Bob Ryan’s face is familiar to anyone who has watched “Around the Horn” or “Pardon the Interruption” on ESPN. Before he became a television talker, Ryan was a columnist for the Boston Globe, from which he retired after the 2012 Olympic Games.
He and Peter Gammons started working in the Globe’s sports department on the same day, in June 1968. Gammons, of course, went on to become a legendary baseball writer. Ryan became a sort of Gammons for basketball, though he might tell you with a smile that it was the other way around. He had three different tours of duty covering the Boston Celtics for the Globe.
Ryan has been making the media rounds to promote his new book, “Scribe: My Life in Sports,” a memoir of his 40-plus years in the business.
In an interview with The News this week, Ryan talked about covering Celtics greats like Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Larry Bird, about how sportswriting has changed in recent years, and recalled the Celtics’ rivalry with the long-gone Buffalo Braves.
Q: Covering the Celtics in the 1970s brought you to Buffalo when they played the Braves here. What are some of your memories of that?
A: “The Celtics had a big winning streak against the Braves to start with, but then in ‘72-73 Bob McAdoo came, then Ernie D. came in ‘73-74, and suddenly the Braves were really contenders. What a beautiful team with Doctor Jack” Ramsay “coaching. The trade to get Jack Marin was tremendous. Suddenly, they were a scoring team. They were the last NBA team to have five guys average 15 points a game.
“My favorite Buffalo story with the Celtics, it’s in the book. Paul Silas one night was sitting there before the game and he says, “How many are out there?” I said, “Well, they’re talking it’s going to be 18 plus. It’s going to be the biggest crowd in the history of Western New York.” And he said, “Good! We’re going to send them all home unhappy.” And he did, and they did.”
Q: And eventually Paul Snyder sold the Braves to John Y. Brown, who switched franchises with Celtics owner Irv Levin, and the Braves left Buffalo, leaving the fans here unhappy for a long time.
A: “Buffalo did nothing to lose its team, other than refuse to patronize a horrible ownership. I think it was the biggest screw job an NBA team ever got, even worse than Seattle. They did nothing to justify losing their team.”
Q: You began your career in a time when sportswriters had so much access to the athletes, and you obviously got pretty close to a lot of the Celtics players in your time, as you write about in the book. For example, when Dave Cowens retired, he asked you to rewrite his retirement statement, and then publish it in the Globe. You co-authored a book with Larry Bird. Looking back on it, do you feel that getting close to the players you covered ever got in the way of doing your job?
A: “My first incarnation, the seven years from ‘69 to ‘76, I think I did a good job. I think that my relationships enhanced my ability to report and write about basketball. I learned so much. I had a feel for it provided by the players, as well as by” coach “Tommy Heinsohn. But at the end of the ’75-‘76 season, I was emotionally very, very tied to them, and felt I had to get away, get off the beat. … I felt innately that I cared a little too much and I had to calm down. I swore to myself that I’d never do it again, and I didn’t.
“Then in the Larry Bird era, which was my next incarnation, I cared a lot and I got to know Larry quite well. But it was different and I had a good balance, a better balance. It wasn’t that you would tell from the writing, it’s just how I felt.”
Q: You must feel grateful with the way your career overlapped with Larry Bird’s. He was one of a kind. When he retired from the Celtics, did that leave a void in your professional life?
A: “When John Havlicek retired I was very sure that I had seen the best player that I was ever going to cover. I would never cover a better player than Havlicek. One year later Bird came along, so now I have to amend that.
“I put it in the book that it was as if I were an art student and into the class walked a new teacher, Michelangelo. That’s the way I regarded Bird’s virtuosity in basketball. He encompassed everything that is great about the game. … There was something special about him and his ability to produce at the big moments, the entire package.”
Q: In your football chapter about the Patriots in your book, you mention how Bill Belichick can be sometimes misunderstood in other cities. He is famous for his Sunday or Monday press conferences, where he’ll answer 15 questions in a row with “We’re getting ready for Cincinnati.” Yet, you write, Belichick can be a gift to columnists once you get to know him a bit. Can you expand on that?
A: “Number one, I honestly maintain that if he is going to continue to be this way at the podium, as he’s been for 15 years, he should not even bother to come out after a game. There’s no point to him coming out to tell us that, if they won, “We were good in all three phases of the game.
“It’s deadpan and boring and monotone-ish, and condescending, and curt, and impolite and rude. It’s a terrible image for the team.
“The thing about him, he doesn’t care about any of this. He doesn’t care what you think, I think, fans think. In his mind, he is paid to win football games, not to make nice with the media.
“Now, all that said, he’s a major ongoing problem for any beat person because he won’t give you the information, the staff of life, on a day-to-day basis. He doesn’t elaborate much during the week at all, certainly not in the first couple of days.
“As a columnist, you can go there and write the scene. If he’s going to be that way, then you can go have fun with him. I never went away empty handed.
“Now, you get to the end of the week and it’s Friday, then he’s a very different person. The game plan’s in, Friday’s a light day. If you push the right button – this guy loves football and he wants to share his love and enthusiasm. Just ask him the right question, and be historical, and ask about hypotheticals, and he’s great.”
Q: You write in the book that baseball remains your favorite sport, which might surprise people who associate you with basketball. Did you ever have any regrets about the path not taken, about not joining Peter Gammons on the baseball beat?
A: “Clearly baseball was always my first love. I still identify with basketball, and I’m proud of my work there.
“I would’ve been a fine baseball writer, I think. I had one year at it, and that was a year in between Peter Gammons’ whimsical decisions. He left the Globe in ‘76 to go to Sports Illustrated. Then I took over covering the Red Sox in 1977, happily. Then Gammons came back in January ‘78, clearly to write baseball, and I totally understood that.
“I was a one-year wonder. I wrote baseball full time that year, I did the World Series, and that was that. I liked it, but it worked out because then a year later, Larry Bird came. If I had missed out on Bird and went on the sidelines while Bird played for the Celtics, I would have regretted that even more.
“You can go back and look what I wrote in ‘77 and those columns and say, “That’s not bad.” But to yield to maybe the best baseball writer that America ever had, for a period of time …
“Gammons’ Sunday notes columns were the greatest. Anybody in the business will tell you that. I just tried to do the best I could to emulate and match it with my basketball notes. I will give him the gold and I’ll take the silver, that’s fine.”
(Note: The questions and answers were condensed for clarity.)