It’s hard to believe that a sportscaster who had a closetful of the wildest pants on the planet and wore them at tennis tournaments around the globe isn’t remembered just for that. Those trousers were insane.
But, when people talk about Bud Collins’s legacy and his importance to tennis, those blindingly loud fashion statements are forgotten until deep into their reminiscences.
But they aren’t forgotten, of course, and explaining how they became a trademark says something about the man, who died in 2016.
Collins’s widow, Anita Ruthling Klaussen, recalls, “Sometime early in the ‘60s, his tailor in Boston, Charlie Davidson, told Bud, ‘You look awfully boring on TV. You look like a yachtsman.’ Charlie said he would make him a pair that people would remember but he had to promise to wear them. And Bud kept his word.”
Spectators shrieked when they saw him in that first pair at a Davis Cup match in the ’60s. He also discovered they thought it was, well, fun. And so did he.
“He had 52 pairs when he died,” Klaussen says, many of them outrageous enough that an onlooker might not even notice the fancy bowtie he also wore. His famous strawberry-colored pair — the special one he always wore at Wimbledon — is now in the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club museum, which held a special event to celebrate the pants’ arrival. Another pair, weirdly commemorating the “Rumble in the Jungle,” featured a drawing of Muhammad Ali on one leg and Joe Frazier on the other; it’s in the Smithsonian.
But, really, that’s sideshow. Broadcasters and tennis fans and players loved Collins because he loved them. He loved the players, and he loved the fans. He loved the game and, in fact, was far better than average on the court.
“I don’t know if anyone has been more important to any sport than Bud Collins,” says Lesley Visser, whose friendship (and mentorship) with Collins went back all the way to the Boston Globe. Fresh out of Boston College, she joined a quartet of sports writers — Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Will McDonough, Ray Fitzgerald, and Collins — whom Sports Illustrated described as “arguably the greatest collection of reporting talent ever assembled in a sports section.”
Collins took Visser under his wing. He showed her more ropes than she ever imagined existed, and having Collins as her mentor opened every door a young journalist could ever knock on. In 1977, she recalls, she was at her first Wimbledon Championships and had to introduce herself to the pros. “Some were more difficult than others,” she says, diplomatically. “But, when I said, ‘I work with Bud Collins at the Globe,’ the seas just parted.”
Collins never got too big for his britches, however outrageous they were. He called himself “a scribbler for papers and a babbler for TV.”
He was, of course, much more. A sportswriter and TV commentator, mostly for NBC, he also reported about boxing, civil rights, and Vietnam. He had the comfort of being a man who just knew.
When NBC dumped Collins in 2007, fans and colleagues howled. He joined ESPN and, later, ended his career at the Tennis Channel.
Ken Solomon, the cable network’s president, grabbed Collins as soon as he could. “I told people, ‘There’s not a Tennis Channel without Bud Collins,” he recalls. “Before Bud, there was really no sports calling. The tennis announcer was just an extension of the TV picture, removed from having personality, just giving a technical account. Bud was just the opposite. Bud was at the forefront.”
Solomon’s not the only one who thinks that way.
“It is difficult for people to completely understand how much Collins has meant to tennis and to journalism,” wrote Washington Post columnist John Feinstein. “You know all those ex-print guys now working in TV, many making serious money? The trailblazer for all of them was Collins, who began doing tennis for WGBH in Boston in 1963 when the local PBS station decided it wanted to try the unheard-of experiment of tennis on TV during what was then the U.S. Pro Championships at the Longwood Tennis and Cricket Club.”
His knowledge of the game was encyclopedic. He wrote the authoritative 795-page book on tennis, The Bud Collins History of Tennis, and other books, and he and Rod Laver wrote Laver’s autobiography, The Education of a Tennis Player.
He didn’t mind spreading his knowledge around. In fact, he loved it.
New York Times sports columnist George Vescey wrote, “Across the decades, Bud Collins had a standard line when someone — typically, a newspaper competitor — would rush over and wonder if he had a moment to answer a question. He would look up cheerily from the keyboard and say, ‘Ask two.’“
Klaussen and Visser remember that generous spirit. When he traveled, he would bring back spectacular, thoughtful gifts for staffers where he worked. At tournaments, he always knew the fabulous restaurant no one else knew about and would take everyone after “work” was done.
He was the same with spectators In the stands. When Klaussen had just begun dating Collins, he took her to a match. She had only the vaguest idea about what he did, so she was startled by what she saw.
“He could not walk 3 ft. without being stopped,” she recalls. “I asked somebody about what was going on, and they said, ‘Good grief. On what planet did you grow up? Bud is as big as it gets.’“
After 35 years in which his name had become synonymous with the game, NBC dismissed Collins in 2007 in a manner that makes the word unceremoniously seem an understatement: NBC Sports head Ken Schanzer left a message for Collins just as he arrived at Wimbledon.
Klaussen is mostly mum on why she thinks it happened but ruefully acknowledges that Collins was hurt. After all those years at the network, there was no big send-off for a journalist who had done so much to popularize tennis in America and tennis on TV. “No watch,” she says. “Nothing.”
But Collins is certainly remembered. Those pants in the Wimbledon museum, for example. In 1994, he was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1999, he received the Red Smith Award for distinguished sports reporting from the Associated Press and, in 2002, was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. Today, other accomplished sports journalists receive awards named after Bud Collins.
“He was beloved by people around the world.” says his widow. “Bud’s life was five stars.”