My friends grew up wanting to be Fred Lynn, Bobby Orr, or Larry Bird. I wanted to be Bob Ryan.
We got two papers on the doorstep in New Bedford back then, the Globe in the morning and the Standard-Times in the afternoon. Reading Bob’s words about the Celtics became a daily ritual. Then he started writing columns and, wow, my favorite writer knew everything about baseball, too.
Through stupid luck, I landed a part-time job at the Standard-Times sports department and ended up a journalism major at UMass and the sports editor of the Daily Collegian.
During my junior year, Bob came out to Amherst one night to see the basketball team play Temple.
I cajoled the sports information director, the estimable Howie Davis, into letting me sit next to Bob on press row. I wore the only tie I owned at the time and got there early, nervously awaiting his arrival. I had, oh, 100 questions.
Bob answered all of them, graciously encouraging me and mixing in tidbits about the times he saw Dr. J play for UMass. Trust me when I tell you, no man walking the face of the earth knows more about basketball than Bob.
(Or movies. But that’s another story for another day.)
At halftime, as Bob looked over the stat sheet, I had the Collegian’s photographer take a surreptitious photo of me sitting next to him. I still have it, framed in my office.
Over the years, at assorted college basketball games and then baseball games, Bob was somebody I looked up to professionally. I didn’t know as much as he did and couldn’t write as well. But I tried to emulate how much he loved what he did.
Bob always found the joy in sports and enjoyed bantering with the coaches, managers and players. Sometimes he had his notebook in hand, often times he didn’t. But there was always a conversation going. That’s what stuck with me, how much he loved it.
To be his colleague the last three years is one of the great thrills of my career. I wish everybody could sit next to Bob at Fenway Park during a game. He charts every single pitch and notices every nuance about the game. You come away knowing so much more than you did going in. Not necessarily about baseball, mind you. But about something.
At the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, Bob decided to go see a few college basketball games that week, just for fun. We went to IUPUI’s little gym one day and then Butler’s famed Hinkle Fieldhouse two days after that. A few of us followed along in Bob’s wake. Magically, all the doors opened for us and there were seats right down in front.
Going to a college basketball game with Bob Ryan is an experience unlike any other. Both coaches came over to shake his hand as did the officials, the athletic director, most of the players and about 100 fans. Because he’s on ESPN so often, folks in Indiana know Bob as well as we all do in New England.
Then we went to a dive bar and he told stories until last call about some of the places he’s been and the people he knew. Now there’s a way to spend a night.
Bob has retired, the Olympics being his last assignment for the paper, and said good-bye in the paper on Sunday. The gold medal men’s basketball game was, fittingly, the subject of his last column. How perfect is that?
Don’t worry, he’ll write for the Sunday paper quite often and be around the Garden and Fenway Park as a fan. He’s going out on his terms.
A few weeks ago, when he officially covered his last Red Sox game, Bob got a standing ovation in the press box at Fenway. Never saw that before. Then again, never saw anybody as deserving of it.