By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 3, 2007 11:41 AM
It's going to be a very difficult final week of Wimbledon for Bud Collins, because apparently it's also going to be his final week working for NBC Sports at the most revered tennis championship in the world.
Collins, now 78 and completing his 35th year in the booth for NBC, also happens to be the most revered, recognized and yes, even occasionally reviled tennis broadcaster on the planet. But his imminent departure from the network's Wimbledon and French Open coverage is yet another sign that network sports executives often need to have their heads examined on a regular basis.
NBC will spin this as Collins moving on to pursue other interests, even if his only interest is to remain covering tennis' mega-events for the network. They'll say that in recent years his role had been shrinking, that he was doing fewer and fewer post-match interviews and features and that after 35 years it seemed like the right time to cut the cord. So they'll do a schmaltzy video sendoff to honor his grand work and outrageous wardrobe selections in its Sunday broadcast, and don't let the door hit you in the rear end on the way out of the broadcast booth.
Better they should put that fluffy feature on hold, cancel the press release announcing his departure and do an about-face by bringing him back next year, and for as long as he still wants to ask tennis players questions after their matches.
There also have been published reports, which NBC sources deny, that Collins essentially has been let go in yet another company-wide cost-cutting move, not unlike the way the NBC Universal, a subsidiary of General Electric, has decimated the sports staff at Channel 4 in Washington and bid an unceremonious goodbye to George Michael.
If there's any truth at all to those reports, the network ought to be ashamed of itself. His salary for his work at Wimbledon and The French Open surely wouldn't even equal the price of a 30-second commercial during NBC's signature Breakfast at Wimbledon telecasts this weekend.
And if keeping Collins on the payroll would mean NBC had to clutter the telecast by selling an extra minute or two of advertising, who could possibly object to a little more interruption of the action if it would allow him to stay on, perhaps in perpetuity?
Collins began his career as a sports writer for the old Boston Herald in 1955, and this is not the first time he's been linked to a media cost-cutting ax. After a distinguished 35-year career as a sports columnist for the Boston Globe, by the late 1990s Collins essentially had become a part-time contributor to that newspaper, writing 50 or 60 columns a year, most of them on tennis, his true sporting passion. It was a love and love match, as he might say himself.
The Globe was looking to save some money and a newspaper-wide edict went out saying part-timers would no longer be used. But when word got out that Collins' would no longer be writing in the paper, his colleagues at the Globe and all over the business were outraged, and many of us even wrote blistering pieces about the unfairness of it all.
Collins also had been an occasional guest on Don Imus's nationally syndicated radio show, reporting from all the major tennis events, and the I-man was similarly incensed over Collins pending dismissal by the Globe.
Imus made it a regular cause celebre, sparking even more protests from around the country, and after weeks of being inundated by angry phone calls and letters, Globe management finally realized the error of its ways and kept Collins on the payroll, and part-time be damned.
Not long after that, the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) honored Collins by making him the 1999 recipient of the prestigious Red Smith Award for his long and distinguished service and his contributions to the art of sports writing. After all, this was the man who once called Steffi Graf "Fraulein Forehand" and dubbed the great Bjorn Borg "The Angelic Assassin" in print and on the air, with countless player monikers spicing up his copy and his commentary over the years.
During the presentation ceremony, then Globe sports editor Don Skwar sheepishly acknowledged the Globe's blunder, and said, "We expect Bud will be with us ad infinitum." He and the Globe have been true to their word, because Collins is still filing dispatches to the newspaper wherever he travels on the tennis circuit.
All of that being said, I know there are viewers out there who aren't huge Collins fans. Some think his questions of players who just suffered agonizing defeats are a tad too tough. Others wince when they hear his outlandish player nicknames, still more can't believe any man would ever think of wearing a pair of trousers embossed with strawberries or chili peppers on a national network telecast.
I would disagree on every count. As for his sartorial selections, a woman I know said it best just the other day. "I tune in," she said, "as much to see what Bud is wearing as for what he's going to say."
I've always been a huge fan, as well. "The Great Collini" as many of his friends describe him, never took himself or the game he was covering too seriously, but he had a journalist's instinct to ask the very question viewers at home were probably wondering about themselves. He had a ball covering a sport that clearly has benefited from his colorful commentary, particularly now in such a deadly dull era of smash and bash men's tennis.
I've known Bud for most of the last 30 years, first as an editor who handled his occasional columns for The Washington Post, then as a fellow "tennis writer" when I covered my one and only Wimbledon in 1994.
In a 1999 column when he was honored by the APSE, I wrote that "Collins couldn't have been more gracious, giving me a guided tour of the facility, introducing me to players and officials and telling them, 'You really should talk to this man.' I will forever be grateful for his help, and I'm sure countless other novice tennis scribes -- not to mention longtime veterans -- can say the same."
In another speech the night Collins won the Red Smith award, then Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, a fine tennis player and tennis writer himself, said that Collins "fell in love with a game that he wrote about and talked about into a microphone. It's a love affair that remains lusty today, and is best described in his own written words, from the preface of his tennis encyclopedia:
'For me tennis is a pitcher of lemonade,' Collins wrote. 'Sweet and piquant, altogether tasty. The lemons, freshly picked and squeezed, yield something a little different each time. Delightful. Refreshing. Satisfying.
I never tired of the flavor. Pour me another glass, another match.'"
NBC would be wise to do the right thing -- pull a Boston Globe and change its mind, as well. Pour Bud Collins another glass, another match, for as long as he cares to be there to savor it all.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.