No sport carries a sense of community like tennis. Even with gigantic prize money and swollen retinues of today, the sport remains somewhat a caravan of gypsies familiar to each other, even though their occupations vary – players, coaches, hitting partners, significant others, moms and dads, agents and publicists, plus the specialists who cover the sport: the peripatetic photographers plus the scribblers and babblers, as Bud Collins called himself and his colleagues.
Arthur Worth Collins, Jr., was the center of one sport, more than any other journalist has ever been.
In his half century on the beat, tennis has been a movable feast, seeking warm spots year round – Monaco in April, Wimbledon in late June, Australia in January – jet-lagged regulars taking the rays during a desultory early-round match in some tune-up event.
Collins could doze in the sun with the best of them, as recalled by Bill Littlefield of WBUR radio, who spoke at the memorial service for Collins in historic Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston last Friday.
Littlefield talked about Collins the writer – often overlooked amidst his garish pants and equally garish vocabulary – who could describe the sound of tennis balls being “punished,” yet make it a soft, pleasurable backdrop to life itself, like a heartbeat.
Collins was the heart of the sport for decades, back to the late 60s when he shifted from a general sports reporter who recognized the special ones, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell and Billie Jean King, becoming a tennis maven.
He brought people together at events around the world, said Lesley Visser, once a Globe sports writer, now a broadcaster, who recalled how Collins could write a column and simultaneously answer questions from colleagues, always ending with some version of “ciao” in their native tongues.
(He addressed me as “VAY-chay,” which is how real Hungarians pronounce my name. Three Italian insiders – Gianni Clerici, Ubaldo Scanagatta and Rino Tommasi – in turn called him “Collini.”)
Collins, in failing health for years, passed on March 4 at 86, and his wife and protector and caretaker for two decades, Anita Ruthling Klaussen, spent three months preparing a ceremony -- on his birthday -- that was both elaborate and parochial in that most hamish of great American cities.
The service was both stately Episcopalian and randy jock. In the pews were familiar faces, and forehands, of Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Todd Martin and Pam Shriver, as well as tennis officials from around the world, and journalists who knew Collins both as friend and source (oh, and by the way, a very accomplished "hacker" in the tennis sense of the word.)
Two great champions spoke. Chris Evert recalled being a monosyllabic 16-year-old, feeling the kindness of Collins, and later, when she lost seven Wimbledon finals to a rival whose name she did not need to pronounce, Collins was always at courtside, doing a worldwide live interview “in those silly pants,” but with a kind smile that showed he understood the pain of being second on that day of days.
Billie Jean King, wearing a pink blazer in tribute to the people who died in Orlando a week earlier, captured the day, for me, because she was once again Mother Freedom – nickname courtesy of Collins – and like Evert she remembered being interviewed by Collins at 16 and finding she could talk to him.
King's talk was disciplined, smart and passionate. She remembered Ali once telling her that people had to always be ready for the moment. She found that trait in Collins, always in tune to the colors and tones and spins and bounces of that day, living in the moment, working hard, enjoying himself.
The congregation was elderly, many people moving slower than they used to. Hundreds of them came from a world where everybody followed the sun, hearing the brassy notes from the Pied Piper who was at the core of their world for so long, and so well.
Let me see if I have this right.
The people wearing jackets with FBI and ATF on them, the ones who supplemented the admirable Boston and Massachusetts officers, are part of top-heavy federal government?
The brainy public officials, current or retired, who went on television, glowing with expertise and assurance, are a drain on our tax dollars?
The men and women driving off into the Boston night, to the sounds of applause and cheers from the crowds lining the roads, are the ones who are going to come and take guns away from the so-called good guys?
The 50 states could all put up web sites like the FBI's, with its photos of the two suspects?
It’s everybody’s neighborhood, actually. Boston is one of the greatest iconic American cities, source of so much history and character in a growing nation.
Not being a Yankee fan, I never bought into the obscenities, the hard feelings, the rivalry. There’s no place like Fenway or the old Boston Garden, for that matter, or the Marathon. People who ran it talk with awe about striding down Boylston.
Years ago, I drove my young son up on Patriots' Day; we left at 4 AM and actually bought tickets and sat behind right field and watched Fred Lynn's game-ending home run get larger and larger as it flew into the next section. Then we walked down to Boylston and watched the early wave of finishers. That day will make a Boston fan out of anybody.
Boston is the place to send children for college; it’s the great young-person’s city in America. (Our three all got a visit to Boston to visit colleges, but somehow resisted.)
Boston sends strong people out in the world. In New York, we hear the accents of Michael Bloomberg and Suzyn Waldman. Never lose them, kids.
And Boston keeps strong people. Two people I care about could easily have been near the finish line on Monday; in past years they would have been. I needed message assurance that they were all right, and they were. Now we have so many more people to care about.
One other thing: In recent years, my wife and I have made glorious trips to Boston, usually staying a block or two from Boylston and wandering down to the T station to catch a movie in Cambridge or visit one of the art museums.
Often we stop in at the Bangkok Blue Thai restaurant at 755 Boylston, consistently good, feels like home. The last time we were in there, a couple of workers were planning to take one of those bargain buses to Manhattan for a day of sight-seeing. We gave tips on the best way to see our city.
To me, Boston and New York are linked far beyond cheapo bus lines or the shuttle or Amtrak, or some baseball rivalry. Boston is the great city where we have never quite lived.
I’ve tried calling and e-mailing Bangkok Blue in hopes that everybody is all right. No answer, so far.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.