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Book Review: Scribe, by Bob Ryan

Bob Ryan's autobiography, Scribe, is really more of a biography of basketball itself rather than one the game's most accomplished writer.

In his autobiography Scribe, Bob Ryan says of his famous game recaps for the Boston Globe that he "cared deeply about writing a game story that would be along the lines of what a Broadway critic on opening night would write."

So, how do you review the guy who reviews on that level?

Besides, in the eyes of someone like Bob Ryan, I'm probably just another one of those clueless Millennials. I'm the kind who missed the Golden Age of American Music, the kind who takes John Havlicek's name in vain and who has no philosophical problems with a jumbotron in the Boston Garden. I'm also the kind who primarily knows of Ryan less through his writing than I do through his appearances on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn.

What you have with Scribe - and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible - is something that amounts to a victory lap for the retired Boston Globe beat writer and columnist, author of myriad "gamers" (those Broadway review-quality game recaps), books, and vignettes recounting powerful sports occasions and memories over the course of a forty-six year career in sports.

For hoops fans, particularly of the NBA variety, Ryan's book is practically a must-read. "I like to flatter myself by thinking that the NBA and I grew up together," he jokes. On top of his other sports-chronicling duties for the Globe, he's spent more time watching, thinking about, and writing about basketball than most of us have spent breathing. However, fans of just about any NBA team whose name doesn't rhyme with "Beltics" should be forewarned: Ryan is a Boston guy, and shows acute New England bias symptoms, namely Red Fever and Bird Flu.

Other pro teams, players, and coaches are mentioned only tangentially or in passing, save for an amusing chapter on legendary Pistons coach/fashion plate Chuck Daly, and a disappointingly trite and factually cavalier comparison of Jordan and LeBron that might have best gone unpublished. (To Ryan's credit, he gives the best recounting of Game 5 of 1976 Finals that I've ever heard - it starts on page 59.) He also talks at length about other sports, including his unequivocal love of baseball and enjoyment of covering golf above all other competitions.

Ryan is most expansive regarding Olympic competition, treating his readers to an oral history of the rise and fall and rise of USA Men's Basketball. The chapter is heavy on details about the gestation of the original Dream Team and the inevitability of the USA's defeat in the 2002 WBC and 2004 Athens Olympics, but sees Ryan do the unthinkable by skimming over Argentina's 2004 victory. While I could see certain USA Men's players feeling some gratitude to Ryan for this minimization (not the least of which would be Tim Duncan), it's likely to rile many Argentinian readers, along with Manu Ginobili fans in general, of which I'm sure one or two frequent this site.

Other aspects of the book are bound to arouse broader groups of readers, either to applause or chest inflammation. Of the sport of football, Ryan says he can't believe its endemic violence and its ruling bodies' disregard of its players' physical well-being could be legal, all while he admits to enjoying of the game on a visceral level. Of college sports, he decries the labor abuses and profiteering of the NCAA, while boasting that he's seen its member schools' basketball games in dozens of venues across the country and hopes to add heavily to that list in retirement.

Maybe the biggest thing one can take away from Ryan's book is a clarification of the very concept of luck. To be fair, Ryan was given plenty of opportunity to make use of his studious preparation. His father, who died when he was an adolescent, was deeply involved in sports. His mother had a job as a secretary at the elite Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey (he writes that attendance there was "absolutely pivotal in making the writer I would become.") This is where he gained the nickname "The Scribe."

Ryan didn't stretch his comfort zone much in attending Boston College, but his time there proved similarly instrumental. At BC, Ryan gained more writing opportunities with the student paper and, as he puts it, "(earned) my graduate degree in Hoopology (from) Professor Robert Joseph Cousy." That would be point guard Bob Cousy, the guy in the black and white photos wearing the Celtics uniform - the one who looks like your grandpa.

After school, Ryan made a habit of taking writing and journalistic jobs nobody else wanted, including the Celtic beat writer job back when Boston was a baseball and hockey town. He was an original member of PTI and Around the Horn back when those show formats were viewed with skepticism. All the while, he never abandoned his gift for translating sports action and drama into its most digestible and entertaining written form. (Says Ryan: "I was just a normal kid with an abnormal interest in the printed word.")

Of Red Holzman, the Knicks coach who guided the team to its two titles in the seventies: "I heard him sum up his philosophy of coaching life in the NBA. 'We win,' he explained. 'I go get a steak and a scotch. We lose, I go get a steak and a scotch.'" Ryan uses this exchange to portray Holzman as unflappable. A Popovich acolyte would simply view it as keeping things in perspective.

(If you ever have the privilege of meeting Bob Ryan, say nothing disparaging about Dave Cowens or Bill Walton. And you certainly don't want to say, "Who's Dave Cowens?" or "The funny announcer guy?" On the other hand, feel free to disparage Elvin Hayes. "Who?" Never mind.)

Of John Havilcek, the famed Celtics sixth man and winner of eight championships between 1963 and 1977, Ryan writes that "He was an extremely useful player until the end." Kind of reminds you of another old-but-frisky sixth man, doesn't it? Of the Larry Bird Celtics: "We (Boston fans) would all become very, very spoiled." Sports is never old and never new, it just repeats itself in ever more diverse fashion.

So, then, what if you're a seasoned or aspiring sportswriter? First, a bombshell: "I never went to journalism school," Ryan says. While he doesn't spend even a tenth of the book describing his personal life outside the context of discreet sporting events he was assigned to cover, and less than maybe 2% of that outside of his boyhood in Trenton, NJ, the reader gets the impression that arguably the greatest sportswriter stuck in sports simply by refusing to be unstuck. "There is no manual," he says. By which he means it's up to the writer to write their own.

But he saves his best - really, his only - advice for the book's closing chapter: "A writer must be true to his or her personality." Of himself, Ryan earlier wrote "(Erudite British golf commentator) Alistair Cooke ... (was) who I always thought was what I'd like to have been had I ever grown up..." I, for one, am grateful he didn't. With a grown-up Bob Ryan as its scribe, the sports world would be just a little too ordinary.