Bud Collins, seen here a 1993 file photo wearing his trademark brightly-colored pants, dies at 86.
Bud Collins died on Friday morning at his home in Brookline, Mass., not so terribly far from Longwood Cricket Club, one of the places where he first broadcast tennis on television and became as important a media figure in one sport as anybody has ever been in this country. After such a joyful and exuberant life Bud’s wife Anita said his last days were quiet, Bud seeming most at peace with classical music that he loved playing in the background and a racket near him and a tennis ball in his hand.
This was the end of a long season of pain for him that began five years ago, with a fall at the US Open, and a ruptured quad muscle. Bud’s old friend Red Auerbach was once asked by Bill Russell if he had any advice on growing old.
“Yeah,” the old man said. “Don’t fall.”
Bud fell and ruined that muscle in his leg and then everything that possibly could go wrong for him after that went wrong, and he spent too much of the last part of his life in hospitals and rehab facilities and finally in his bed. But he was a giant of his sport, and of the newspaper business. There really ought to be a whole wing of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in his honor. And he was my friend, from the time I started taking dictation from him as a teenager when I was working nights at the Boston Globe and he was always filing stories from everywhere except the far side of the moon.
“Always act like you belong,” he told me the first time he ever walked me into Forest Hills to watch a match at the Open. I have written about this before, but there was the day when he grabbed me and said we were going to watch Pancho Gonzales play what might have been his last match in our country’s national championship.
“I just want you to see the guy I’d have play for my life,” he said.
The first time I ever flew to London for Wimbledon, the year I graduated from college, Bud Collins was sitting next to me. Then he walked me through the gates of the All-England Club and into the office of an old lion of English newspapers, Roy McKelvy, who was the press officer for Wimbledon at that time, and looked at me as if I were applying to be a ballboy.
“Take care of this kid,” Bud said to Roy McKelvy. “He loves the business like we do.”
But nobody ever loved it more than Bud Collins, who was so much more than just a tennis writer. He wrote brilliantly about boxing, and politics, and the city of Boston. Later in his career at the Globe, he used to write a column called “Bud Collins Anywhere,” because to the end, before his body betrayed him, he was still the kid out of Ohio who wanted to pack a portable typewriter and get on a plane and go find a good story, or a new adventure. When I first met him, when he was covering stories all over the world, I thought there could never be a newspaper life more glamorous than his. And maybe there never was one.
Somehow he was on a first-name basis with every great tennis player from the 1950s on. But then Bud was on a first-name basis with everyone. We’d be walking across West Side Tennis Club or the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center or the All-England, and somebody would come up and say, “Hey, Bud,” and Bud would unfailingly greet the person by name.
Then we’d keep walking and I’d say, “Bud, when do you meet that guy?” and he’d smile and say, “Five years ago at the Open, I think. Maybe ten.”
He was one of the first to make the transition from newspapers to television, first on Channel 2, WGBH, the public broadcasting station in Boston. From the start, he made everybody watching him and listening to him feel the way I did sitting next to him at some of the biggest moments in tennis over the past 40 years:
He made everybody feel as if they had the best seat in the house.
Bud Collins in action in 2002 as he presents the winner’s check in Newport, R.I., to Taylor Dent.
He was smart and funny, and kind and gentle. Not just my friend. The best friend tennis ever had. When Billie Jean King won her doubles championship at Wimbledon, and Bud realized she had no real way to celebrate that, he took her and her doubles partner, Karen Hantze Susman out to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was one more random act of kindness from Bud Collins in a life full of them.
The USTA finally dedicated the media center at the National Tennis Center on a Sunday morning at the last Open. No one knew until a couple of days before if Bud would be well enough to make it from Brookline to a moment and an honor he so richly deserved. But he did. And Billie Jean was there, and Martina Navratilova, and Mary Carillo, and more friends from across his tennis life.
It was the day before that I will remember best. There is always one day at the Open when my wife and I are still invited to sit in the President’s Box. We had randomly picked the Saturday before the ceremony for Bud. I still didn’t know he was in New York.
But we were having lunch in the dining room that day and I turned my head, and Bud, in a wheelchair by then, was coming through the door with Anita. And I knew that I was going to get to spend one more afternoon of tennis sitting next to Bud Collins; that one more time I would have the best seat in the house.
I wrote of the day last September, and how Bud turned to me at one point as we watched Roger Federer and said, “Where else would you want to be?” Of course in that moment there was nowhere else I wanted to be. This was where I had come in. Really, sitting next to Bud Collins had been the beginning of my own life in newspapers.
I saw him the next day at the ceremony. I got a note from him a week or so later. Now he is gone, at the age of 86. I have said this about others before him, just never with more feeling than I do today: He is not just survived by Anita, and step-children, and grandchildren. Bud Collins is survived by the sport of tennis.
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