kinds of stuff. You carried your own around on the road. They could be as large as suitcases. You had to check them and get them off the carousel. You took care of them yourself. Or, there were two companies that had services that would handle all that for you on the road, and they were very popular.
Eventually, we arrived where we are today with computers. It’s been this astonishing revelation where you used to have four middlemen before, and now you just hit one button and it goes directly to the office. Then they can hit another button and send it on its merry way.
RG: Do you think that Boston gets a bad rap as a racist city?
BR: I think Boston deserved its rap in the 50’s, 60’s, and even into the 70’s. I definitely think that there were problems with black athletes. We all know the well-documented stuff about Bill Russell trying to buy a house and having things smeared on his wall. We all know that that there were unhappy Boston athletes such as Reggie Smith that had every reason to be upset.
I know it’s evolved into something that is much better. There’s been no problem for any athlete going back to Mo Vaughn, and even earlier. They’ll all tell you, “Boston — what’s the problem? There is no problem. No more than any other city.” But yes, it was a racist city and it’s always been affected by the fact that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate in MLB. Tom Yawkey did hire racist people and they had a strong element of racism in the Red Sox organization for way too long. No question about that.
RG: Do you think the Tommy Heinsohn-coached Celtics teams with Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, and John Havlicek are a little bit underrated in Boston and NBA lore because they were sandwiched between the Russell and Bird years?
BR: I think that’s an excellent point. Yes, to a degree. What they did though, was they ran better than any of the other Celtics teams. They elevated it to the highest degree. Even more than the Cousy years I think, and certainly more than the Bird years. Their running game was better. Heinsohn coached it from Day 1 of practice. Every year, every day they had a fast break mentality and execution level such as I’ve never seen.
That includes forward Don Nelson or the center Dave Cowens coming down and getting the trailer basket off the break. You don’t see anything like that today. It’s gone. It’s a total, utter lost art. And the outlet pass itself. Who throws an outlet pass? I think Joakim Noah throws a good one…
RG: And Kevin Love.
BR: Kevin Love! Thank God. That’s one reason why I was SO excited about seeing him go to Cleveland and playing with LeBron. LeBron will pick up on this. He’ll utilize that aspect of Love. Whenever LeBron gets that first outlet pass at mid-court or even past that, it will be positively orgasmic. Look out for that now. Love’s a throwback. He could play with those other guys. Absolutely.
RG: What do you think happens in a hypothetical Cavs-Spurs Finals? Let’s say it takes Cleveland a little bit to really gel…
BR: Which they will, but I don’t know yet. You know why? Because we have to see how they come together defensively. Love is gonna have to do stuff and fit in in a way that he never has done before. I think he can and will, but we’ll see.
RG: Agreed; Love and Irving aren’t exactly exceptional defensive players.
BR: Nope. They have to construct a defense. And now we have a great X-Factor, which is a coach that we don’t really know. Dave Blatt is a wonderful story. I love the idea of him and I’m rooting for him. He’s from Framingham, Ma. and went to Princeton. I have every reason to root for him. But I want to see it. I want to see what he’s able to do.
I don’t know their assistant coaches off the top of my head, but if they don’t construct a significant defense then they won’t be the team they can be. We know how the Spurs play; we just hope they stay healthy. They were healthy last year. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have seen what we saw. But they were. The odds are they won’t be healthy the way they were last year.
RG: Switching gears a bit, Derrick Rose tears his ACL now and people get upset when he’s not back in 6-8 months. That used to be, way more often than now, a career-threatening injury. Which players that you covered do you think would have had their legacies benefit the most from the marvels of modern medicine?
BR: Interesting. Anybody who plays now is so much better off than people were even 15 years ago, and certainly 30-40 years ago back when knees would be scoped immediately and life would go on. I can’t answer that.
With the Rose situation, I’m hoping he comes back all the way. I’m glad that he withheld himself until he was completely ready to be the player that he was. He’s a very special player. VERY special. I’ve seen every great player of the last 50 years, and there was something different about him. He had explosion at the end of his drives that was unlike anyone else’s. He could also move in the air from left-to-right and vice versa unlike anybody I ever saw. I think he knew that, and that he didn’t want to come back until he could do it again. But I hope that he can get back to that point.
RG: When you first started out in your career, boxing, baseball, and horse-racing were, in some order, the three most popular sports. Now it’s pretty clear that NFL is number 1, but I think I agree with Mark Cuban that there’s an institutional greed and arrogance there that could doom them in the long run. Do you agree with that, and are there any similarities that you see with the NFL now to how other sports have fallen off during your career?
BR: Cuban’s premise is very broad-based, and I don’t know anybody that agrees with him. It’s wishful thinking for him, frankly. I understand why he would want to preach that the NFL would recede and that other sports such as basketball would grow. My personal premise on football is that it wouldn’t bother me at all if they stopped playing in the next five minutes. I can live without football. The sports smorgasbord has any number of other activities that could satisfy us over a 12-month period. We don’t need football.
Now, that opinion’s obviously out of step with mainstream America. Football’s by far the number one sport. It’s in an interesting period now because slowly, inevitably, finally people are recognizing that it’s a brutal, barbaric sport that maims people. We have made an accommodation with this. We’ve figured that the participants know what they’re in for, and you have to take that attitude to be a football fan.
Because, if you stop to think about it intellectually, it’s a game in which not only are people very often doomed to be suffering problems later in life with their back, shoulders, elbows, knees, and ankles, but now we know that there’s serious cognitive issues as well. One out of three players can be facing this later on.
America doesn’t yet come to the conclusion that it’s not a good idea to have the sport at all, but I do say this: There is a growing backlash against football. If the mothers of America collectively decided to shut down football’s supply line tomorrow, they could do so, and in 10 years there’d be no football players. We’re not even close to that happening, but they have it within their power.
RG: I’m talking about the institutional greed, where the owners and Roger Goodell seem to value short-term money over anything else. I know that’s not necessarily different than other industries…
BR: I’m not sure what you mean by short-term money, but I don’t think there’s any great essentially different thought process between the football and basketball owners. These deals the basketball owners signed with ESPN and Turner are going to be of very great interest when the players can opt out of their CBA in 2016/2017.
All sports owners. Baseball too. There’s a combination of people involved. There are sincerely, idealistically, romantically pure people who want to be involved in their sports — and oh-by-the-way happen to be multi-millionaires or billionaires — and there are others who kind of like sports, but see a way to make money. Or they like the notoriety they wouldn’t get from their private businesses.
The owners in pro sports are all different people with one common denominator: They’re all filthy rich. Some are nicer about it than others. Yeah, there’s some avarice — or whatever word you want to use there — with the NFL owners, but that’s true of the other sports as well.
RG: What factors do you think contributed to horse racing and boxing falling off?
BR: With horse racing, it comes down to one thing — the rise of alternate methods of legal betting. As much as there were always people who loved the sport for the beauty and aesthetics of the competition, what kept horse racing going was betting. There was a time in America where the only place you could otherwise make a legal bet was Las Vegas.
Those days are gone, and with them went horse racing. There weren’t enough purists, and as time went on they didn’t generate fans amongst the younger people. But it really comes down to the fact that the sport flourished when it was the only way to gamble legally other than to travel to Las Vegas. It’s a shame because it is a beautiful sport, though there are a lot of moral issues people have with horses. We know that. Some trainers are very sketchy, some are very honorable. Like any other sport.
RG: And boxing?
BR: I think a lot of people have philosophically come around that it’s a dangerous and unnecessary sport. These things are cyclical, but boxing is still hanging around in various ethnic groups. It’s seen as a means of upward mobility out of poverty. It’s available to anybody who wants to try it. American tastes suddenly change, you know? I think what really hurts boxing now is that the heavyweight division is bereft of Americans. The heavyweight champ was always the lead dog, and we don’t have any of them now.
RG: You got your start on television at ESPN on the Sports Reporters with Dick Schaap. As a Packers fan, I adored Instant Replay, and I also really liked his Steinbrenner biography. Obviously his writing is great, but people speak about all facets of his life with such reverence. What made him such a magnanimous figure?
BR: He was a magnanimous human being. He was thoroughly generous with his time, advice, and friendship. He was really that kind of a man. It’s really very simple — he is a unique figure in the history of American sports journalism. Thoroughly unique. Because: Of all the great broadcasters, he was the best writer. And of all the great writers, he was by far the best broadcaster. No one combined both aspects better than he did. No one’s approached it since.
He wrote 35 books — a majority were not about sports. He was a brilliant and curious man. One of his big distinctions was that he loved to talk about being the only person who simultaneously voted for both the Heisman and the Tony. He was in fact a full-time drama critic in New York at the same time he was a sportscaster and a sportswriter and an author.
As a person, he was irreplaceable. However, John Saunders has seamlessly fit into his role on the Sports Reporters program — and we’re so lucky and grateful to have him — but we all know that something very special was lost when Dick died.