Bob Ryan to receive the Red Smith Award
Bob Ryan only met Red Smith once. As a young Boston Globe sportswriter, he found himself at a lunch table with Smith prior to a game at Yankee Stadium during the 70s.
"Sure, it was a huge moment for me," Ryan said. "Red Smith was the biggest name out there."
After becoming a big name in his own right, Ryan now is set for another connection with the legendary columnist. Friday, he will receive the Red Smith Award at the Associated Press Sports Editors convention in San Diego.
The award for "major contributions to sports journalism" ranks among the most prestigious in the business. Smith himself was the first recipient in 1981. The list of winners includes Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, W.C. Heinz, and Shirley Povich, a veritable Mt. Rushmore of sportswriters.
Now Ryan is being singled out for a 40-plus-year career and counting at the Boston Globe. Prior to becoming a columnist, he was considered one of the elite beat writers of all time for his coverage of the great Celtics teams of the 70s and 80s.
"It's sobering when you look at the people who have won it," Ryan said. "All you could ask for when you start your career is to be true to yourself and hope that you do it the right way. I'll take this award as an affirmation that I did it the right way."
Ryan has enlisted Bill Walton to be his presenter Friday. It likely will be the most unforgettable introduction in APSE history.
"The APSE is going to get a full dose of Bill," Ryan said of the often-whacky Hall of Famer.
Walton's willingness to take on the assignment says something about Ryan and his career. A prime strength was an ability to forge relationships with the athletes he covered. Ryan got to know Walton during his short stint but memorable stint with the Celtics on their great 1985-86 title team.
Ryan also struck an immediate bond with Larry Bird. John Havlicek asked him to assist on his autobiography. He calls Dave Cowens "the most interesting character I ever encountered in sports." The former Boston center asked Ryan to help write his retirement announcement.
Ryan immersed himself in the beat by closely monitoring practices and expanding his education over discussions with players and coaches. He earned their credibility and respect. He treasures a statement in which Bird once said, "Bob Ryan could be a coach."
"Baseball and basketball are my passions," Ryan said. "I've always felt very comfortable in that world. I always was able to convey an enthusiasm and an eagerness to listen and learn. I couldn't get enough."
Another key, Ryan said, was doing his homework in getting to know the people he covered.
"I always was well-versed on their backgrounds," Ryan said. "I tried to ask question that reflect that. It is a way to open the door. This information is available to everyone. Frankly, I don't think everyone does it."
Ryan also added another essential element to his success.
"The secret is to cover good teams," Ryan said.
Indeed, it helped Ryan immensely that several of the Celtics teams he covered were among the best in NBA history. In his 2014 autobiography "Scribe," Ryan admitted that he always wanted those teams to win.
Ryan took some heat for that perspective since it is a sharp disconnect with the sportswriter mantra of "no cheering in the press box." Sports Illustrated even said Ryan "blurred the line between fan and journalist."
Ryan insists that's not the case. He just feels better teams produce more compelling stories.
"I don't understand why (beat writers) don't want their teams to win," Ryan said. "Life is better when the team is winning. I don't believe there is such a thing as being objective. Everyone writes subjectively. It's about the fairness in everything you right. That's what matters: Being fair."
Ryan still practices being fair, but at a different pace these days. He ended his duties as a full-time columnist for Globe in 2012, but don't say he retired. He still writes 30-40 Sunday columns per year for the Globe, and is a regular on various ESPN shows and Comcast SportsNet New England.
Normally, Ryan would have spent a good chunk of June covering the NBA Finals, but he was more than content to watch the Golden State-Cleveland series on TV.
"I don't have the urge to be there only because I know how bad the logistics are," Ryan said. "They have us sitting in the boondocks. It shows a complete lack of respect for the writers."
Ryan says the entire dynamic of covering a team changed with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Due to the media blitz, the team closed practices and access to players became limited. Ryan said "It was barely tolerable" after other teams copied the Bulls' approach.
Given his talents, Ryan would have thrived in today's new media landscape. He would have been a success in any era. However, Ryan is glad he had his era. He believes the 70s and 80s were a vintage time for sportswriters. Athletes talked to them and the main source for sports news was newspapers.
"I can say I'm glad I got out when I did," Ryan said. "It's a matter of knowing too much of what it was like, and how much fun it was. These guys now don't know any better. They probably enjoy it. That's fine. I'm totally grateful I did it when I did it."
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
Adam Schefter takes his turn in the "Still No Cheering in the Press Box" series by the Povich Center.
The Dave Goldberg, the long-time NFL writer for the Associated Press, is this year's winner of the Dick McCann Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Frank Deford does an NPR commentary on Derek Jeter's Players Tribune.