It was always easy for me. I always knew why Bud Collins, who died on Friday at the age of 86, mattered to me. My life and my career wouldn't have been remotely the same if he didn't take an interest in me when I was working nights at the Boston Globe while I was attending Boston College, and told me that writing about tennis might be a good way into the newspaper business, and a chance to live out my dreams the way he'd lived out his own.
All of us on the inside of Bud's world knew why he mattered as much as he did, how becoming the colorful character he did sometimes made people miss the real story with him, what a gifted writer he was, and reporter, and essential figure growing the sport in this country. But if you have been watching the amazing reaction on social media to his death, and you aren't a tennis fan, maybe you've been wondering what all the fuss was about; why the guy in the funny pants could possibly matter the way he did.
"He put into perspective for us that tennis was a game, a sport, a passion, but there were more important things in life," Chris Evert told me on Friday after the world had learned of Bud's passing.
Chris is as great a champion as our country has ever produced in any sport. Bud gave her a nickname when she first came along, because he had a nickname for just about everybody, from when he called Ken Rosewall the "Doomsday Stroking Machine" to when he called Serena and Venus Williams "Sisters Sledgehammer." Evert, when she was a teenaged sensation, was "Chris America." Later, long after 18 major singles championships, she would follow Bud into the broadcast booth, and find out what a lot of others did, that what he made look so easy really wasn't.
When I told her on Friday how much I was going to miss Bud, Chris said, "Me, too."
She added: "Tennis will never really be the same."
You look at the landscape of sports, and the landscape of the modern media, one that becomes meaner and more self-absorbed by the day, and wonder how many other writers or broadcasters would ever have somebody say about them what an immortal like Chris said about Collins, who became an immortal himself.
Of course there have been other figures like Bud in other sports. Vin Scully is 88 years old. When Scully finally stops broadcasting Dodgers games, it will feel as if 100 people left the room. He has been one of the most famous voices we've ever had in America, in anything. There will always be an extraordinary bond between baseball broadcasters and their voices and their fans. But Bud meant this much, all the way back to the 1960s, to a whole sport.
Nobody ever outworked him, or took his work more seriously, and nobody ever had more fun, or made more friends across the world, along the way. On the last day I ever spent watching tennis with him, we were in the President's Box in the stadium named after his dear old friend Arthur Ashe at the U.S. Open. One of the people who came by to say hello to Bud that day was the old German player, Rolf Thung. I had never met him, but when we were introduced, I smiled and said, "What sort of thing is a Thung?" It was a lead Bud had once written when Thung won an early-round match at Wimbledon.
Thung smiled and said, "Bud."
As always, it was one name in tennis that told you everything.
Collins covered Davis Cup matches all over the world, with Ashe and Stan Smith and Bob Lutz. Even with his breezy style, he was telling his readers why the Davis Cup still mattered. He told everybody why Arthur Ashe mattered. He went with Ashe to South Africa, and wrote about that, bringing his talent and his humanity to a story that was about so much more than tennis. When people weren't seeing the greatness in Martina Navratilova because she had come along to steal some of Chris's thunder, Bud did.
There was this year at Wimbledon when some of the London papers were obsessed with the relationship between Martina and Rita Mae Brown, and whether or not they were going to marry. This was what feels like a hundred years before the world woke up and changed its thinking on same-sex marriage. Martina became so fed up with being hounded that she finally announced she was skipping a post-match interview, something that just wasn't done at the All-England Club.
Bud had some TV work to do, but told me I had to go find Martina and tell her that she had to come down to the press room.
I went to the door of the women's locker room and asked the attendant to go find Ms. Navratilova. Martina came to the door and I told her that she could do what she wanted, but she would only make things worse for herself if she ran from the press, because she was the one with the high ground.
Then I promised her that if she came down to the press room, things would be all right.
"How do you know that?" she said.
I told her, "Bud will take care of it."
She came down there. Bud asked the first question. He might have asked the second and third, too. Nobody asked a single question about Rita Mae. It was as if in that moment to get at her they had to go through him. Nobody in that room was going through Bud.
"His legacy is a lifetime of smiles," Mary Carillo told me on Friday. She is more the heir to Collins' work as a tennis broadcaster than anyone, because of her own wit and intelligence and reporting, and her own sense of fun. "He was such wonderful company, to all of us."
He came in with Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver and Lew Hoad and Rosewall. He saw the rise of Jimmy Connors and Borg vs. McEnroe and Sampras vs. Agassi. He saw the majesty of Chris vs. Martina and then the Williams sisters becoming the heirs in this country to his old friend Althea Gibson. He lived long enough to see Novak Djokovic take on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in their primes and beat them.
Chris Evert is right, of course. Her sport, and Bud's, will never be quite the same. It will still be the sport that Bud loved his whole life, and celebrated the way he did, and made as much fun as he did. It will still be something to see at its best. Just not the same.