When Bob Ryan would begin writing a Celtics game story — a “gamer,” as it’s known in the trade — he’d look for a lede. An insight, a gag, a short scene. Something he could extract from his brain before deadline that would give the reader a proverbial starting point.
So let’s get to it.
A fellow Boston Globe writer named John Powers once noticed that Ryan didn’t include many quotes in his game stories. Quotes were the chief information-dispensing device of other NBA writers.
Bob, Powers asked, why aren’t Globe readers hearing from the athletes?
Ryan replied, “I’ll tell ’em what they ought to know!”
Ryan was the king of the categorical statement, noted Grantland’s Charles P. Pierce, who wrote for three Boston papers. In game stories, categorical statements are minor embellishments that help readers see the uniqueness of the thing before them — e.g., “No coach ever had a greater asset than John Havlicek.”
So let’s get to it.
No newspaper ever had an NBA beat writer like Bob Ryan. No one talked in the same blustery, Joycean word bombs. “He talks like 78 RPM records,” said ex-Globie Peter Gammons. No one’s game stories glowed with more opinion, more enthusiasm, more — call it what it is — fandom. No one was quite as likely, after Paul Silas would grab a rebound and throw it to Havlicek to start the break, to turn to a fellow Globie and give them a hug.
“He’s the best game-story writer in journalism history,” said former Globe writer Jackie MacMullan. See that categorical statement? MacMullan learned from Ryan.
In the age of NBA League Pass, the game story has become a sad anachronism — a recap of an event we already saw, quoting players disinclined to relive it. Ryan made it such a swaggering pulpit that during three tours on the Celtics beat (all between 1969 and 1988), there existed dueling Ryan impressions. In the first, the Globe’s Clif Keane would pull his pants up high and flap his arms. In the second, the Celtics’ Dennis Johnson would jam his hands in his back pockets and bob his head up and down like a duck. That was Ryan stalking press row at Boston Garden, as if he were the sentry guarding the place. Which he pretty much was.
Ryan’s writing was muscular and acerbic and very nearly inspiring. “Should [Ralph Sampson] reject the Celtics’ offer in favor of coming out next year,” he wrote in 1980, “I would then question whether we would even want such an unthinking kid to begin with.”
Lesson: Don’t let anyone tell you the Internet invented the royal “we.” Or the just-this-side-of-tasteful overstatement. “Last year I felt that if the Philadelphia 76ers had succeeded in defeating the Portland Trail Blazers for the NBA championship,” Ryan wrote in 1978, “it would be as if Hitler actually managed to invade England.”
What’s that, Chief? My game story’s due in 20 minutes? OK, OK, moving along …
An NBA gamer is no place for big chunks of biography. A gamer can accommodate hints of a player’s personal history.
Hints, then. As Ryan writes in his new memoir, Scribe, he grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, rooting against the Celtics. Meaning, his advocacy for the Celtics brand was acquired in a professional capacity.
Ryan, like Gammons, went to an elite prep school. Gammons’s father was a teacher at Groton. Ryan’s mother was a secretary at Lawrenceville.
Ryan’s dad died when he was 11, forcing him to assume the role of the household’s trivia-spouting senior sports fan. Not by choice, he instantly became the guy we now know as Bob Ryan.
Hints. Moving along …
Bob Ryan and Peter Gammons started at the Globe on the same day: June 10, 1968. It wasn’t immediately clear they could write. It was immediately clear they could talk. “Ryan and Gammons were the original PTI,” said Lesley Visser, who joined the paper in 1974. They could argue about anything. Their voices were passionate and nerdy and would sound throughout the Globe’s sports desk.
One day, Tom Fitzgerald, a crusty hockey writer, looked up from his copy and said, “Is my typing bothering you two?”
“No, no, don’t worry about it!” Ryan said.
We imagine Ryan and Gammons as a matched set, but there were differences. Gammons likes Springsteen; Ryan favors old standards. Gammons’s eye wandered from the Red Sox to the whole league; Ryan was a Celtics man first and foremost. “Peter was a repository of information, where Bob was maybe a repository of opinion,” said Leigh Montville, a Globe columnist.
Both exercised their ambition by filing more and more and more copy. Soon, the Globe was surrendering whole pages of the paper for their Sunday notes columns. “If it were up to them,” said Dave Smith, the Globe sports editor in the ’70s, “we’d turn the section over to them and let the other guys go home.”
The Globe could have filled its beat slots by poaching the best writers from the Herald Traveler or Record-American. But Tom Winship, the Globe’s editor, took a chance on two former summer interns. They talked so passionately. And they just seemed ready, even though neither had any experience outside his college newspaper.
Ryan and Gammons’s first morning was a busy one. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated the week before. The rookie reporters were assigned to gauge the reaction to Major League Baseball’s decision to play on Lyndon Johnson’s day of mourning. Around 3 p.m., they were able to hold the afternoon edition of the Globe in their hands and look at their byline, “Peter Gammons and Robert Ryan,” names so placed for alphabetical order.
They celebrated at the Eire Pub, a “gentlemen’s prestige bar,” scarfing down 15-cent beers and hot dogs. Ryan turned to Gammons with a big smile and said, “This business ain’t so bad after all!”
The first thing Ryan noticed on the Celtics beat was the loneliness. He was 23 years old. He would go to practice and find he was the only reporter there. The Record-American’s Celtics writer was a football prognosticator and desk man — he had no time.
The Celtics had won 10 out of the last 11 NBA titles. But the Globe, too, had limited use for them. Ryan’s predecessor on the beat read a book during timeouts to stave off boredom. The paper saw little value in covering road games. So Ryan spent many nights of the 1969-70 season at his desk, waiting for coach Tommy “The Hawk” Heinsohn to call and explain what happened.
Outside of Philadelphia supernova George “The Silver Quill” Kiseda, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a famous NBA beat writer in 1969. “It was for the most part a place where young reporters got sent who couldn’t get a more exciting gig,” said David Stern, the league’s former commissioner. But it was the assignment’s relative obscurity, its distance from the lights of Fenway Park, that shaped Ryan’s literary style.
Athletes and writers worked in closer quarters then, but on the Celtics beat there was virtually no separation, especially when the Globe sent Ryan on the road. Ryan would walk up to Don Nelson, the hero of the ’69 Finals, and ask to play one-on-one. Ryan was a 6-foot-1 big man in pickup games, the guy who was always trying to back you down. He wanted to see what an NBA player could do. “He wasn’t a very good player at any position,” Nelson said, “but he was a heck of a writer!”
In 1980, Dave Cowens walked into Ryan’s hotel room and handed Ryan a stack of papers. It was a retirement statement Cowens had scratched out. Cowens wanted a rewrite. “I’ll need some time,” Ryan said. “Maybe an hour.” After Cowens told his teammates he was quitting, he realized he didn’t have a ride home to Kentucky. Ryan rented him a car from Avis.
Road trips were Ryan’s favorite part of the job. An NBA player never reveals himself more than when he’s killing time in an unfamiliar city. General manager Red Auerbach had a rule that the Celtics could drink only beer when they hit the town. Heinsohn was Red’s enforcer. “Wine was a European evil of some kind,” Ryan said. One night in Milwaukee, Ryan and Nelson and John Havlicek got cultured and ordered a bottle of rosé.
“If Hawk comes in,” Havlicek told Ryan, “you’re drinking the wine.”
Ryan was close to the players — probably too close, he later realized. He also became interested in the plight of pro basketball. In Boston, Charlie Pierce explained, “the Red Sox have this deep, historic reservoir of support, and then there are temporary enthusiasms.” The enthusiasm of the ’70s was Bobby Orr’s Bruins. In Ryan’s first year on the beat, the hockey team drew 14,800 a night in the Garden. The Celtics drew 7,500.
“It pissed me off, the Bruins thing,” Ryan said. “It was just so frustrating. I really believed in the [NBA]. I thought all the myths were bullshit: They don’t play defense. If you see the last two minutes, you’ve seen the whole game.” This is what happens when you cover a bush league: You become not just a scrivener but also an evangelist — the guy telling readers they’re missing a great game.
But the best thing about covering the ’70s NBA was the freedom. The Globe sports page was already a three-man weave for writers, encouraging “voice” and “long form” before those labels had been stuck on them. “The worst thing was always if Page 1 would take your story,” Montville said, “because they would try to put some common sense into it.”
And to be a basketball writer on the Globe was to be free of history. There was no Ghost of the Bambino demanding tribute. No lilting style flowing from the veins of Red Smith. As former Philadelphia Bulletin writer Mark Heisler noted, there were so few columnists going to NBA games that the beat writer became the columnist. Every night, as Ryan searched for his lede, he was doing the work of two journalists.
“The Celtics are not just a messy living room after the kids have finished opening the Christmas gifts,” Ryan wrote on December 30, 1977. “[T]hey are not merely an unmade bed which can be straightened out with 10 seconds of pulling and tugging. They are nothing less than downtown San Francisco after The Earthquake … ”
That was a Bob Ryan lede — reaching out from the sports page and grabbing you by the lapels. In 1973, the Celtics were tied with the Knicks 3-3 in the conference finals and eyeing a matchup with the Lakers. Ryan began his April 27 story, “OK, so it’s too soon to start singing, ‘California, Here I Come,’ but it’s now permissible to hum it.”
The Knicks won Game 7. When the New York writers walked by Ryan on press row, they were humming “California, Here I Come.”
“Remember, all this is on deadline,” Ryan said. “That was the fun part. Insight and readability in 45 minutes or an hour.”
Ryan wore a mustache back then and cut a lean figure. Younger writers — Visser, Pierce, MacMullan — stuck close to him like they were partnering on a dribble handoff. They watched Ryan on his nightly rounds. While the Celtics game was ongoing, Ryan used his typewriter to pound out a play-by-play treatment called “running” copy. It read like a collection of in-game tweets. It was printed in the Globe’s first edition, which was shipped to the outer limits of New England. The Globe’s second edition carried the same story. Then Ryan did interviews and wrote a proper story — his gamer — for the third edition, which was read in Boston.
One night, John Powers saw Ryan laboring over his first-edition copy, the one headed for the hinterlands. He asked why.
Ryan answered, “’Cause in Maine this is how they think I write!”
That was the thing about Ryan: He sweat enthusiasm. Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons had season tickets right behind the press table in the old Garden during his youth. Simmons noticed that Ryan never buried his head in his typewriter. He was watching the huddles, the way coaches worked the refs — everything — and that example seeped into the columns Simmons would eventually write. Basketball wasn’t Ryan’s favorite sport — that was baseball, same as Gammons — but he wanted to make the bush league the most exciting game in town. The NBA didn’t have a keno board of stats like baseball? Fine. Ryan made his own. He calculated the Celtics’ fast-break points and individual second-chance points, two metrics that had been suggested to him by NBA coach Hubie Brown. Once, when Ryan begged off the Celtics beat, he handed binders of stats to MacMullan.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Your job,” Ryan said.
Writers loved Ryan’s quotability, his ease in tony social settings, and the comic rage he unleashed when confronted with inexactitude. In the ’70s, Ryan was in the Baltimore Orioles press box when third baseman Doug DeCinces came to bat. The PA announcer said something like, “Only Brooks Robinson has made more starts at third recently than DeCinces.”
“Jesus Christ!” Ryan yelled, throwing his pen in the air. “That’s like saying only Franco ruled Spain longer than Juan Carlos!”
It’s the custom of newspaper readers to follow a sports columnist through his loves and hates and literary devices. Ryan was so good, he changed the equation. In Boston, in the 1970s, they followed the beat writer. If Ryan missed the odd Celtics game, sports editor Dave Smith would hear anxious voices on the phone asking, “Where’s Bob?”
The players followed Ryan, too. “He was an artist,” said guard Paul Westphal. “You could actually learn something about basketball, even as a player, by reading Bob’s articles.”
Then, in 1979, Ryan got literary custody of a rookie from Indiana who’d justify all the faith the writer had put in the lowly sport of pro basketball.
“Hell,” said Larry Bird, “that was 35 years ago. Back in those days, reporters rode on our planes, our buses — they had access to us all the time. Being a rookie, I didn’t have anybody other than my teammates that I knew in Boston.
“I remember Bob coming up to me one day and asking if I wanted to have a beer after practice. I said, ‘Sure.’ We were just talking, and then Bob starts describing what we were doing on the court. He knew all our plays. He knew when people came off the bench. I was a rookie, remember. I started thinking, Do all the reporters know everything we’re doing out there?”
Bird and Ryan liked each other immediately. Bird admired Ryan’s curiosity, the way he paid attention — he told people he thought Ryan could be a coach. Ryan liked having access to the brain of a basketball genius. It was “as if I were an art student,” Ryan writes in Scribe, “and into the class walked the new professor: Michelangelo.”
Bird remembered, “One time, he asked me a question: ‘Why would you shoot a 15-foot bank shot with the game tied with two minutes left?’
“I said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. It was there.’
“Bob didn’t understand that. He asked me, ‘What do you mean it was there? People don’t do that.’
“I said, ‘Well, I did.’”
And so it went, Boswell and Dr. Johnson riding the team bus. Ryan described Bird’s heroics and wrote down the player’s Zen koans: “There’s a secret to playin’ basketball. I ain’t tellin’ what it is.” After a rare disagreement — neither man can recall the details — Bird joked, “Shit, Bob’s madder at me than my wife.”
Bird remembered, “He asked me one time, ‘When you’re out there playing a game, what goes through your mind?’
“I said, ‘Whether my mom’s watching. How my grandma’s doing.’
“He said, ‘No way!’”
The ground under both men’s feet was shifting. The year Bird arrived, the Celtics’ average attendance jumped to 14,500 — hockey-size crowds. By the mid-’80s, writers who had once blown off the Finals were now flocking to them, thanks to Bird and Magic Johnson and the expense-account-friendly 2-3-2 format. (Ryan served as a kind of fixer for David Halberstam when Halberstam wrote his classic NBA book The Breaks of the Game.) Yet the NBA retained much of its ’70s intimacy: You could walk right up to Larry Legend at his locker.
For the first time in the history of the sports page, the NBA beat was a destination rather than a gulag. And as the guy who’d stuck it out, Ryan had tenure. “He was the Commissioner — that was his nickname,” said Jackie MacMullan. One night at the Finals, Ryan and David Stern were walking through the tunnel together. Somebody yelled, “Hey, Commissioner!”
Both men turned.
“He turned first,” Stern said, “because he was doing it before I did.”
The NBA’s rise made Ryan’s mug — clean-shaven by decade’s end, and ringed by whitening hair — recognizable, too. He was the writer explaining Bird to America, how the initially shy Bird had come to dominate the media. In 1988, Bird told Ryan that he watched the hand of a wall clock while disposing of the nightly barrage of questions in 10 to 12 minutes. Book publishers called Ryan. The producer of The Sports Reporters called Ryan and engaged his willingness, as Lesley Visser put it, to “speak on deadline.” Bird once marveled, “Bob Ryan, he’s as famous as we are.”
“Here’s the thing about Larry,” Ryan said. “I’ve known Larry Bird since 1979. I’ve been to his house. I’ve been to French Lick half a dozen times. I wrote a book with him. I do not know to this day if he’s ever read a word I’ve written.
“The relationship as far as I can see is based on interaction. Period. On the phone. At the dinner table. Lunch table. Bus ride. Standing on the court when I’m challenging him, ‘Betcha can’t make a left-handed 3-pointer!’ Two shots later, he makes a left-handed 3-pointer and I have to give him five bucks.
“But in terms of any story I wrote, him saying, ‘Bob, that was a good story!’ or ‘How could you write that shit?’ Nothing. I have no idea … I’ve never popped that question: ‘Larry, ever read anything I wrote?’”
“I didn’t read a lot in Boston,” Bird said. “It really didn’t matter. My job was to win basketball games.”
C’mon. Bob Ryan covered you for 13 seasons. Did you ever read one of his game stories?
“Ohhhh,” Bird said, his reluctance ebbing just a little, “I’m sure over the years I read a number of ’em.”
When he was writing a game story, Ryan searched for telling bits of action. The non-box-score stuff: how Paul Silas would angle his body toward the defensive glass and begin inching down the court to initiate the fast break. Stuff that answered the question Ryan was always asking his readers: “Don’t you wish you had seen that?”
So let’s go to the fourth quarter of a bright, cool day this September. Ryan was standing in Boston’s TD Garden, about where the free throw line usually is. The arena floor was piled with cheese trays and platters of boiled shrimp for a sports museum ceremony.
Ryan was talking to M.L. Carr. Carr was wearing slacks and sneakers. Ryan, as is his wont, got to talking about the 1985-86 Celtics season, the team that went 40-1 at home. One of Ryan’s favorite teams. Maybe the best of the Bird seasons.
“You remember the one game they lost?” Ryan said.
Carr — who later became the Celtics’ coach and general manager — paused. “Portland … ?” he said weakly.
“Yes!” said Ryan, his voice quickening. He’d been there on press row. He started writing his gamer aloud. “It was December. The Celtics took a lead in the third quarter for one possession. Then Steven Colter and Jerome Kersey just went off … ”
Carr turned to a visitor and said, “He’s like sports Wikipedia!”
More game action. Same day. Somewhat earlier — call it the third quarter. Ryan stopped by the Four’s, the Boston press’s legendary watering hole. Ryan was always a good drinker. Beer and wine, to hell with Auerbach.
Ryan walked in and sat at the bar. There was no Eddie Palladino introduction: “From Boston College, a 6-foot-1 ex–Celtics writer … ” Yet the barflies who’d been mindlessly watching Around the Horn — watching Ryan on Around the Horn, which he’d taped earlier that day — suddenly stopped. Their man had materialized in front of them. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe.
“Mistah Ryan,” one said as he approached, “I love your writing.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Mistah Ryan,” another said, “I just want to thank you.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Mistah Ryan … ”
He was always “Mistah” Ryan, a formality you can’t imagine being extended to Kevin McHale. And Ryan’s work was always spoken of in the present tense, even though he mostly retired from the Globe in 2012.
“I get people coming up to me and saying, ‘I just love your column in the Globe,’” said Peter Gammons. “I haven’t written a column since 1986. It doesn’t matter.”
When it was time to settle the check, it turned out one of the acolytes of Mistah Ryan had made a touching yet anonymous gesture: He had paid the whole thing.
Pivoting from action to big ideas — that’s part of a game story, too. What does this cold night in Boston tell us?
“[Sportswriters] say, ‘I never root. I only root for the story,’” Ryan said as he drove through town. “Not me. I want the team to win.”
Ryan was a writer-fan. In Boston, this wasn’t uncommon. “They all are out there,” said Larry Bird. “Not just Bob. They cared. They just wanted you to win. In New York, they want you to lose so they have better stuff to write.”
Ryan wore his fandom more proudly than most. He bought Celtics season tickets when he was covering the team. On nights he wasn’t writing, he or his wife, Elaine, could be found sitting in Section 62. At one Boston-L.A. Finals, Ryan and a Lakers publicist argued the relative greatness of the two franchises so loudly that it silenced a hospitality suite. Bill Russell used to get so nervous, he’d throw up before every game. Before the ’73 Eastern finals, one of the New York writers joked, “Ryan’s in the press room throwing up!”
Ryan wrote his gamers from a “very overtly Celtic point of view,” he explained. “Looking out for their best interests, always.”
Now, a rooting sportswriter tends to get people flexing their J-school diplomas. So it’s worth explaining just how Ryan’s fandom manifested itself. He wasn’t Johnny Most yelling into a microphone. Ryan was the kind of Celtics fan who demanded good play and personnel management. Anything less he took personally — and litigated in the Globe.
Ask Tommy Heinsohn about Ryan’s fandom. In 1975, Ryan wrote that Heinsohn was a “spoiled rich brat, whose father just took away his car keys.” He used the Globe to air the players’ gripes. Heinsohn countered by calling Ryan a “cancer.” He didn’t talk to Ryan for two years.
Or ask Sidney Wicks. As Ryan wrote in 1977, “Resigning him this season was an error which made Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 analysis of Hitler’s intentions look like a minor misjudgment.”
You can squawk about impartiality, but that’s not homerism. That’s a different approach. “He loved the Celtics and what they stood for and what they meant to basketball,” said Paul Westphal. “But he loved basketball more. Which I think was fair enough.”
Ryan’s fandom manifested itself a second way. When he was writing a game story, he could tune his antennae to the frequency of Greater Boston. And when the Celtics won, he could exult right along with the city. In 1986, the Celtics faced the Rockets in the Finals. Ryan on June 9, after they clinched the series:
The Houston Rockets were like an unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going 3 miles over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with mirrored sunglasses.
It wasn’t their day. The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The court stenographer’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird …
Three years later, Ryan got promoted to columnist. Columnists in Boston are “the word, the Talmud, the Koran, everything,” he said — that is, even more oracular than the beat writers. But oracular wasn’t always the right tone. On October 21, 2004, the day after the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees:
Every once in a while an Oscar winner gets up there and wings an acceptance speech because ‘I never thought I’d win anything, so I didn’t prepare anything.’
That’s me. Right now …
I sit here in journalistic shock.
That’s not homerism. That’s an enlightened approach. That morning, Ryan understood, Sox fans wanted to see their stunned faces reflected back at them rather than to have the 100-year “curse” reel replayed.
We’ve been told — and told and told — of a special creature called the Boston Sports Fan. He or she is better than the rest of us, those dropped r’s indicating reservoirs of passion and loyalty. What we haven’t considered is that the Boston Sports Fan didn’t walk out of Eden and into a courtside seat at the Garden. That, in fact, this beau ideal of fandom was nurtured, even created, by writer-fans like Ryan and Gammons. “We’re both fans,” Gammons said. “It’s all right to be fans.”
“Those guys might have written about the fans in such a way that the fans themselves began to believe it,” said Vince Doria, who edited the Globe sports section from 1978 to ’89.
Think about it. When whole swathes of Boston wanted to tear down Fenway, Gammons was arguing for the historic distinctiveness of the “Olde Towne Team.” When Boston didn’t give a damn about the Celtics — and when not a little bit of that had to do with race — Ryan was reporting every game like it was the Battle of Dunkirk. Maybe an enlightened notion of Boston sports fandom preceded Ryan. Maybe. But he helped codify it. He made Boston sports fandom an ideal to aspire to, a burden to shoulder, a growler to drain.
I know I’m out of time, Chief, but that may be one of the most astounding things Ryan ever did.
When Bob Ryan was polishing off his Celtics game story, he was looking for a kicker. An insight, a gag, a short scene. Something he could extract from his brain before deadline that would leave the reader with a final, resonant image. Ryan had just one rule for kickers: no quotes.
So let’s get —
Wait a sec, Chief. What if a quote conveys the beat writer’s brassiness, his overweening passion, the way his voice moves like a 78 RPM record? OK? Great.
“There aren’t that many people who could write a game story the way I wrote ’em,” said Ryan.
It has the ring of a categorical statement.