An Interview with Bob Ryan (Part Two)
“Whitlock has decided to position himself as the world’s last honest man and he’s wearing a giant boulder on his shoulder.”
“Joe Theismann is…a humorless guy and a mike hog who can’t compete with Tony intellectually and Tony can’t begin to use his best stuff with him. Tony knew it wasn’t going to work – in his heart he knew.”
“Nobody in America is writing as well – anybody would be deluding himself to say he’s writing better than Selena Roberts the last three years.”
“And I have to mention – because he’s such a punching bag – Lupica. People are so insanely jealous of him they don’t realize that to get where he is he’s done the work.”
Bob Ryan: Interviewed on November 14, 2006
Position: Columnist, Boston Globe; panelist, The Sports Reporters, ESPN
Born: 1946, Trenton, NJ
Education: The Lawrenceville School, 1964; Boston College, history, 1968
Career: Boston Globe 1968 -, WCVB (Channel 5, Boston) 82-84
Personal: married, 37 years (Elaine), two children, three grandchildren (triplets)
Favorite restaurant (home): Santarpio’s, East Boston “the quintessential neighborhood pizza joint – earthy – where Mike Eruzione’s father worked for years – this place speaks to Boston, with Lefty at the grill in front laboring over sausage and peppers”
Favorite restaurant (road): The Original Pantry Cafe, LA (9th and Figueroa) “world’s greatest breakfast 24 hours a day”; Chicago Chop House, Chicago “a classic guy place that does not intimidate women”
Favorite hotel: Marriott (anywhere), Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, “never will forget a blissful three days during the 1984 Western Conference Finals”
Honors: Basketball Hall of Fame, Curt Gowdy Award, 1997
Al Campanis Moment: In May 2003 the Globe suspended Ryan for four weeks after he said on-air that Joumana Kidd, wife of Nets guard Jason Kidd, needed someone to “smack” her for taking her 4-year-old son to night playoff games where they could be taunted. Joumana Kidd had been the victim of domestic abuse by her husband in 2001.
Q. Your reflections on the Joumana Kidd incident?
A. My reflections are that I’m angry with myself forgetting in the heat of battle that the woman had been hit. I like to think that if I had remembered – or if it had been pointed out to me by the host (Bob Lobel), who could have said, “Whoa, don’t you think that kind of hyperbole is a little out of line here” – I would have reigned myself in. But it didn’t occur to me. So off I went and I wasn’t going to back down. It sounds hard to believe now but I didn’t perceive the potential damage of the word “smack” because it was purely a hyperbolic usage in the lexicon. I offer as proof, just a few days later, Doris Roberts of “Everybody Loves Raymond”, who was at the South Shore Plaza to pump up her autobiography. She was asked about the show, apropos of Ray Romano coming back for another season, and she said, “He doesn’t want to come back but I’m going to have to smack him.” That was a woman talking about a man obviously. At the time I couldn’t extrapolate. Do I feel remorse about criticizing this woman – not at all. It was just a dumb, costly – extremely costly – mistake. Out of the twelve months in the calendar year that one was the most costly to be suspended – I couldn’t do any outside stuff – it cost me $20,000. In my bracket that’s a lot of money. That’s what I forfeited by my indiscretion.
Q. What was your take on the Jason Whitlock-Mike Lupica feud?
A. I wasn’t there for the blowup show. Whitlock has decided to position himself as the world’s last honest man and he’s wearing a giant boulder on his shoulder. He picked a fight with ESPN.com and alluded to the fact that he didn’t like the new pecking order. I always enjoyed doing the show with him – he’s smart and he really knows football – but it seems like this thing was puffing him up to a degree I try to avoid myself. In all the years I’ve done I’ve never once mentioned it in a column. Why am I on that show? In 1989 Joe Valerio took over the show – he was an acquaintance from the 1970s when he was with the New York Post – before he went into TV producing. He called me and asked me to get involved – if somebody else had taken it a different set of characters would have been on. Jason is picking a fight you’re not going to win – Joe is going to protect Mike. Jason didn’t need to pick a fight about ganging up on Barry Bonds. Come in and have a nice discussion and walk off in Tip O’Neill fashion – that’s the way we’ve always done things on that show – until this. Let’s see where he goes with his career because he’s very talented.
Q. How is Tony Kornheiser doing on Monday Night Football?
A. He’s sui generis – there’s no one else like him – a unique force. He’s a truly great writer going way back – unlike anybody else – and he did a radio show unlike anyone else’s. PTI was created for his unique talents. The Monday Night Football thing is going to be something that happened. When it’s over – a couple years from now it will be regarded as “he gave it a shot”. It didn’t work out. He pocketed a lot of money and didn’t hurt anybody. He’ll survive the hits on it and go back to what he does. He’s a good friend. How can you compare him to anybody?
Q. Why isn’t he clicking?
A. He’s not clicking because what Tony does best is make fun of things and crack wise about things before or after and that insight has nothing to do with working a game. I’ve done color locally and it’s just different.
Then you throw in the third-party factor and if it was going to work it would be with somebody he could develop a shtick of friendly banter and the guy could compete with him to some degree intellectually – and you could get that going without being too cartoonish. Joe Theismann is not that guy. He’s a humorless guy and a mike hog who can’t compete with Tony intellectually and Tony can’t begin to use his best stuff with him. Tony knew it wasn’t going to work – in his heart he knew. But it was an honor to be picked and he had to take the money – which would have turned the heads of all of us in his position.
Q. Writers you admire?
A. Mark Whicker (Orange County Register). He wins no awards – but that speaks more to the people who give them out. He’s the guy who writes what I wish I had written – I used to say that about Frank Deford in SI. My new favorite is Selena Roberts (NY Times). Nobody in America is writing as well – anybody would be deluding himself to say he’s writing better than Selena Roberts the last three years. She is a combination of an eternally entertaining writer who picks interesting topics and has proven herself to be versatile in types of column and sports. I followed her through the Knicks job and tennis.
Some people are born columnists and some aren’t. Some are fluid essayists and feature writers but don’t have the slightest clue how to write a column. Some people are pedestrian writers but know what a column is and how to sell it.
And I have to mention – because he’s such a punching bag – Lupica (NY Daily News). People are so insanely jealous of him they don’t realize that to get where he is he’s done the work. He can be very good when he puts his mind to it – he’s a big event guy. You can make an argument that he’s got a lot on his plate and that some of his routine stuff can be better, but he can be very good at big events. Another writer I’ve come to appreciate in a short time because he understands what a column is Mike Vaccaro (NY Post). Harvey Araton (NY Times) is another one. Dan LeBatard (Miami Herald) is a fabulous writer. Jon Saraceno (USA Today) – I know first-hand what it means to be viewed as a specialist – me in basketball and him in boxing – who must prove himself to be conversant in a broader range, so I feel professionally proprietary about him. He totally understands what a column is all about, and he can really turn a phrase.
Q. Electronic media you admire?
A. I’ve always been a (Bob) Costas guy. The problem with broadcast people is that familiarity inevitably breeds contempt. I don’t know of anyone who has survived a long period of time in the public eye with being hit by a backlash. You are deemed to be too old, too repetitive, and too preachy in people’s minds. If you’re onstage long enough you’re deemed to have lost it. It can happen to writers too. (Chris) Berman is another huge punching bag but he’s still good – he’s got a real breadth of knowledge.
Q. What kind of personality do you need for sports media?
A. Everybody is different. Peter May (Boston Globe) is an erudite detached intellectual guy. But he has friends in the business – people he gets information from. He’s not a wide-eyed fan – he watches games on TV but doesn’t bring the same kind of intensity I do.
We’ve never had anybody like Mike Reiss covering the Patriots. Even Willie (McDonough) was a little cynical. Reiss is the ‘me’ and Peter (Gammons) of 2006. He loves football and can’t get enough of it. I haven’t met anybody remotely like that. He can’t write the way Peter and I do – he’s not as funny – but he’s as intellectually curious.
Q. You and Gammons started at the Globe at the same time. How would your careers have developed if Gammons had been assigned to the Celtics and you to the Red Sox?
A. In 1969 Peter and I split the first six home games of the Celtics. Peter would never have been Peter in basketball. He could write it and understand it – he went to North Carolina after all – but he was raised in Groton on hockey and baseball. He would have done a good job but his passion would have had a limit. I could have become a big baseball guy but not on the level of Peter. I love baseball more than anything – I have more empirical knowledge about the game than any other topic – and love it more than most people but not as much as Peter. I would have come closer to Peter in baseball than he would have come to me in basketball. He wouldn’t deny that.
Q. Our younger readers may not know that hilarious GQ food writer Alan Richman was a sportswriter – what can you tell them?
A. Alan is a brilliant writer who translated into sports wonderfully. He could write with humor and sports needs people who can write with humor. I always enjoyed his stories. He had the right temperment – he enjoyed covering a 9-73 team (the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers) and will tell you so. I wouldn’t have, but he did, and he found great stories on that team. He wrote for an afternoon paper – the Bulletin – and one time the Sixers were playing the Celtics in Providence and I was supposed to meet him after the game for a beer at the Holiday Inn. I waited and waited – he wound up in a deep conversation with Roy Rubin, the Sixers coach, who poured out his soul to him – just totally unleashed it. Alan got a really great story out of it. He was a terrific sportswriter – he could write food and politics just as well. Some people are just good writers no matter what it is – I like to think that if I wrote anything else it would be the same thing.
The greatest NBA writer of all time was George Kiseda – the “Silver Quill” – my favorite writer. If only I could have written like him – although in terms of game stories nobody could write like yours truly – but writing for the PM (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin) was an art form George had mastered. He moved to LA and worked the desk for the Times – for years we could always tell the headlines he wrote. George was a huge Wilt fan – he claims he once saw Wilt palm a bowling ball.
(SMG thanks Bob Ryan for his cooperation)