Journalists of a certain era tend to embrace the perpendicular pronoun with all the enthusiasm of Scrooge hugging Tiny Tim. “I” might be the skinniest word but it punches its weight in vanity. Hugh McIlvanney famously would perform linguistic gymnastics in his perfectly crafted sentences so as to refer to himself as “this reporter”, thus diluting any suggestion it was the great man himself at the centre of the story – even though it often was.

He understood the pleasant fact that we are regularly hurled into the orbit of the famous. It can be a perilous place, where the trick is to balance professional distance and disguised awe, then avoid the gentle chiding of envious colleagues, friends and family.

In one oft-quoted instance, the photographer Andy Hall and myself pretended not to be the least bit starstruck for nearly four hours in a New York hotel room as Muhammad Ali interrupted his flow of anecdotes and tricks to chat with Will Smith on the phone, while Don King cackled in the background, sitting alongside one of Louis Farrakhan’s scowling lieutenants. Ali and King then collapsed on the sofa and sang a passable version of Frankie and Johnny, a song whose lyrics echoed a dark episode in the promoter’s past. It would be perverse not to cherish such surreal moments.

What I (sorry) really wanted to do growing up was play saxophone for Duke Ellington but Johnny Hodges refused to die. I didn’t even own a saxophone. Having fallen short of that mountain top, it’s been untold fun writing about the doings of others, from political scallywags and criminals, arty types of varying pedigree (from Van Morrison to Barbara Carrera) and a few giants of sporting life, too.

Without wishing to send you all to sleep, the journey began for this reporter on a local paper in Maitland, New South Wales, in 1970 and ended up in the Shangri-La of our business, Fleet Street, where nobody grows old, even if every hungover muscle and bone says otherwise. Fifty sun‑dappled summers on – as the darling Frank Keating might have said – and I’m the last man in and just an over or so left till stumps …

What an unexpected stagger to the finishing line it has been: banged up all year on Zoom in front of the compulsory bookcase pretending to be far closer to the action than the kitchen and the coffee. It’s been odd for all of us, of course, including the people we write about. The paradox is they live in a bubble most of the time anyway.

Falling between name-dropping and a humble brag is an impossible task in this business, but those who have been generous enough to share their time all left an impression. Michael Schumacher was unexpectedly kind, vulnerable and utterly obsessed; Seve Ballesteros was boyish but imperious; Dave Mackay (with whom I spent most of a summer) was stern but welcoming; Richie Benaud (whom I knew away from the cameras) judged every utterance like a leg-break looking for a home; Don King was one long comedy act, especially during a mad week in Cairo, with underlying menace; and Jimmy Greaves, who finally has been awarded a gong he is possibly too ill to appreciate, was heartwarmingly human and very, very funny.

Dave Mackay leaps over his Tottenham teammates Cliff Jones, Ron Henry and Jimmy Greaves in 1965
Dave Mackay, with whom Kevin Mitchell later spent much of a summer, leaps over his Tottenham teammates Cliff Jones, Ron Henry and Jimmy Greaves in 1965. Photograph: PA

Getting to know some of them has been an unexpected joy. It was in Cincinnati a few years ago that I (apologies) got my first full-throated laugh out of Andy Murray. It had been a while coming. “So, do you think you’ll retire before me?” this reporter asked as we chatted about air miles, rubbish restaurants, boxing and bad backs. He’d already won two grand slam titles and several Masters with a body that was knocking like an old banger. His draught-horse limp was in its early stages. But he was far from done. “You wish,” he said, allowing himself a wide grin as if he’d just won a bet.

Privately, our little clique of travelling witnesses would wonder how many times Andy would say “tough” in a press conference. Thousands, probably. We never told him. Now he knows.

Murray told me recently he’d like to believe in God but couldn’t because there was so much inexplicable suffering in the world. Of all the things he’d ever said, it was the most illuminating and, from now until he retires, it will most completely inform my understanding of him.

What has been a privilege to witness is how champions differ from the rest of us in nearly every respect. They have no self-doubt. They’re ruthless, sometimes selfish and even cruel. They practise until they drop, and they can touch heights others dare not dream about. They are also usually way richer. Let’s face it, they are not normal.

They do it because they love what they’re mysteriously more brilliant at than nearly anyone else alive – a gift they never properly understand. It’s like they had been vaccinated against mediocrity at birth. Sport is not only their job, it’s their drug, their destiny, they would say, and sometimes their curse. Yet, with the inevitability of a deadline, they all come to realise that one day the magic will leave them and then they’ll be like the rest of us. No overs left to bowl, no saxophone.

When 47-year-old Oscar De La Hoya confirmed this week that he intended to box again, he said it was because he missed it. Really, he is scared to walk away for good. They are meteors and we are earthbound. Few elite athletes last much longer than a decade while we’re still banging on until we have to turn to golf to squeeze into last year’s trousers.

The pandemic also has given us time to reflect on how leisurely things once were, when the cricket and football seasons tripped over each other, when pitches were muddy, our heroes skinny and our bellies flat. There were long summer days when you could hear all the birds, smell all the flowers, take some of the wickets.

This much I know: it’s been a hell of a ride so far. (More to come).

Five favourite moments from the past 50 years

1) The Australia dressing room at the Oval, last day of the fifth Test of the Ashes, 2005. I’d been ghosting John Buchanan all summer, and I’m standing among the vanquished, with Shane Warne (who seriously did not like Buchanan) grinning over my shoulder, as the coach now has to say nice things about him, when he would gladly have wrung his neck. Doesn’t get much weirder than that.

2) Madison Square Garden, 1997. Chatting with Budd Schulberg, famous for writing the best line of any boxing movie: “I coulda been a contender.” We’d just watched Naseem Hamed get up three times to knock out Kevin Kelley. “He could be the biggest thing in boxing since Ali,” Budd says, “except he won’t be. His ego will stop him.” The frail, stuttering nonagenarian who once stared down Ernest Hemingway was right on both counts.

Paul McGinley celebrates his winning putt at the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry
Paul McGinley celebrates his winning putt at the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

3) Long past midnight in Jimmy’s Corner, New York’s best dive bar, half a block from Times Square, the tail end of summer, 2012. Unbeknown to me and my colleagues, Andy Murray was around the corner in a Japanese restaurant, picking up the $6,000-plus tab for family and friends to celebrate winning his first grand slam title – and drinking orange juice. He’d get drunk for the first time in years on the plane home.

4) The Belfry, September, 2002 – even if the banners said “2001 Ryder Cup”, held over after 9/11 a year earlier. Curtis Strange’s clock was out, too, as the US captain mysteriously held back Tiger Woods until the end on day three – some say to hit primetime TV at home, and they could only listen from a distance as Paul McGinley drained his putt for a half against Jim Furyk on the 18th to win the first of seven tournaments out of nine for Europe.

5) Has there been a more Shakespearian tennis match than Naomi Osaka’s nerveless first grand slam title victory, as Serena Williams rides her emotions in the 2018 US Open final, doomed to be as misunderstood as Desdemona? The American, guilty in the eyes of Othello (umpire Carlos Ramos), cried at the skies and morphed into an emotional wreck. If she ever wins her elusive 24th grand slam title, it will be her greatest triumph.