All the accolades you’ve been reading and hearing about the late Bud Collins are accurate — he was the nicest guy I’ve ever met in the business and one of the most charismatic. He knew everything there was to know about tennis and communicated that knowledge beautifully. But when I think about his career over the past half-century, something else comes to mind. Bud Collins not only broke down barriers in making tennis a major sport, and pioneered the procession of journalists becoming television commentators, but Collins was an even more important figure in the world of journalism than that. He broke down barriers between writing about sports, and writing about the world. Billie Jean King admired him, and so did Howard Zinn.
As much as the tennis world treasures his contributions, I put an even higher value on how he managed to integrate what he thought about sports with how he thought about everything else — Vietnam, race relations, nationalism. When I started writing about television in the early 1970s I wanted to write about TV the way he wrote about sports.
I first became aware of him when I was an undergraduate at Boston University during the 1960s. Thumbing through the Boston Globe I started seeing this column that not only had photos of Carl Yastrzemski and Bill Russell but Bob Dylan and Bobby Kennedy. Not only did he seamlessly weave these cultural icons from outside of sports into his columns, he did it with singular grace and humor. It seemed like the way we should think about sports, as one more facet of life, not a world apart.
He also brought a singular political passion to his writing. He was one of a handful of sportswriters to defend Muhammad Ali when he resisted the Vietnam-era draft. Jim Murray, Howard Cosell and Collins, who was a superb boxing writer, are three of the few sportswriters who did. He was an excellent writer about everything, really. Globe editor Tom Winship eventually gave him an op-ed column, which is how I met Bud.
I was working at the radical student newspaper, the BU News, edited by Ray Mungo. Mungo had called for the impeachment of Lyndon Johnson and the abolition of BU’s then-horrible Journalism department — as well as the abolition of the school’s ROTC program. Bud wrote a gleeful column about Mungo and the BU News cast of characters, including Ed “Bruiser” Siegel. (I was an anorexic-looking 95 pounds at the time.) I don’t think he ever called me anything but “Bruiser” or just “Bruise” for the next 50 years.
Bud was our mainstream hero, a lifelong liberal who railed against the Vietnam War and any manifestation of racism he found — and there were many manifestations in the sports world, of course, not the least of which was Boston's antipathy to the Russell-led Celtics. While other writers were making excuses for why the Red Sox under Tom Yawkey were so late to the table to hire black players — they were the last pre-expansion team to integrate, in 1959 — Collins for years would attribute the Red Sox woes to “The Curse of Jackie Robinson.” He had always been a huge supporter of the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester and its efforts to make tennis accessible to youngsters from less affluent families.
The 1960s came to an end, and Collins’ op-ed column ended as well. I joined him in the sports department, though at a considerably lower level. I started as an “office boy” in the sports department in the early 1970s (they’re now gender-neutral editorial assistants) answering phones, compiling Red Sox averages and making coffee runs. By this time Bud had become more of a tennis specialist, traveling the world and being in Boston only sporadically.
But when Bud was in the office the department was an infinitely more soulful place as he walked around in bare feet, picking up any telephone that rang with a resounding “Globe Sporting” greeting and sharing a smile and a story with anyone who was lucky enough to cross his path.
I coincidentally fell in love with tennis, myself, and when I noticed that he was going to be on NBC one Saturday while Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and a very young Chris Evert would be in Newport I asked him if I could cover the semifinals. “Great idea.” He then gave me words to live by after I said, “I have to tell you, I really like the sport, but I’m not an expert.” He said, “Oh, Bruiser, this is journalism. Don’t let that ever stop you.”
Bud was also a role model for championing younger writers like Mike Lupica and Bill Littlefield. He’d do just about anything for a younger journalist that you’d ask him to. (Though he never did fix me up with Evonne Goolagong.)
When I got promoted to the copy desk I would invariably, because no one else cared about tennis, edit Collins’ copy — a very easy thing to do as he was both extremely fast and extremely clean. But there were a couple of problems. One was that the heads of the copy desk would often want his stories cut, particularly his lengthy tennis reportage, which was nearly impossible since every sentence flowed so beautifully into the next one.
The other was that one of the other topics he liked to integrate into his writing was sex. For those of us who had cut our teeth at the Phoenix and the Real Paper, this was no big deal. But Globe standards were different and the copy desk veterans were not amused by Bud’s sense of humor. They’d warn the junior freelance editors to be aware of him “sneaking dirty stuff” into his columns, regaling us with the time a proofreader called the desk after Bud had referred to the land of Onan. “Hey,” he said, “do you know that Collins has somebody masturbating in the paper?” (The proofreader used a more colorful expression for onanism.)
Everybody’s favorite, though, was his reference to the crush that young women had on tennis player Bjorn Borg, referring to the “Borgasms” they’d have watching him. I don’t think it ever made it into the paper and Dan Shaughnessy was still writing around the term in his nice remembrance of Collins in the Globe on Saturday.
The copy desk veterans were mostly conservative politically and though they liked Bud personally and respected his writing they were turned off by his politics. I remember a column he wrote about the Munich Olympics in which he went beyond lamenting the murders of the Israeli athletes and decried the horrors of nationalism everywhere — including in the United States. It was a magnificent column, but the head of the desk moved it inside to make room for a run of the mill column about the Red Sox.
If Bud always had a smile for people he certainly had reason not to. He was a poster child for bad things happening to good people, losing both a wife and a significant other to brain tumors. Through it all he was always a mensch.
About five years ago I gave a little talk at a charity event honoring Bud and I recalled the time I was drafted to be Bud Collins for a night. The US Pro at the Longwood Cricket Club was one of the biggest tennis championships in the country and when the final moved to Monday nights, Collins was unable to make his first edition deadline. Those who were close to the sport knew that he would enlist someone at the Globe to write his first edition story for him — with his byline — and then he’d sub it out for the later edition with his own piece. The powers that be knew something was fishy, but I don't think they really wanted to know how he got that first edition story in since he was on TV the whole time.
So in 1974 he said, “Bruiser, you’re up this year.” I was nervous as hell, in part because I could have been let go as a freelancer if editors found out, but there was no way of turning him down. Fortunately Borg made quick work of Tom Okker that year and I set about making the story as Collins-esque as I could — he had called Jimmy Connors "the brash basher from Belleville, Illinois." I used rhymes (thrashing and bashing), alliteration (hurling Thor-like thunderbolts down on Okker) and literary and musical allusions (I might have thrown Strindberg in there). Bud read it after he signed off from PBS and said, “This can stand,” but thought better of it when the doubles final turned out to be more dramatic than the singles.
The next day I got into the Globe and one of the veteran editors asked if I had written the first edition story. I tried deflecting the question lightheartedly and he added, “Whoever wrote it did a good job of imitating Bud, but it wasn’t Bud.”
Indeed. A whole generation of us in the sports department spent our youth trying to write like him. But there was only one Bud Collins.
Ed Siegel is editor and critic at large of The ARTery.