After nearly 40 years Bill Reynolds has written his last column for the Providence Journal
By KEVIN McNAMARA
The calls would always come, often in dizzying fashion.
“Is Reynolds there?”
“Yeah, Bill Reynolds around?”
“Bill Reynolds please, this is Steve Alaimo.”
Steve Alaimo? Oh, that’s a secret code name. We all knew that was really Rick Pitino surreptitiously looking to track down the Providence Journal sports columnist.
While Sports Department extraordinaire Bobby McGarry knew all the names cold, I got to know the voices that chased Reynolds too. Back before caller ID, I’d pick up the phone at 75 Fountain Street and an array of characters would be in hot pursuit.
You may have heard of Dave Gavitt, Lou Gorman, Vinny Pazienza and Dee Rowe and Ernie DiGregorio but there was also Joel from Worcester, Joe Boots and Sam the Ram, the persistent URI hoop groupie who would always call from a pay phone and never revealed his identity.
Then there was Jersey Red, the cocky bantam rooster from Fall River. He was once a cook at Pitino’s frat house at UMass and then taught culinary arts at Durfee High. He was a Reynolds fave, for his insights and scoop but also the hilarious five minute monologues he’d leave on his answering machine that eviscerated friend and foe alike. Jersey owned a million lines. When you met him it was hard not to notice his lazy eye. He once told McGarry he had blue eyes: the left blew one way and the right blew another.
Why would these friends and haunts beat a steady drumbeat into the Journal’s sports line and not Bill’s cell phone, or home? Reynolds didn’t do cell phones. He really didn’t do home all that much either. Way back when he lived in a stylish condo on South Main Street. Reynolds bought the condo from my wife and a year or so later she asked him about the troublesome right-hand burner on the stove. Reynolds said “I’ve never noticed. I don’t use the stove.”
That’s Billy. So were the piles of bills on his desk, some paid and others simply buried under media guides and boxes of books. Then there were the scraps of paper that poured out of his pockets, names of misplaced column subjects scribbled in barely recognizable ink.
You know how images of your life are frozen in the mind’s eye? One of mine, clear as day, is of walking into an empty Providence Journal newsroom and turning the corner into the Sports Department on a Saturday morning. There’s Reynolds, glasses on, hen-pecking copy into a desk top computer.
If he wasn’t breezing through a Sunday column he was flipping through notebooks and grinding out another chapter for one of his dozen books. That was the work ethic that no other Journal employee – no other writer I know – owned. Reynolds produced books on the 1967 Red Sox, Bob Cousy, Pitino, the Big East and more.
His favorite, and mine as well? Easily `Fall River Dreams’ a labor of love that first began as a look inside a fanatical high school basketball town. It grew into a deeply personal relationship with the team’s star. Reynolds became a surrogate uncle to Chris Herren, a rock that the ex-NBA guard leaned on as his life spun out of control due to drug addiction.
Reynolds provided his friend the life preserver he needed when Herren decided to tell his story in the book `Basketball Junkie.’ That led to `Unguarded,’ one of ESPN’s best-selling 30-for-30 documentaries, and to Herren’s now successful life as an advocate for substance abuse prevention and sobriety.
Another frequent sight at Reynolds’ Journal post was the conga line of young reporters looking to pick his brain. Here’s how things began with this recently hired kid back in 1988.
“Hey Kevin, you went to Syracuse, can you do something short for a friend of mine on their new freshman, Billy Owens?”
Sure, I answered, no problem. Who does the guy work for? “Sports Illustrated.”
So began a 30-year friendship that was bound by a love of basketball, writing and laughs and a hatred of newspaper deadlines. We traveled the college basketball beat together, driving to Boston, Hartford and Storrs and always riding Amtrak to the Big East Tournament in New York. We did NCAA tourney games in Lexington, Birmingham, New Orleans, San Antonio and more. Reynolds didn’t like the travel, or necessarily the bright lights. He happily handed Final Four duty off to me early on and after his one and only trip to cover the Masters reported that he fell asleep under a tree near the 9th tee.
Our routine during the Big East was classic. We’d stay in Times Square and meet for breakfast or lunch at his favorite spot, for years. Howard Johnson’s. Bill liked the tuna fish.
Reynolds didn’t like to drive, so I used to kid him that it was like `Driving Miss Daisy’ whenever I picked him up. We wore out Route 95 to Boston for Celtics or Red Sox games, usually in the playoffs. Bill would set up in the press room and within minutes be calling me over for help with his laptop. He was strictly a desktop guy. The new gadgets on a laptop “were too much horse,’’ for him. That made deadline after a Celtics overtime thriller a total stress bomb since I’d have to email my story and then scramble over and send the star columnist’s prose in as well.
As Reynolds would say, the glamour never stops.
Neither did the laughter, and the classic stories. One well-told tale revolved around Marvin Barnes, the Providence College star whose life unraveled in a hailstorm of drugging. Barnes had called the Journal and convinced Reynolds to come talk to him for a story out in San Diego. He was in jail, locked up for stealing X-rated videos to feed his drug habit. The one provision of getting the story was Reynolds had to take Barnes’ friends out to lunch.
“I thought it would be a woman and her kids. It was 15 people,” Reynolds said. “The next day Marvin laughed, then he said `you know what the worst part of being in here is? There’s a new drug out there and I can’t try it. Life’s a bitch.”
Reynolds got his story, and Barnes eventually found crack cocaine.
Barnes, Pitino and other athletes as well as crooked Rhode Island politicians, Hollywood actors and 1960’s music stars were all featured in Billy’s trademark Saturday morning column, `For What It’s Worth.’ The genesis of that column traces back to one of Reynolds’ rubes, Jersey Red. He suggested the quick bullet format, in part to lighten his pal’s work load.
It was an instant hit. People were forever calling Bunky with a quip, a Line of the Week, or an inane sports fact. When deadline was approaching he’d yell out to anyone who would listen, “Hey, give me a quiz!’
That’s how `For What It’s Worth’ really was concocted.
All good things come to an end, of course. Reynolds was forever losing his passwords, barely looked at the internet and disdained anything corporate. The Journal changed under his feet, and mine. The glory days have passed and after walking away from his full-time job 18 months ago, the 75-year old Reynolds has written his last `For What It’s Worth.’
We can only hope some good times, good health and a few trips to Howard Johnson’s await.