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March 9, 2016 01:17 PM

Bud_CollinsToby Smith remembers Bud Collins

Bud Collins, who died March 4 at age 86 was, for almost fifty years the face and voice of American tennis.  Collins was everywhere, it seemed. He wrote columns for the Boston Globe, turned out a half-dozen books and conducted interviews and critiques at major tournaments.

To be honest, I was not always a Bud Collins fan. After a while the imaginary people he yakked about on TV broadcasts seemed tiring—the goofy Uncle Studley, the fabled net-cord judge Fingers Fortescu. Same went for the many nicknames he gave to everyone who picked up a racket. Romania’s Ilie Nastase was the “Bucharest Buffoon,” Jimmy Connors, the “Basher of Belleville” and on and on. Wimbledon to Collins was forever “The Big W.”

Yes, Bud Collins knew a great deal about tennis. Yes, he had been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Yes, he was one of the first sportswriters to move successfully into national television. In my mind, however, his commentary had grown unfunny and repetitive. And then of course there were those kaleidoscopic pants that looked as if they had been made from Pago Pago shower curtains.  As the years passed, Collins seemed more about his pants than about tennis.

Then suddenly I turned into a fan.

It happened in 1998, when my brother, Tom, sent me a Christmas gift. Beneath the wrapping paper was a copy of “Bud Collins’ Tennis Encyclopedia.” Tom, who lived in Boston, had gone to an event in that city at which Collins was selling and autographing his 700-page doorstop. Tom bought a copy and presented it to Collins to inscribe. Tom told him my name and that I wrote about tennis for a newspaper in New Mexico.   

“To Toby Smith, from one great writer to another,” Collins scribbled. “Keep that pen humming.”

I have to admit those words, laughable as they were, made my day. OK, so I hadn’t used a pen to write anything in decades but checks. Didn’t matter. From then on I smiled whenever Bud came on the air. His familiar prattle no longer bothered me. Well, once in a while it did. Best of all, I can’t tell you the number of times I used his encyclopedia to check a fact or settle a bet.

In December 2007, I went Portland, Oregon, to cover the Davis Cup final between the United States and Russia. In possession of a credential from the USTA, I entered the press room. Right away I spotted Bud.  He was no longer writing regular columns for the Boston Globe and I hadn’t glimpsed him on TV in ages.  His writing was mainly focused, I had heard, on a blog he had created.  He was sitting off by himself in the press room, hunched over a laptap. I decided not to bother him. It was clear that Bud was no longer The Guy in tennis.  I felt sorry for him.

At the Portland airport, following the U.S. victory, the last time America won the Cup, I spotted Bud wandering around alone. He truly looked lost. A woman I took to be his wife suddenly appeared and quickly came to his rescue. It crossed my mind that Bud might have the beginnings of dementia.  One news story said he had died from Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

As I stood in line to board my flight that day, I glanced behind me and there stood Bud. This time I introduced myself and asked why he was going to Albuquerque.  

He said his wife, Anita, a photographer, was from Santa Fe.  But on this trip they would be going on to Longboat Key, Florida, where later that month he was hosting his annual Hacker’s Holiday tennis tournament. Then Bud pulled out a small cardboard flier announcing the tournament and gave it to me.

“You ought to come,” he said.

I didn’t go, but I got Bud to sign the flier. As he did, I said that I now owned two autographs from him. Bud nodded, but I could see he didn’t understand.  

When Bud asked me what I did in Albuquerque I said I wrote about tennis for the Albuquerque Journal. We talked about that for a good while. Eventually the conversation turned to Gladys Heldman, the founder of World Tennis magazine, one of the forces behind the birth of women’s professional tennis and formerly a Santa Fe resident. I told Bud I started writing about tennis in the late 1960s because of Gladys. Bud said he had played on Gladys’s home tennis court in Santa Fe several times before her sudden death in 2003.

After that brief encounter, Bud seemed to disappear. Then the news came that he had died at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Like him or not, Bud Collins turned many people who weren’t interested in tennis into followers. He loved the game, loved talking about current players and those from the past, loved coining names and giggling about it all.  Who really cared if you had already heard a lot of what Bud said?  I certainly didn’t.  His daffy creations are now a part of tennis lore, just as Yogi Berra’s mangled quotes are part of baseball history.
In one obituary I read that Bud’s personal life, about which I knew nothing, had been a series of sorrows. It wasn’t just Gladys Heldman who was gone.  A woman who had been a companion to Bud in midlife had died of brain cancer.  A few years later, another woman he married died of a brain tumor. Perhaps Bud’s jokes and sweet nature were his way of hiding the grief he must have carried.

A Boston Globe sports writer brought forth a Bud Collins line of long ago, one I had not heard or read. Seems Bud once wrote that the many female admirers of Bjorn Borg became convulsed at the very sight of the Swede. To Bud, such paroxysms were “Borgasms.”

Once again Bud made my day.

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