Bud Collins's sportswriting was foundation of career, legacy
You stand at the corner of Washington and 5th, South End of Miami Beach, and only stillness that seems a death rattle drifts from the open second story windows. For forty years the rattle of punching bags emanated from those slits to mingle with sunbeams and traffic din….
Does that sound like a man in funny pants? Are those the words, the rhythms, of the sideshow barker who banged the drum so furiously, so lovingly, for tennis for so long? You saw Bud Collins at Wimbledon, in Paris and New York and Melbourne. You saw him exploding through your TV screen with bombast and look-at-me fabric and overripe nicknames—Fraulein Forehand! The Brash Basher of Belleville!—and maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t, or maybe you liked it and yet winced sometimes, too. No sport needed airing out more than tennis when he came along in the ‘60s, but you felt the tongue planted firmly in cheek there: Bud was puncturing the thing, even as he was pumping it full of a new kind of gas.
Still, read this:
Imagine the Widener being torn down and you can grasp the enormity of the 5th Street Gym’s demise. Think of the maestros of manhandling who trained here for their recitals—champions named Sugar Ray (Robinson and Leonard), Willie Pastrano, Carmen Basilio, Luis Rodriguez, Sugar Ramos, Joey Maxim, Jose Napoles, Ralph Dupas…too many to recount. And, of course, the titan himself: arrived as Cassius Clay, becoming the greatest of all American athletes—Muhammad Ali….
You didn’t expect a reporter to be so generous. You knew the breed; you were one of the breed: Journalists are tight, cynical, competitive and neurotic. Half of us have no idea how to speak to another human being. With Bud, everybody tells the same story. I was a young writer, a nobody knowing nothing. “Uh, Mr. Collins (meaning, for a time, the most famous face in the game, repository of its secrets and its histories and thus well positioned to be a small man, a territorial, self-important ass), can I ask you a question?”
A glance up from the keyboard. Papers, books scattered all over his desk, a line of TV types, ex-players, coaches and fans waiting to talk to just say hello.
“Ask two!” he said.
He gave you everything—insight, out-of-school tales, phone numbers. You weren’t special; he gave everybody who asked everything they needed. Because he loved the game, he loved the attention you paid it, good or bad, and whatever it took to keep that attention coming was more important than some minor scoop. He gave tennis his all, and that was a gift beyond knowledge; it’s impossible to resist bottomless enthusiasm. You walked away thinking, always, that no one ever enjoyed tennis, travel, people—hell, life—better than Arthur "Bud" Collins. But if you weren’t careful it was easy, too, to think that he just skimmed along the surface of it all, a feather, a laugh. Maybe he had the answer. Maybe you shouldn’t take things so seriously….
It was what a gym should be—stained and grungy, a seedy parlor for palookas and princes of the science. A shabby ivory tower. You had to climb stairs to reach higher learning. It has ever been thus. The distinguished gyms were stale, aromatic walkups where fresh air was suspect. Stillman’s in New York. The New Gardens on Friend Street in Boston. All gone now.
That was written in 1993, Boston Globe. Maybe he worked it in while in South Florida, covering what was called the Lipton then. Collins wasn’t known for anything but his tennis work by then; to many, he was professional tennis, its megaphoned voice. As Boston’s Ted Williams told me in 1996, apropos of nothing: “You know who's done more for tennis in the last 15 years? Bud Collins. You know he used to chew me out in the goddam papers? I hated the little bastard. But he knows what he's talking about, no question! He should be the commissioner of tennis! You tell him that."
I told him: Bud was delighted. We had become friends, had gone to dinners, met at Grand Slams, he and I and his marvel of a wife and helpmate, Anita Klaussen. I brought up the 5th Street Gym piece early, and he would go on about the other things he had worked on, early: Riding on the bus with Ali, coaching Abbie Hoffman. He loved the Williams comment, the mention of the boxing gym piece, the fact that it was chosen for Best American Sports Writing, I think, because it reminded him—and us—of his chops as a reporter and writer on matters beyond tennis, on his feeling for baseball and time and boxing and decay and the way the world always moves mercilessly on. He could do it all.
That’ll be forgotten now, mostly. His contributions to sports will be confined to his work as a TV trailblazer, as the key shaper of America’s tennis boom. But read this, please, and note that the cadence, the pacing, has none of the carnival or the TV studio or the sideline interview about it. Note the discipline. The restraint.
Beau Jack, the 72-year old ex-lightweight champ, sits amid rubble and ghosts in a corner, keeping a “sad, sad” deathbed vigil until the wreckers arrive. “So many good men here. Now nothing. It’s terrible.”
It wasn’t always sad. The classroom was noisy and electrified by Ali’s presence, his confidence and sense of fun. He showed up in 1960, says Dundee. “He said, ‘Angelo, get all your bums ready for me. I’ll take ‘em all on.’ He was a great learner….”
The TV work was always just a sidelight, you see. Bud wanted to write, always felt best typing, always kept his seat in the press room even when his name was at its height and there were cozier, quieter TV offices nearby to hide in. But he didn’t want to hide. He wanted to get back to himself, I always felt, back to the him that he always was and wanted to be, the him that somehow got lost whenever the camera light beamed or someone would approach and say, “Oh, Mr. Collins, I loved watching you when I was a kid….”
Don’t misunderstand. That mattered to him, dearly, because the sport mattered to him, dearly, and he took such attentions to mean that you loved it, too. He died on Friday at 86, after a long sapping illness; this last week, I’m told, he slept with a tennis racket and ball in his hands. The feel of them soothed him like little else could.
The rest of us? There is no soothing when someone like this dies, taking with him a singular noise and electricity, a dose of pure fun and, yes, a melancholy that you couldn’t help notice here and there. There’s a sadness in beautiful souls. Bud wrote his out, beautifully, at least once. All gone now.