Thursday, September 3, 2009

Athletes Saying Hello as its Time to Say Goodbye; Covering Tennis with Bud Collins

During my annual visit to the U.S. Open on Wednesday I encountered an old friend who asked if I had seen any of the ceremony honoring Andre Agassi or had watched during the telecast when he spent some time in the booth talking about his career and the state of the game today.

I said I hadn't done either but that someone had told me Agassi had been critical of today's players for not being more media and fan friendly. Needless to say I found that ironic since Agassi spent a good deal of his career ducking the media at every turn. It was only when his Image is Everything image started to lose some of it's luster that he started inviting reporters to visit him in Las Vegas and letting them drive one of his cars so they would think he was a good guy. (It wasn't me, it was a colleague at the old National Sports Daily.)

I bring this up not to rip Agassi, who did grow gracefully into tennis old age and was probably as popular with fans--in large part because of the work done by his image-makers--as anyone. I do remember his tearful farewell speech after he lost at the Open three years ago during which someone who knew him well turned to me and said, "I guarantee you the place where he starts to cry is written into the script."

Okay, maybe I am bashing him a little, I have too many memories of him refusing to be interviewed by Mary Carillo because she asked 'tough,' questions (he insisted on Cliff Drysdale who thought, 'great playing today Andre,' was a tough question) or of the day in Vienna when he was practicing for a Davis Cup match and asked Bud Collins to hit with him for a while. "You're the tennis expert, let's see how you play," Agassi said. Bud had not, in the view of Team Andre, exalted him the way he expected to be exalted. Bud, in case you don't know it, was a very good player once upon a time, won a national mixed doubles title in the 60s. He was 62 on the day in question and facing hip replacement surgery. Agassi was 21.

Agassi hit a few easy balls at Bud and was surprised when they came right back at him. It's easy to tell someone who knows how to play the game very quickly, there's a fluidity to the way they swing the racquet.

Agassi picked up the pace and Bud stayed with him. Finally, clearly frustrated that he hadn't been able to humiliate Bud, Agassi took a short ball and hit it as hard as he could right AT Bud. Bad hip and all, Bud managed to dodge it. He put down the racquet and said quietly, "I think that's enough for today Andre."

Actually I started out to write this about athletes who want to say hello when it's time to say goodbye. All of a sudden, as their careers come to a close, they decide the media isn't so bad--in fact, they decide that being IN the media is a pretty good idea. Agassi hasn't done that, he's done a lot of very good charitable work along with his wife Steffi Graf, but he still loves the spotlight--which is fine. Having said that, I think I'd rather write more about Bud Collins than about people like Steve Carlton who talked to no one when he was winning Cy Young Awards and then held press conferences when his ERA with the Twins was well over five runs a game. Or about Sterling Sharpe, who never talked to the media as a player but was happy to take ESPN's money when he retired. Not to mention my old pal Mr. Television, Bob Knight.

You see, Bud Collins is one of the great men in the history of the planet. More than 40 years ago he was the first newspaper guy to crossover and do TV and he did both so well for so long that he is still writing for The Boston Globe today. Wednesday, he was scurrying around at The Open (at 81) doing a spot for ESPN, checking out various matches and--as always--taking time to answer questions from young reporters.

I first met Bud at the 1980 U.S. Open when I was sent up the last four days to write sidebars and caddy for the late, great Barry Lorge, who was then The Washington Post's tennis writer. Barry introduced me to Bud, who instantly told me he was fan of my work--stealing what was supposed to be my line. I had first watched Bud do tennis on TV in the late 1960s when the local PBS TV station in Boston began televising what was then the U.S. Pro Championships from Longwood. I'd been reading him whenever I could get a Globe for as long as I could remember.

On Friday afternoon, I was writing a story about Chris Evert's upset--and it was an upset at the time--of defending champion Tracy Austin. The men's doubles finals was going on (in those days they played the doubles in-between the women's semis) and I heard The Globe's phone ringing. Bud was outside the press box watching the doubles, so I picked up the phone to take a message.
When I told the guy that Bud wasn't there and I'd take a message, he said, 'look, is there anyway you can find him, this is Abby Hoffman calling."

Yeah right, I thought. Abby Hoffman had just gotten out of jail, which was front page news. This was only twelve years after the Chicago Seven became famous and his name was still a notorious one. "I'm serious," the guy said. "Please try to find him."

For some reason, I believed him just enough to put the phone down and go find Bud. "There's a guy on your phone claiming to be Abby Hoffman," I said.

"Oh he probably wants tickets," Bud said as if I had told him his next door neighbor was on the phone.

He was right. Free from jail, Hoffman wanted to come to the Open that weekend. It was only later that I found out Bud had coached Hoffman at Brandeis.

Bud has lived an extraordinary life. He has traveled the world and made more friends and helped more journalists than you can count. He has twice lost wives to cancer and his sister and brother-in-law, who ran a drug rehab center, were murdered in their sleep by a former patient who had come back to try and 'free' his girlfriend. Through all that tragedy he has never lost his zest for life or his willingness to help out or his love of tennis or people. Even Dick Enberg, who partnered with Bud on NBC for years, once expressed amazement at his patience with the people in tennis.

"How in the world do you stay so enthusiastic when you have to deal with these guys every single day?" he asked.

When I first started covering tennis, it was Bud who introduced me to people, Bud who sneaked me into the off-limits players tea room at Wimbledon and Bud who kept telling me that I needed to hang in there and cover the sport no matter how frustrating it became. I still remember him cheering me up when one of my first tennis interviews went horribly wrong in 1985.

Gabriela Sabatini was a rising star back then, just 15, but quite beautiful and ranked in the top ten in the world. I jumped through about 47 hoops at The French Open and was finally granted a 20 minute interview with her in the player's lounge following a match. I knew she didn't speak a lot of English and I didn't speak very much Spanish so I needed an icebreaker question, something to relax her a little bit. Finally, I hit on it; Sabatini had made her pro debut the previous fall at the U.S. Open and had reached the third round. The USTA had brought her into the interview room after her loss and she had been shy and sweet. Someone asked what she would do with the $8,000 she had won for making the third round.

"My parents just bought me a little dog," she said. "I will buy him a present."

Aha, I thought, I'll ask what she bought the dog.

So I did. The minute the question was out of my mouth, I knew I'd made a horrible mistake. Sabatini burst into tears. "The dog," she said, choking out the words, "the dog died."

So there I sat with this 15-year-old kid with people scurrying over demanding to know what I had done to make her cry. It was all I could to keep from crying myself.

When I told Bud the story he laughed and said it was time to go get a glass of wine--which wasn't hard to do in Paris.

On Wednesday I reminded him that I often said he liked people so much that he would have found something good to say about Mussolini.

Bud shrugged. "Well," he said. "The guy did play tennis."

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