A hundred thousand words, it seems, have sung the praises of the man in the weeks since he’s passed, but the obits and tributes have avoided a cold truth: Bud Collins was hard to listen to. I mean, really hard. Like, turn off the TV hard.
Bud did not announce a tennis match; he screeched, reveled, and pruned throughout, showing off in a way that, frankly, raised questions about his knowledge and even, at least a little bit, his sanity.
“Net cord!” he’d exclaim, without fail, a half dozen or so times a match, leaving the viewer to wonder, as the two Spaniards in question hauled away on the red clay for another 30 shots, what he was getting at. I recall thinking that even I, at the age of 12, could handle a decently hit ball redirected slightly off the tape, so why was Bud grinning wickedly every time one occurred?
Why? Because Bud called matches for an exclusive audience of, well, one. Himself.
His interviews were intolerable as well, designed to prove to the player — the viewer remained immaterial to Bud in these settings — that he was preeminent. He’d start with some tortured phrase in the native language of his interviewee, before launching into an historical anecdote of questionable relevance.“Lil’ Mo!” and “Big Bill!” were frequent drop-ins.
He’d invariably shift to strategy, raising further doubts about his competence. “Why not throw a few more moon balls in there?” he once asked Michael Chang, after failing in the final of the French.
Perhaps the only thing I approved of was his jihad against calling major championships ‘Slams’.
Yet I loved him. Bud, for all his faults, was tennis, and he was so during my formative years. Bud on TV meant we had somehow gotten through Winter, Spring was here, and all of the joys of Summer awaited (the Golf and Tennis majors, the Triple Crown, at least one big fight, the Tour de France, perhaps the Olympics or, at least, the Track and Field World Championships.) From the Masters in April until the US Tennis Association crowned a champion in early September, there was an event underway or on the horizon to get excited about, and Bud was more often than not at the forefront.
Pat Summerall was everywhere as well. The anti-Bud, the voice of reason, the sports world’s Walter Cronkite, Pat narrated for CBS throughout the summer, and if Bud proved that a writer could succeed on TV (and this might be his most damning legacy, as you’ll understand if you’ve seen any number of Mike Lupica-types bloviating the day away on ESPN) Pat paved the way for every athlete in the booth unable to resist the urge to explain holding each of the 12 times it’s called in a game. Pat was rightly eulogized as a giant in broadcasting, but no giant has ever had less of an impact on his craft. If Bud gave rise to a generation of sycophants eager to be heard and recognized, Pat spawned no-one. His style, quite simply, was of another time.
And with its passing has gone my interest.
Yes, the announcers matter. The networks matter; even the theme music is critical. And not because of any difference in quality, my god no. The belly-aching that took place on the Internet over Fox taking on the US Open was as misguided as it was pretentious.
No, they matter, because one’s youth matters. Graham Greene, or someone of that ilk, had it right: a writer is forged by his or her youth. So too, the sports fan. The sports world will never be greater than it was at the age of 12, and one can never get beyond it. No matter how delusional, anyone with an IQ over 70 soon recognizes sport as circus, and after that the only thing compelling one to watch is nostalgia. Or inertia.
So today I mourn Bud Collins, by all accounts a good man and, perhaps, a very good writer, stuck with the misfortune of being miscast as a television personality by his era. Who knows; perhaps Murakami is on to something and some day I’ll again hear Bud call a match, or interview some Slav, preferably with the old HBO Wimbledon theme music in the background. Until then I’ll continue my extended break from tennis on TV. Shouldn’t be too hard.
Ps. And yes, some soul felt the need to post this on youtube. 27 seconds in…