I could sit here and tell you the fact that Bud Collins invited me over for breakfast a few weeks ago has nothing to do with the opinion I'm about to voice, namely that NBC's decision to banish Collins to the players' box and replace him as its primary tennis analyst—with Jimmy Connors for the men and Chris Evert for the women—is wrongheaded. (For the record, the breakfast invitation came last month, on the morning of the French Open men's final, when Bud and I espied each other from adjacent hotel-room balconies, and he insisted that I join him on his terrace. The croissants were down-soft, the orange juice fresh-squeezed and the host's conversation so civil it could have tamed even Andre Agassi's haberdasher.) But I'm not going to be so disingenuous. The fact is, my breakfast with Bud has everything to do with my position.
NBC, you see, bills its live broadcast of the finals from the All England Club as Breakfast at Wimbledon. Hence the problem with Connors and Evert: You hear Jimbo and can't help but think he'll start a food fight. You hear Chrissie and wonder if she'll turn up her nose at whatever's put before her and ask if there isn't any Yoplait.
Collins is different. Since he began introducing the masses to tennis on television—he did his first NBC gig at Forest Hills in 1964 for $200 minus expenses—he has drawn a distinction between respect for the game (O.K.) and slavish reverence for it (not O.K.), and has passionately defended that line. To watch a match with him is to sit down to a meal—not a stuffy one with elbows banished from the table but a repast with whimsical byplay and heaping helpings of so much good stuff that the hours slip by unnoticed and nobody wants to leave.
Critics have said Collins is not an "expert" commentator. Not so. He won the national indoor mixed doubles in 1961 and certainly knows the game. It's said he's a cornball. Yes, sometimes Uncle Studley, Collins's wisecracking, fictitious alter ego, overstays his welcome, and Collins's alliterative nicknames for players go careening awkwardly every which way, but these are unforced errors committed in good faith, the benign result of a shotmaker going for the lines. It's also alleged that Collins isn't telegenic. But who's to say? Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC sports, is the guy who thought Deborah Norville was just the ticket for beleaguered Today, and now Joe Garagiola, every bit as cleanheaded as Collins, is trying to bail out Norville and the show.
"I'm not unhappy," says Collins, with his usual magnanimity. "I'm willing to try something different. Chris and Jimmy are very welcome." But NBC needs Collins back in the booth instead of doing interviews with peripheral figures like coaches and players' relatives in and around the stands. As Andrès Gómez won the French Open, the network homed in on a woman in the players' box, assuming she was Anna Maria, Gómez's wife. Collins knew better, and when the match ended, he interviewed the correct woman. The point is, if he hadn't been exiled, without a monitor, to the role of hustling up talking heads, Collins could have prevented the mixup.
Collins is too egalitarian of spirit to hold a grudge or play favorites. His replacements, by contrast, bring heavy baggage with them to the booth. The biggest story in women's tennis right now is Jennifer Capriati. Well, Capriati's agent is John Evert, Chrissie's brother, and she took lessons for five years from Jimmy Evert, Chrissie's dad. Capriati also wears a bracelet given to her by Evert for Christmas in 1987. JENNIFER is engraved on the front; LOVE, CHRIS on the back.
Capriati's counterpart in the men's game is Agassi, for whom Connors has a well-publicized contempt. Yet when Agassi, a self-styled born-again Christian, clearly said "——you" to an umpire during the semifinals of the French, Connors let it pass without comment. Could it have been because this was choirboy stuff next to the obscene pantomimes and profane name-calling in which Connors once specialized? Talk about being an "expert" commentator....
Collins, alas, may be a victim of his own versatility. He's a newsman, still a columnist for The Boston Globe. NBC pleads good intentions: Terry O'Neil, executive producer of NBC sports, says he can't afford to have his best scout "tied down" to the analyst's chair. O'Neil even allows that Collins may return to the booth this weekend, but only if the scolds at Wimbledon won't let him roam the players' box.
But with his sense of history and knack for the humanizing anecdote, Collins should be restored permanently, giving NBC a pair of enviable threesomes: Collins, Evert and play-by-play man Dick Enberg on the women; Collins, Connors and Enberg on the men. He could melt Evert's iciness and make Connors's churlishness more palatable. If anyone could make these threesomes work, it's Enberg.
More than anything, Collins is the game's great populist, the kindly gentleman next door, our guy in the broadcast booth. And until NBC brings him back to the breakfast table, I'm going to sleep in.