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Sports writers should be fans, too

Long-time Boston Celtics beat writer Bob Ryan wrote during a time when beat writers had relatively unfettered access to the athletes they covered; traveling with the teams; attending practice; and, eating, drinking and spending time with the players on the road. Back then, the writers and players became friends.

There was a shared sense of trust, of mutual admiration and respect.

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Last week, Grantland published a long-form article, written by Brian Curtis, about Ryan. Curtis' column made clear his admiration for the way Ryan wrote. Curtis wrote about the strengths of Ryan's writing style. But, also about the special place Ryan occupies in the hearts of Boston's well-chronicled sports fandom.

Boston sports fans love Ryan because he is one of them. He is their voice; personified. Ryan wrote unapologetically — to his audience and to the athletes he covered — with the voice of a fan, saying, "sportswriters say, 'I never root. I only root for the story'. Not me. I want the team to win."

In doing so, he thumbed his nose at (one of) the more accepted rules of journalism, and his audience and the athletes he covered loved and respected him for it — including his most famous friend and subject, Larry Bird.

Curtis, calling Ryan a "writer-fan," quoted Bird's sentiment on the subject of Ryan and such writer-fans, with Bird saying, "they all are out there. They cared. They just want you to win. In New York, they want you to lose so they have better stuff to write."

As Curtis wrote, "you can squawk about impartiality, but that's not homerism. That's a different approach." Paul Westphal said that Ryan, "loved the Celtics and what they stood for and what they meant to basketball. But, he loved basketball more. Which I think was fair enough." Ryan, as Curtis explains, "was the kind of Celtics fan who demanded good play and personnel management. Anything less he took personally — and litigated it in the Globe."

Bird's point is the most important of all, as it is one that needs to be kept in mind among sportswriters, always.

Sportswriters who persist with, and insist on, voicing negatively-skewed opinions on athletes' and teams' performances for the sake of doing or being nothing more than curmudgeonly in and with their reporting or opinions do nothing more than advance and percolate a negative atmosphere and perspective about their (hometown) players and teams.

Fair criticism is fair; and/but, it should be balanced with fair praise, too.

Sportswriters who do nothing but bitch are a lot like food critics that do nothing but the same. I've never understood how someone who is getting a free meal — a free good meal — can consistently complain about the quality of that same free — and good — meal. Similarly, I've never understood how sportswriters, most of whom have never played the games they cover, can take such personal shots at the performances of the athletes and the teams they cover. Particularly knowing the amount of effort that goes into both — the meal, and the athlete and team's performance.

To Bird's compliment in praise of Ryan and writer-fans like him — and Curtis' qualification of the same — there should be a sentiment of support among sportswriters. They should want their athlete and team subjects to win; and they should write with a voice that supports the same. Bob Ryan did this, and Boston fans loved him for it.

Baltimore's sportswriters have a chance to do this now; to celebrate and champion the Orioles' season and the success the team has enjoyed; and, whether in victory or defeat, to write as, and to write in the voice of, a (writer-) fan.

It should be noted that am writing this on Saturday morning, hours after the O's dropped their opener against the Royals; and/but, I hope, regardless of the games' outcomes between now and when this column goes to publication, that Baltimore's sportswriters will write, like Ryan did for his Celtics, as Orioles' writer-fans.

Matt Laczkowski is a former college basketball player and a former coach who writes a Monday column. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or coach@with-character.com.

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