Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

The encomia are surely piling up all over the web, but I couldn’t let slide the fact that Bob Ryan has retired from The Boston Globe as full-time basketball sage and de facto Commissioner of all things hoops (a title bestowed decades ago, by his fellow scribes). Here’s a link to his farewell column, delivered Aug. 11 with his signature directness, brevity and authoritative elegance.

Having grown up in Greater Boston, I latched onto Ryan early, in the mid-1970s, when the Celtics were winning championships and knowledge of the team was nearly the exclusive province of Mr. Ryan, whose game reports and columns were often the only worthwhile analyses available the next morning. Yes, some games were televised locally, but only a few. Radio was an option, but Johnny Most was so bombastic, his account of the goings-down, while entertaining, could not be trusted.

Above all things, Ryan could be trusted — to authoritatively tell you the “why” behind wins and losses; the “who” when it came to contenders and pretenders. His appraisal of players was never erring. When Larry Bird was drafted, as a junior, and all of Boston watched his senior year at Indiana State wondering if his game would translate to the pros, Ryan put that matter to rest. He sized up Bird a basketball genius way before it was obvious to the rest of us, and so Larry turned out to be.

His between-the-lines sizing-up of personalities was similarly spot on and vital to a young basketball mind in its formative stages. It really was about the guy’s authority. You could tell when Ryan truly admired a player (Dave Cowens) or didn’t deem one worth a damn (Sydney Wicks). It was clear when he admired someone but didn’t necessarily like him (David Stern), and when someone didn’t like Ryan (Tommy Heinsohn). It was all done very professionally, perhaps a bit coyly, and I found it all thrilling — that someone could earn a living by chronicling such fabulously interesting things in a public forum.

All through my high school, college and early years as a sports writer, Bob Ryan’s professional life was the one I wanted for myself. One time, in high school, circa 1979, my mom got us tickets to a Celtics game (vs. the Jazz) at the old Boston Garden, where she endeavored to introduce me to the guy before tip-off. I remember that he was cordial but not especially helpful or inspiring. My mom was a bit disappointed, but I couldn’t hold it against him — he was probably concocting some new way to convey to readers the utter ineffectiveness of James Hardy and Ben Poquette.

I did indeed try to follow Ryan’s path but his times were not my times. In his farewell column, he writes about going straight to the Globe sports department after graduating from Boston College in 1968. In the mid-1980s, no one did that — years of daily newspapering experience were required before one would even be considered. Further, by that time, the Globe sports section was a veritable all-star team of talent, and thousands of aspirants were all clamoring for the opportunity to sit at Ryan’s knee, along with those of Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy and Leigh Montville. Even if you had the experience, and the chops, the Globe was notorious for its minority hiring policies. I remember one reporting colleague claiming that he’d already have a job on Morrissey Boulevard, “If only I were a black, female, Cape Verdean.”

In any case, dreams die and/or they’re deferred. I left daily newspapers in 1992, having had a chance to cover the Celtics (and all the Boston teams) for smaller newspapers with nothing like the Globe’s reach and influence. I was tired of making no money, tired of being essentially nocturnal. Soon the newspaper model would collapse, and I frankly count my blessings that I got out when I did.

Ryan pressed on through this period of industry decline, adapting to the web realities and even moving into television a fare bit. Personally, I could listen to him talk about basketball and other sporting matters till the cows came home, but I think even he’d admit that his rapid-fire, staccato delivery — along with his advanced age — never truly dovetailed with the medium as it exists in the 21st century.

This winter, at the height of the Jeremy Lin craze, Ryan sat and did a podcast with Bill Simmons, the guy who has emerged as Ryan’s heir apparent on matters NBA. Check it out here; it’s linked as part of my own post comparing/contrasting Billy Ray Bates and Lin. It would seem that Simmons was the guy who successfully crafted for himself a Ryanesque place in the basketball firmament, and I enjoy his writing and podcasts nearly as much.

Best of luck to them both. The torch has been passed.

 

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