Bud Collins died on Friday. He was 86 and he’d been sick for a while so it wasn’t a shock. But I felt as if I’d lost my best friend.
Here’s what’s significant about that: I know for a fact that I was one of hundreds who felt that way. Bud Collins wrote and talked about tennis better than anyone who ever lived. Period. But he also taught countless young reporters how to cover tennis and how to love the game even when many of those in it were anything but loveable.
“How do you remain so enthusiastic about a sport with so many bad people?” his friend and colleague Dick Enberg — a pretty upbeat guy himself — once asked him.
“I guess I just see good in people,” Bud answered.
I once joked that Bud would find something good to say about Mussolini. “He did play tennis,” Bud answered.
Bud not only saw good in everyone, he tried to do good for everyone. There was no one he didn’t go out of his way to help. When you first covered tennis, Bud took you by the hand, got you into places where no one in the media — except him — was allowed to go and made sure you had someone to eat dinner with every night at Wimbledon, where his friends at an Italian restaurant stayed open until he and his friends arrived every night. It was, as we called it, Bud’s place or bust. Everything else was closed by the time we all finished working.
Bud wasn’t just the guy everyone loved to spend time with, he was a trailblazer. In 1963, Boston’s local PBS station, WGBH, decided to televise the U.S. Pro Championships from Longwood. There was only one person in town who knew anything about tennis: Bud, who covered tennis for the Boston Globe.
So he hosted and did play-by-play and color for the tournament. When tennis went “Open,” in 1968 — allowing pros to play in the major tournaments — NBC began televising Wimbledon and CBS the U.S. Open. Bud was hired by both networks. In those days no one working for a newspaper was ever on television and no one was allowed to work for more than one network.
He was the first print reporter to cross over to TV. Every single once-inkstained writer now wearing a $2,000 suit on television should have been tithing to Bud for years. He helped make tennis matter in this country with his infectious love of the game and his outrageous approach to everything he said, wrote or wore.
He always insisted on being introduced on TV as, “Bud Collins of the Boston Globe,” because that was his first love and he never wanted to lose the feeling that he was a working journalist. He wasn’t a good reporter — he was a great reporter. People told him things they wouldn’t tell anyone else.
In the fall of 1990 my one and only tennis book, “Hard Courts,” was published. It was reviewed in Time Magazine by someone who was a weekend tennis player and considered himself an expert.
He crushed me.
Because I had been critical of the way the sport was run; because I had portrayed many of the players as spoiled and arrogant; because I had written about the pox that I believed appearance fees were, he wrote that I simply didn’t understand the beauty of the game. If you wanted to read a book that truly captured the wonders of tennis, he said, one should read Bud Collins’s autobiography, “My Life With The Pros.”
So there was one thing we agreed on: Bud’s book was wonderful.
A few days later, I got a call from a producer at “Nightline.” The U.S. Open was in progress and the show wanted to put me on with Bud to talk about the sport: he who saw beauty vs. he who saw corruption. Great, I said. So they did what they called a pre-interview with both of us. Bud told me later how his pre-interview went.
“Feinstein says agents are ruining tennis, what do you say about that?”
“Couldn’t agree more.”
“Oh well, Feinstein says tennis players are the most spoiled, over-protected athletes in the world.”
“He’s 100 percent right.”
“What about his claim that players who take under-the-table appearance fees should be suspended for six months?”
“I’d make it a year.”
Finally, exasperated, the interviewer said: “Is there anything you and Feinstein disagree on?”
“Absolutely,” Bud said. “He’s a Mets fan, I’m a Red Sox fan.”
A few minutes later, the producer called me. “We’re canceling the segment,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“You and Collins agree on everything.”
“Did you notice,” I said, “who the book is dedicated to? Who do you think taught me everything that was in the book?”
I had grown up watching Bud on television and reading him in the Globe because I had family I visited in Boston often. In 1980, I was sent by The Post to cover the last weekend of the Open as a sidebar guy. Barry Lorge, The Post’s tennis writer, introduced me to Bud. I was thrilled.
Two days later, I happened to be walking past the Globe’s press box seats and heard their telephone ringing. I knew that Bud and Lesley Visser, who was also covering the tournament for the Globe, were out on the press box porch watching the men’s doubles final. So I answered.
“I’m looking for Bud Collins,” a voice said.
“He’s not here right now, can I take a message?”
“Look, can you find him? This is Abbie Hoffman.”
Very funny, I thought. Hoffman had gotten out of jail a day earlier.
“Sure it is,” I said.
“I’m serious,” he said. “Could you please find him?”
I thought maybe it was someone who really needed to talk to Bud who didn’t want to identify himself. I walked out to the porch and said, “Bud, there’s a guy on the phone for you claiming to be Abbie Hoffman.”
Bud never missed a beat. “Oh, he must want tickets!” he said.
It was Abbie Hoffman, and he did want tickets — which Bud got him. Abbie Hoffman played tennis briefly at Brandeis. His coach was Bud Collins.
Visser, who worked with Bud at the Globe for years, called me Friday shortly after Bud died. We had known this was coming — Bud was in hospice care — but she was in tears anyway.
“Who do you think Bud would rather talk to,” she asked me, “Rod Laver or the guy sitting at the end of the bar?”
I thought for a second. “What he’d like most would be to talk to the guy at the end of the bar about Rod Laver.”
And you can bet if the guy asked, Bud would get tickets for him.