Scribe: My Life in Sports is appropriately named. In many ways it is my life in viewing sports, but it is Bob Ryan’s life in reporting on sports. It is an interesting read, and much of the time I can hear him speaking in my head as I read the book. It is as if you are sitting and talking with him over a good meal as he shares stories and opines to his heart’s delight.
He begins with some personal background of his childhood in New Jersey. His love of sports came from his father Bill Ryan who not only loved sports by worked in the business side of sports. Bill was strongly extroverted and seemingly knew everybody. He would introduce his son to many professional athletes, particularly players from the baseball Giants and Phillies. One morning young Bob woke up to discover that his father had died in the middle of the night from complications after surgery.
As a boy he devoured sports’ magazines. In addition to playing sports Bob began to write about sports. As a result of his work for the Lawrence, the head football coach called him “The Scribe”, and it stuck.
Bob would attend Boston College. This was a precipitous time to be there. Celtics legend Bob Cousy was the basketball coach. Since he started writing for the Heights (his friend took over the sports department in Bob’s sophomore year), he got to know Cousy personally; a tie that would result in writing an autobiography with him. Ryan also got the job broadcasting the Eagles’ home games. One night he had the honor of interviewing Red Auerbach at half time, which was the beginning of their professional and personal relationship.
This brings up one of the themes in this book. Bob was often in the right place, at the right time, and knew the right people. He is amazed at the opportunities he has had. He doesn’t think of this in the terms of providence, but I do. He probably couldn’t have accomplished most of what he did if he tried. He essentially stumbled into most of it. While some may perceive him as arrogant (probably because he is opinionated), he comes across here a humble due to how all this fell into his lap. In some ways he is the opposite of his father for whom nothing seemed to work out the way it should have.
You cannot love sports, attend college in Boston and not partake of the opportunities that present themselves. Back in the 60’s you could actually get affordable tickets to the Celtics and Red Sox games. He would be in the seats of Fenway for many of the milestone moments of the Impossible Dream season of 1967.
In June of 1968 he got a summer internship at the Boston Globe. Why? Because his roommate, who hired him for the Heights, turned it down. After his internship he spent four months in the Army Reserves. He was discharged, thankful for not having been sent to Vietnam, though did’t say why. But the Globe took him back as an office boy “with a verbal promise that I’d get the next opening on the staff.”
That was the job he held when the Red Sox fired manager Dick Williams at the end of the ’69 season. They dispatched the Kid to go get an interview. And so Bob Ryan sat in Williams’ kitchen getting an interview. At the right place, at the right time. His story would be on the front page of the evening edition.
That verbal promise became a reality when he was given the Celtics beat beginning with opening night for the 1969-70 season, just two years removed from college. And the rest, as they say, is history.
He has seen the NBA grow from an office with 8 people to one with nearly 600 in 2000-2001. When Bob started covering the Celtics he knew basketball, although his real love was baseball. He discovered he still had a LOT to learn about basketball. He spent lots of time talking with new Celtics coach and Hall of Fame player Tommy Heinsohn. In covering the Celtics he would be the guy Dave Cowens used to announce his retirement. Dave remains on of the most interesting people Bob ever had the privilege of covering. He would co-author a book with Larry Bird. He covered the Celtics during the majority of my lifetime. I have no idea how many of his articles I read, and we only got the Sunday Globe.
In 1977 Ryan asked off the Celtics beat. While he was away on vacation the legendary Peter Gammons left the Globe to write for SI. Bob was asked to cover the Red Sox. So for one season, Bob got to cover his favorite sport.
It was just one year because Gammons would return and the basketball job would call him back. He goes out of sequence to talk about the great John Havlicek. Havlicek was the first superstar the Ryan covered. He was the standard by which all others would be measured in terms of their personal conduct. He likes his book, Hondo: Celtic Man in Motion, but acknowledges it could have been better had he pushed a little harder. He felt more along for the ride than investigating the man.
In 1978 he returned to the Celtics beat to witness the Celtics once again ascend to greatness, and finally popularity. He includes the machinations that involved changing ownership and the drafting of Larry Joe Bird.
He covers his initially foray into TV with a show on the local ABC affiliate. He learned that working one that kind of show (more like personal interest stories with a sports twist) was not really his forte. He was really geared toward interacting with others- give and take- that focused on opinion. Those days would come in the form of the Sports Reporters and Around the Horn. He would become a fixture on those for ESPN.
Later, as a columnist, Ryan got to cover the Olympics. This become one of his favorite events to cover. His experiences are interesting and help provide some background on what it is like to attempt to cover something as massive as the Olympics. He talks about covering wrestler Aleksandr Karelin who was a legend. By the time the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney rolled around he had been unbeaten in 13 years, including previous Olympic matches. He was finally beaten by American Rulon Gardner. After his Olympic glory, Gardner was nearly killed when his snowmobile expedition was lost, and later when an airplane he was in crashed in a lake which meant an hour long swim in 45 degree water.
He devotes two chapters to Olympic basketball. He gives the history of the American professionals involvement and how it helped the rest of the world catch up to us. One of those chapters focuses on the Dream Team. The second chapter is about the rest of the world learning from playing the best and leveling the playing field.
He moves from their to NCAA basketball. He loves the game, and will go to great lengths to see one. But he struggles with the concept of the “student-athlete”, seeing it as largely farcical. This leads into a chapter on one of the dominant personalities of college basketball: Bobby Knight. He has had an up and down relationship with Knight, yet is fascinated by the man.
As you may note, the subject matter is shifting from events to opinions about events. This goes full boil when he writes of the NFL in “I Can Hardly Believe It’s Legal.” Didn’t you expect opinions from such a man as Bob Ryan.
In the following chapter he reverts to baseball with the Red Sox finally winning the World Series. It is an incredibly short chapter focused on the Yankees’ series.
He then moves on to hockey, sharing with us all he thinks about the forgotten sport. The focus would be on some of the great Boston players: Orr, Bourque & Neely. He wraps it up with a short synopsis of the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup run.
From there it was the 2008 Celtics. See, not in any chronological or logical order here. This is followed by a chapter about Chuck Daly of all people. Then he tackles the MJ vs. LeBron question.
Ryan then opines about golf and some of the more interesting moments he had in covering what I think is a very uninteresting game. This is followed, oddly enough, by a chapter on music.
The final real chapter is called No Complaints (the last is called Short Takes and is a series of just that). Here he notes that in some ways his life was the flip side of his father’s. In an interview his mother talked about his father. “He was always on the fringe of everything. He never received much credit and never made any money. I think being so close and so frustrated about what he knew he could do in sports and never receiving the chance might have led to his death.”
Ryan then says about himself: “My career is the flip side. I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on many occasions.” His blessing ended up being ours as well. For there are few people with such a way with words to tell us these very human stories of success and failure. Bob Ryan had a love affair with sports and shared it with us. This book is akin to his final words about this love affair as he sorta, kinda retires. But it brings back so many memories of the events we watched on our tvs or heard on our radios. This is a picture not only of his life, but lives like mine that were spent in that New England air seemingly living and dying with our teams.
Once again, thanks Bob!