Very few sportswriters can claim as illustrious a career as Bob Ryan. Beginning in the late 1960s by working the Boston Celtics beat, he eventually became the Boston Globe’s general sports columnist. He chronicled 20 NBA finals, 20 Final Fours, nine World Series, five Super Bowls and eleven Olympics before retiring in 2012. Along the way he won the AP National Sportswriter of the Year and the Dick Schaap Award for Outstanding Journalism. In his new book Scribe: My Life in Sports, Ryan documents his journey from lowly beat writer to one of the most revered sportswriters of all-time. He shared some of his favorite moments with Playboy.
PLAYBOY: In your book you have some amazing quotes and anecdotes from the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t imagine any athletes today being so forthcoming—are today’s pro athletes more boring?
RYAN: I can’t say that. We don’t have access. The opportunity to build relationships and access moments away from the action don’t exist anymore. There was notably only one NBA team during the 1970s that had a closed practice and that was the Knicks under [Red] Holzman because he had to “control his millionaires.” Every single Celtics practice was open in the 70s and 80s. Now that’s no longer the case for anybody. The players take their own plane and the reporters take their way and they stay at different hotels and the access just isn’t there. When I started, no one thought anything about someone coming into the locker room an hour before practice to just shoot the breeze or go to lunch or when you cover a team going out every night on the road and close up whatever establishment they chose to go to that night and they all did and become someone they could be comfortable with.
PLAYBOY: I take it Bill Belichick isn’t out all night with media members. He seems like the most elusive Boston sports icon ever. You devote one of your chapters to the Patriots and discuss their rise the past decade. What’s your read on the Pats coach?
RYAN: Highly compartmentalized, as so many of us are, but in his case he’s able to focus on the football and block out the noise of the world, the media and the fans. People see him at his worst on Sundays after the game. He’s curt, he’s dismissive, he’s succinct and he’s not forthcoming. It’s a chore. It’s an embarrassment. He shouldn’t bother to do it, quite frankly. Monday he’s better. He’s civil. As the week goes on, it gets pretty good. By Friday he can be a downright raconteur if you push the right button. And the right button is anything that has to do with football theory or history. He may have the largest personal collection of football books in the world. Supposedly any football book he encounters, he buys and adds it to his collection. I’d be willing to bet he knows more about Paul Brown than Mike Brown does, at least as far as football is concerned. He’s a football historian. He loves this thing. He says nothing uninteresting about football. He knows every technique for every position. I found no problem with him as a columnist topic.
PLAYBOY: Early in your career you had run-ins with another Boston coaching legend, the Celtics’ Tommy Heinsohn. It was 1969, you were 23 and you developed better relationships at the time with the team’s players instead of Heinsohn. What led to that developing? Were you more comfortable with players since you were closer to them in age?
RYAN: The issue wasn’t age. The issue was Heinsohn who befriended me in the beginning and took a lot of time teaching me the ins and outs of the NBA. I came from a college background and wasn’t a huge NBA fan when I began. My theory has always been that he believed he owed me and I owed him. When my writings on certain topics reflected the viewpoints of certain players, which was a little different than he thought, he took an issue and couldn’t deal with it. On at least two occasions in meetings he told the players not to talk to me and said I was not to be trusted and I was not their friend. And each time the minutes of the meeting were delivered to me within a half hour by one of the players because they knew it was ridiculous.
Tommy and I have been fine for the past 35 years. He is one of only a handful people who calls me Bobby. We went through that period and now it’s over. But it was a stressful time and is one of the reasons, not the only reason, I asked off the beat in 1976.
PLAYBOY: You returned the beat from 1978 through 1982—how was your second time around different than the first?
RYAN: I promised I would not get as emotionally involved as I did the first time around. That’s where the youth and the immaturity as a writer come in. I almost cared too much. It wore me out and I was emotionally drained after the 1975-76 season. I came back with an attitude that I wouldn’t get that close to them. And it wasn’t that hard because it was different times. I hit it off right away with Bird, the main guy. The first time I interviewed him was at his agent’s house in the summer of 1979 for an article in, of all things, US Magazine, the one and only time I appeared in US Magazine.
Larry loosened up over the years. Who couldn’t love Kevin McHale? Cedric Maxwell was charming and bright. M.L. Carr was irrepressibly charming and bubbly every day of his life. And so on. But I had a very good relationship with Bird and a good working relationship with everyone else. There was no animosity. But I was different. I wouldn’t say detached, but I kept them an arm’s length away. Much more than I did the first time around.
PLAYBOY: Covering the Celtics for so long—especially during the 1960s and 1970s—you’ve seen the interplay between the public and the team in a racially charged city like Boston. You mention race briefly in the book, but I’m wondering if you could expand on how race relations in Boston affect the Celtics?
RYAN: During the 1960s, the most important player on the team was not an accessible public figure in Bill Russell and he told Boston very much how he felt about it. And he had every reason to be hostile due to the personal circumstances he went through: Struggling to find a house, having excrement smeared on his walls, and all kinds of slights we’ll never know about. He didn’t do anything to woo anybody. It was beep you, you’re not going to get to me and I’ve got my dignity. And that’s Bill Russell and that’s why you admire him.
We get to 1970 and here comes Cowens. He was a highly talented, different, exuberant, aggressive, lovable player but the fact that he was white, I have to assume, attracted fans and perked up some interest in the team. Yes you already had a white star in Havlicek, but John was not a player of any charisma. Then comes Dave and they won 68 games his third year and won the whole thing his fourth year and again in his sixth year. The fact that he was white I’m sure helped the attendance, but we’ll never know for sure. How are you going to measure these things? What percentage of the increase in fans was directly attributable to the fact that he was white as opposed to the fact that he was good and the team was good as a result of his presence?
Now we get to the Larry Bird era and the same thing’s true because not only is your best player white, your second best player is white, Kevin McHale. I once wrote the biggest cheers in the Garden are when Kevin McHale blocks Dr. J’s shot. That was a feeling of one-upsmanship that appealed, unfortunately, to people who view race as a priority and in addition to the people who just love basketball. And again, we’ll never know what percentage of the Celtics popularity in the 80s was because their two best players were white, as well as Danny Ainge and Scott Wedman, and they had the monopoly on true white greatness and it just happened to be in Boston.
PLAYBOY: But as great as the Celtics have been, their popularity still ebbs and flows in Boston, usually paling in comparison to the Red Sox.
RYAN: If you’re going to go by sheer numbers there are more people who prize one Red Sox World Series championship over any number of Celtics championships. The Celtic fervor comes and goes. In the Bird era, it was at its peak. Today, they are a distant fourth. There’s no doubt about it. We just ran a survey in Boston of “Who’s your favorite sports team?” It ranged from 42% Patriots, number one currently, to 6% Celtics.
The most surprising dynamic in my 46 years covering Boston is the rise of the Patriots. To go from a distant fourth in 1993 when Parcells was hired to where they are now, which is number one. I can’t even say the Red Sox are 1A right now, even though they’re only one year removed from a championship. I’d have to say it’s 1 and 2.
PLAYBOY: Even though you watched that 2004 Sox team break The Curse, that’s not the most memorable thing you’ve witnessed covering Boston sports. What was?
RYAN: Michael Jordan was never better than Larry Bird was during Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals. Jordan, the great virtuoso, never dominated a game even defensively as much as Bird did that day. He even got a jump ball away from Hakeem Olajuwon. How can he do it? I don’t know, but he did it. Then when I co-wrote Larry’s autobiography, he identified that game as the one he was most prepared for of any he ever played. It vindicated my own feeling about how special that performance was. There was a triple-double but the numbers weren’t all that gaudy. 29-11-12. But it was dominance. If I could go back and watch him play one more time, and I’d rather watch him play than any other player all-time, that’s the game I’d go back to see.
PLAYBOY: You’ve had a good relationship with Bird, but he’s not your best interview, is he?
RYAN: The most memorable interview I ever conducted, and I didn’t even refer to it in the book, was a three-hour interview with Bill Veeck in the garden of his apartment complex in 1985. It was a thrill as a baseball fan and an admirer of Veeck. I met him in his capacity as the White Sox owner but didn’t know him. He was famously listed in the phone book so I looked him up and called him. He gave me three hours and it was fantastic.
Other than that, I had an interview when I wrote my minor league baseball book 40 years ago, Wait Till I Make the Show, for about two hours on a rainy afternoon in Trois-Rivières, Quebec with the manager of the Reading Phillies, who ranted about what’s wrong with the modern player. And straight out of central casting, his name was Jim Bunning. Before he became a congressman or senator, he was just the old school manager of the Reading Phillies.
PLAYBOY: So much of what people know about you is in relation to sports, some people may be surprised to see you devote a chapter in your book to your passion for music.
RYAN: If they decided to leave that chapter out, I would’ve understood. But I’m so glad they left it in. I have this theory that the spectrum of options for your leisure hours are not very broad. There’s television, there’s movies, there’s music, there’s art, there’s theater. Anything other than that is a hobby. You should have all of them in your life. And the thing about sports, and I can say that as someone who loves music and went to 116 movies in one year, but there’s something different about sports that gives you a buzz, it pushes a different button in you than all of those others. There’s nothing that matches two outs, bases loaded in the ninth, here comes the pitch. There’s nothing that matches fourth and goal. Nothing that matches clock winding down, Jordan’s got the ball. There’s nothing that matches hockey overtime, the greatest tension in sports. It’s not replicable in any other form of entertainment. And if you don’t have that in your life, you’re missing something.
Scribe: My Life in Sports by Bob Ryan is available now in bookstores and online.