When there are no games to be played, we’re left with memories of games that were once played. And when it comes to the Celtics, few journalists have as many memories as Bob Ryan, who covered the team for the Globe from 1969-76, 1978-82 and 1985-88. I called Bob and we talked about everything from having beers with players after games, to Larry Bird’s golf bets, to staying at the home of a Celtics opponent during the NBA Finals.
Q. What was a time a Celtic really lost his cool at you?
A. This is great. I love this story. My first NBA draft, in 1970. The regular season ended and the draft was the next day. I’d written a draft preview of some sort, and in it I said that Red Auerbach doesn’t get full credit for drafting John Havlicek, because it was on the recommendation of a guy named Bill Mokray, a basketball historian-type guy. And I walked into Red’s office for the draft, and he threatened to cut one of my body parts off. That was his greeting. He was pissed. He didn’t like that story, and I found out it was because he didn’t like Bill Mokray. I couldn’t have picked a worse person to give credit for something Red wanted credit for.
Q. Did players ever get upset with you?
A. I never had a blowup with a player, but I did with [coach] Tommy Heinsohn. Tommy got upset when I started reflecting more players’ takes than his, and I think he felt proprietary that he had taught me the league, which he had in a lot of ways.
But I made my own observations based on my relationships with everybody and got close to the players. In my third or fourth year, during the course of a team meeting, he told players not to talk to me, because I wasn’t their friend. The minutes of the meeting were reported back to me within about 30 minutes, and that was the beginning. The players knew it was BS. Havlicek and [Dave] Cowens thought it was funny. [Paul] Silas thought it was hilarious.
Q. How did you make up?
A. We coasted along and I criticized his use of Cowens in the ‘76 series against the Cavaliers, and he wasn’t happy with that. Then the final blowup was at a practice at the Garden after Game 1 of the ‘76 Finals against Phoenix.
I quoted Charlie Scott about some tactical thing. And Tommy comes in and yells at me about how [the Suns] can now buy our game plan for 25 cents in the paper. We didn’t talk the rest of the Finals, and I wrote a column and I ripped him big-time.
But they win, and after the game he’s holding a bottle of champagne and I just go up and said congratulations, and he said thank you. That was the first time we’d spoken since the end of the other series.
Well, fast forward to 1978. We have no contact now because I’m off the beat. There was a testimonial dinner for [former Celtic] Jim Loscutoff and I was there and Tommy was there, and he was at the bar and I went up to him and said, ‘Tommy, would it spoil your evening if I said hello?’ And from that point on we were fine.
Q. You mentioned to me earlier that you stayed at the Phoenix home of Suns guard Paul Westphal during the 1976 NBA Finals. I need the back story.
A. We’d gotten really friendly when he was playing in Boston. He had a wonderful house in Phoenix with a pool and a little cabana cottage. And I stayed there during Games 3 and 4. Practice would be over and I’d write and go back, and we’d hang out by the pool. [Suns forward] Alvan Adams lived down the street, and he’d come over, and another guy, the 13th man on the 12-man roster, would come over to the pool, some guy named Pat Riley.
Q. When Riley and Adams came over, did they ask Westphal why a newspaper journalist was staying with him during the NBA Finals?
A. No, but it’s probably the only time a beat writer for one team stayed at the house of a star player for the other team. That might be an NBA exclusive.
Q. Dan Shaughnessy has told me stories of drinking with players on the road. Did you do that?
A. Oh God, yeah, every night after I started out. After the game, I’d say, ‘Where’s the bar?’ And they’d tell me and I’d show up, and I’d say four out of five nights we’d close up the bar. That’s just the way it was.
My God, I remember going out with [forward Steve] Kuberski and [center Hank] Finkel in Baltimore, and Hank’s 7 feet tall, wraps that big paw around a Bud and takes two swigs and it’s gone. I’m not lying. Next thing you know, they’re buying beers and I’ve got three or four piled in front of me and I’m still on the first one.
Q. What’s your favorite Larry Bird story?
A. (Laughs) There are so many. OK, you know that contest where you have to make a layup, free throw, 3-point shot, and half-court shot in 25 seconds, and you get whatever the prize is? One night I was at BC in 1985 or ‘86 and I got asked to do it as the local celebrity. I make the layup, I rush the free throw, but that was it.
So the next day after practice at Hellenic College, Larry was shooting and I was rebounding for him, and I told him about it. He says, “OK, give me the ball and time me.” I gave him the ball. Layup, swish. Free throw, swish. Three-pointer, swish. Mid-court, swish. Seventeen seconds!
Then he says to me, “If I were doing it for real, I’d try to bank the 3-pointer so if I missed I’d get the long rebound for another one.” Well, that’s Larry.
Q. You wrote a book with Bird called “Drive.” How did you do the reporting for that?
A. I went out to French Lick, Ind., in the summer of ‘87 and spent a week at his house. He had a cabana house by a pool, and we’d sit in the cabana and do interviews.
One day he’d made a commitment to play golf at a new club in Louisville called Valhalla. It was a charity thing. After we played the 18, the brother of pro golfer Fuzzy Zoeller challenged Larry to nine holes for some money. When the word “money” comes up, Larry’s ears perk up. So he’d been hooking his shots all day, and he turns and says to me, “You watch, that hook is going to straighten out right now.” Bang, down the middle. He crushed him.
Q. Who was the player you went to for golden quotes after games?
A. The most continually good quote was Kevin McHale. He was smart and he made analogies that always made sense. He was a great guy. In my first go-round, the guy I gravitated to was Paul Silas. He was always good for a reality check.
Q. What was a time things went terribly wrong on the job?
A. Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals between the Rockets and Magic. There was a computer problem and I wrote my entire story long-hand in my notebook and dictated to the Globe. And I saved those notes. Somewhere in this house, somewhere in some envelope in a manila folder is the story that I wrote long-hand.
Q. How did you file stories at the start of your career, in 1969?
A. You had everything typed in duplicate and handed one copy to an attendant who clipped it to a long rope that was extended from the first balcony press box, and then they hoisted up the copy and handed it to the Western Union guy in the little office they had behind the press box at the old Garden. And there was a little room where the Western Union guy typed out the thing on the telex machine that then went to the office.
Q. Did the Western Union guy ever mess up when retyping your story?
A. Well, you never knew whether it was him or the desk. But for the most part these guys and women were fantastic. That’s what they did. Every stadium arena had a Western Union person.
There were three middle men: the Western Union guy, the Globe editor, and the guy in the Globe composing room who had the final say. And the paper came out in the morning. It was on the morning doorstep, that’s all I can tell you.
Q. Times have changed so much, but what was your goal in writing a game story then?
A. I viewed it as writing a basketball game as a theater critic. What kind of game was it? What did you miss if you weren’t there? What highlights were there that would refresh and enhance the experience of someone who was there? Playoffs were easier, because you have context. You get trends. The hardest part, I think you would agree, is making chicken salad out of chicken [expletive] some night in February when there’s nothing special happening.
Q. If it reaches a point where it’s safe for NBA players to return this summer, what would be your advice to commissioner Adam Silver about how to proceed?
A. Well, No. 1, I think they should just say that since we have a clear delineation of who should be in the playoffs and who shouldn’t, we just have the playoffs.
If you’re going to do anything — and I’m skeptical, by the way, of doing anything — but if you were, you’d have to figure out some one-location deal, and cut down the time you’re going to ask people to quarantine themselves as much as possible. Not just the players and coaches, but officials and all that.
I’ll tell you, I’m not crazy about the whole idea. I’m resigning in my head to wait until 2021.
Q. What’s your advice for a young journalist who wants to be the next Bob Ryan?
A. Read, read, read. If you’re not a reader, you don’t belong in our business. Even if you’re in broadcasting, it’s all about words. You want to sum up a concept and it’s automatically coming into your head. You don’t know where you got it, but where you got it is you read it somewhere. Read, read, read.
Q. Give them three books to start with. How about two sports and one non-sports?
A. The best sports book that gives you team dynamics, written by a brilliant person, is Ken Dryden’s “The Game.” There’s so many. Anything by Roger Angell, frankly. And my favorite novel of the last 30 years was “Lonesome Dove.” That book was just compelling.