NSSA Weekend: Ryan going into Hall

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 14, 2011

SALISBURY — Pay close attention to sportswriter Bob Ryan’s NSSA Hall of Fame induction speech Monday night at Goodman Gymnasium. The born-to-run New Jersey native says he’s going for the record.
“I will be brief,” Ryan indicated during Saturday’s cocktail hour at the Holiday Inn. “Plenty of people have broken it the other way. But me, I know exactly what I want to say. For the first time it’s not going to be some written reading. I’ve rehearsed it in my head and I’m just gonna put it out there.”
Of course he will. Why mess with a winning formula, a concoction that’s afforded Ryan back-stage access and a front-row seat as a revered sports enthusiast/guru for the Boston Globe? His overnight success has lasted more than four decades — from its humble beginnings an apple-cheeked intern fresh out of Boston College to last week’s Celtics’ collapse against Miami in the NBA playoffs, his career has touched every square on the board. Often outspoken, always entertaining, Ryan shares his craft with New England readers as a practitioner of tell-the-truth journalism, a fearless writer who asks the tough questions and never seems to mind getting his hands dirty.
“Actually,” he simplified, “I’ve just been very lucky. We’ve all been blessed in Boston.”

Fair enough. Let the record show that Bob Ryan didn’t write the book on sportswriting, only that his name shows up on several pages. He was there when Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale steered the Celtics past Houston in the 1986 NBA finals, the most complete top-to-bottom team he’s ever covered.
“That team had everything,” Ryan said, flashing his signature smile and kid-like enthusiasm. “Including something no other team in the history of basketball ever had — a seven-foot sixth man like Bill Walton. He was the trump card. He came off the bench and changed games like no one else. That was a great team, my favorite team.”
Ryan was there when beloved outfielder Carl Yastrzemski took his final swing in a Red Sox uniform. Rewind to an Oct. 2, 1983 game against Cleveland at Fenway Park.
“The Indians had a young pitcher (Dan Spillner) who was so nervous he couldn’t throw a strike,” Ryan recalled. “And Yaz didn’t want to walk in his last at-bat. He was so determined to show, even at 44, that no one could throw the fastball by him. The kid on the mound knew what was going on and was trying to throw it over, but couldn’t. Finally Yaz just swung at a pitch up by his nose and popped up. There was real drama in the air. As a writer, things like that stick with you.”

There have been countless others — 30 NCAA Final Fours, 23 NBA Finals, 11 World Series, 10 Super Bowls, a bagful of golf majors and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics among them. Special athletes? Bruins’ Hall of Famer Bobby Orr and undersized Celtics’ center Dave Cowens head that list.
“I’m not a hockey maven, but Bobby Orr was simply the greatest hockey player of all time,” Ryan said matter-of-factly. “With all due respect to Gretzky, and all the offensive guys since then — part of hockey is hitting and being hit. And Wayne Gretzky did neither. He was an artist they let skate around and never hit. He was a great scorer, with great hands. But Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, they were better hockey players.”
Ryan reports that Bird, as the new kid in town, always worshipped Orr. “During the national anthem he’d look up at the rafters, staring at Orr’s No. 4,” Ryan said. “He’d say someday, after he’s done playing, he’d like to be thought of that way.”
Cowens provided one of the most insightful quotes Ryan ever elicited following the ‘74 NBA finals — shortly after Boston gained a seventh-game victory over the Jabbar-led Milwaukee Bucks.
“Dave Cowens was never a fan,” he said. “He was a doer. He didn’t watch games on TV. The first time he ever saw Nate Thurmond or Wes Unseld or Willis Reed was when he lined up against them. His attitude was always, ‘Show me what you’ve got, whoever you are.’ That’s who he was.”
As the Boston contingent was flying home that spring evening, Ryan cornered Cowens during a stopover and offered congratulations.
“I hadn’t had any one-on-one time with him after the game,” said Ryan. “So I finally catch up to him and said, ‘Well Dave, you did it. You won the championship. How does it feel? What is it all about?’ ”
Cowens measured his response like a 2-0 fastball, then offered, “For me, the fun was in the doing. This is just something for my portfolio of basketball experiences.”
Ryan says those words have been sealed in a personal mental vault for 37 years. “I will never forget it,” he said. “No athlete I’ve ever encountered looked at it with that perspective. It remains part of his charm.”
As for the current Celtics, Ryan offers you-are-there insight. He says Kevin Garnett is painfully private off the court (“No one knows where he lives”) while Shaq is his polar opposite (“He wakes up and wants you to take his picture”). Asked to cite a current sports story that needs to be told, Ryan discussed the ills of college athletics regarding grade-altering and recruiting infractions (“It’s our own fault. We asked for it.”).

More than anything, Ryan seems to respect the past. He fell in love with sportswriting as a teenager in Trenton, N.J. — a short drive from sports meccas Philadelphia and New York. He admired some of the greats — Jim Murray, Furman Bisher and Frank Deford. On June 10, he’ll mark 43 years with the Globe, the same day he was introduced to baseball writer Peter Gammons, a University of North Carolina graduate. “I don’t know anyone who loves anything more than Peter Gammons loves baseball,” he said.
By now Ryan has seen it all, even if he hasn’t seen enough. An author of 11 books, he believes he’ll work at least through the 2012 London Olympics.
“I can see the finish line,” he said with another warm smile. “I’m like everyone else. I just wanted a job, number one, and I wanted to get good at it. But you don’t know where it’s gonna take you. You don’t know where you’re going. You have no idea.”
This weekend it’s brought him to Salisbury, where his framed photo will rightfully hang among the creme de la creme.
“You know there’s no such thing as the best,” he said. “But it’s so nice to be included. To be considered among the best, that’s a great honor.”
One that deserves much more than a record-setting acceptance speech.