Bud Collins, his cheer as everlasting and prodigious as his words, was in New York last weekend for the ceremony at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where the US Open’s media center was named in his honor.
Everyone in the media business hopes their words resonate, stand the test of time, and some of Collins’s works already have been preserved in a collection of noted artists at Boston University, where he came to pursue a master’s degree in the late 1950s. Now he’ll also be remembered in New York, a simple plaque in the media center, his media center, forever reminding everyone of his varied and splendid being: “Journalist. Commentator. Historian. Mentor. Friend.’’
“I am still sort of floored by the whole thing,’’ the ever-humble Collins said late last week upon returning to his home in Brookline, noting he was left speechless during Sunday’s ceremony. “And that’s unusual for me.’’
Billie Jean King herself spoke at the ceremony. Nicknamed “Mother Freedom’’ by Collins decades ago, King wore a pink jacket to the fete, simply because pink is Bud’s favorite color. The great Martina Navratilova came, too, making it a point to arrive four hours early to have a private conversation with Bud before the day’s hoopla.
As chronicled by New York Times columnist Harvey Araton, Navratilova recalled that Collins always conveyed her words accurately. A teenager from Czechoslovakia when she burst onto the world tennis scene, her English initially was sometimes spotty. Bud, called “The Great Collini’’ by his many European press pals, had a way of making her words as fluent as her backhand.
“Bud always seemed to know what I meant,’’ said Navratilova, 58, thinking back some 40 years. “He would . . . make it sound right.’’
A fixture here at the Globe for nearly a half-century, Bud was the unassuming giant who helped shape what became widely considered the nation’s leading sports section by the late ’70s. He became best known for his work covering tennis on network television. Wherever in the world a big match was played, Bud was there, year after year, microphone in hand, interviewing and commentating and, above all, conveying the fun of it all through his unbridled enthusiasm.
Like his prose, Collins’s on-air work was incisive, engaging, witty, and with fellow Globe columnist Will McDonough, he was at the vanguard of print reporters who brought journalistic legitimacy to TV sports in the 1960s and ’70s.
Bud’s clothes, suits and jackets tailored from gaudy bolts of cloth he picked up on his world travels, became his quirky sartorial trademark. But it was his telltale humor that was stitched into the fabric of his being. For instance, when a lingering TV crowd shot caught John McEnroe’s father picking his nose, an admiring Collins spontaneously said, “Wow . . . what a great forehand.’’
In the Globe office, where he would dart around the sports department from desk to desk, writing some, talking more, engaging both the publisher and the copyboys, he routinely picked up the phone calls that in those days rang incessantly — an era when callers were eager to learn the day’s final result at Suffolk Downs, the medical term (and spelling) for Lou Gehrig’s disease, or, say, if Orr would play that night in faraway Vancouver.
In a well-crafted plummy British accent, Bud Collins, proud son of Berea, Ohio, each time would offer callers the same greeting, “Sporting!’’ Pronounced: SPOR-ting. The answer provided, the appreciative caller politely would ask Morrissey Boulevard’s erudite sporting Brit for his name.
“Oh, my name,’’ Collins would say, British accent suddenly vanished, “is Bob Dunbar.’’
Collins sprinkled the fictitious Dunbar into columns and also fixed the name to the annual media tennis tournament he hosted in the years when the game’s biggest names came to the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill. Bud welcomed everyone to the Dunbar Invitational, most of them hackers who otherwise wouldn’t have graced Longwood’s courts unless toting a broom. Bud shouted courtside commentary during matches, spicing up his play-by-play with words that would wither an NBC censor.
“Dunbar had a tough life,’’ Collins mused the other day, tickled his imaginary pal’s legacy was secure. “But he had some very good assignments, Dunbar, always on top of the news.’’
Uncle Studley from Ohio was another whimsical character oft to appear as one of Bud’s literary devices. According to Bud’s wife, Anita Ruthling Klaussen, Uncle Studley dated to Bud’s undergraduate days at Baldwin Wallace College in the early ’50s, where in fraternity-like fashion, some of Bud’s brethren went Full Monty in the annual Uncle Studley contest.
“And whoever was judged the biggest guy,’’ explained Klaussen, choosing her words delicately, “then he was deemed stud of that year. Bud nicknamed him Uncle Studley. And Bud’s mother used to have boys over from the school for dinner and she’d say, ‘Oh, Bud, that Uncle Studley is such a sweet boy.’ She had no idea that was his nickname given to him by Bud because of, you know . . . whatever.’’
Collins, 86, has been sidelined since taking a spill at a hotel while working the 2011 US Open, a torn quadricep tendon leading to a dozen surgeries and endless rehab. Klaussen drove him to New York last weekend and it was the first time in two years, she said, that he had been anywhere other than home, hospitals, or shuttling to doctor visits.
“It has been a struggle,’’ she said. “But it was a wonderful ceremony in New York. He got so much out of it. He saw his colleagues, and people were loving him and hugging him. It was very emotional and very beautiful.’’
The ceremony took place inside the media center, Bud’s plaque featuring a shot of him working at Wimbledon in his more robust days. During a break in the tennis action on Sunday, the sellout crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium was informed of the dedication ceremony while a live shot of Collins was flashed on the court’s big video screen.
“At first, I don’t think people realized it was all live, that Bud was really there,’’ recalled Klaussen. “But then people began to cheer and all of a sudden 23,000 people were up and giving him a standing ovation.’’
In his heyday, The Great Collini no doubt would have expressed appreciation the cheer emanated from Flushing and not the Bronx.
It was a good day for Arthur “Bud” Collins Jr., a day full of warmth and memories, a day of gentle kindnesses and good words like those he exchanged with close friends and first acquaintances across decades. Now there’s a plaque at the US Open to serve as a reminder of a good man, his splendid work, his words, and a life well shared and wonderfully lived.