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What Frank Deford Meant to Sportswriting

Remembering the pioneering, suave, and supremely talented Sports Illustrated scribe

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

No one ever described Frank Deford as modest. He wrote sentences and tucked handkerchiefs into his lapel pockets with the aim of getting attention. But as he gazed over his career, Deford, who died Sunday, understood the particular legacy he had carved out. He would be seen more as a great sportswriter rather than a great writer, full stop.

Deford thought out loud about this (again, no one accused him of modesty). And he decided — though he was more talented than many writers who pass through the gates of The New Yorker — that he was more or less comfortable with the slur. So a sportswriter Deford remained, and a sportswriter he always will be. One of his collections was called The World’s Tallest Midget.

The first thing to know about Deford is that he came from Baltimore — or, more precisely, escaped from Baltimore, like John Waters and James Wolcott would after him. "At Princeton, Deford was expelled for a year after being caught with a woman in his dormitory," Michael MacCambridge reported in his history of Sports Illustrated. When Deford went for a postgrad interview at Time Inc., he denounced Henry Luce’s mothership: "Time is group journalism." He wanted a real byline at SI.

Deford and Dan Jenkins — probably the two most important writers in Sports Illustrated’s history — were both hired in 1962. Their cubicles were side by side, but they almost never laid eyes on one another. This was a product both of SI’s lush travel budget and the fact that they kept to opposite sides of the journalistic street.

"Frank would have ideas," Jenkins once told me. "Like he came in one day and said he wanted to write a story about the national fishing league. Well, is that more than one paragraph?

"But talk about a guy who went after somebody when he wanted to write about them. He could do that. I had no patience for that. I couldn’t spend five minutes with Jimmy Connors — not without wanting to kill him."

The first thing Deford did for Sports Illustrated was inform the magazine of the existence of basketball, which was still in the sub-basement of American sports. He pitched a profile of Bill Bradley — Bradley had been a freshman at Princeton when Deford was a senior. Deford noted in his memoir that no one at SI had heard of Bradley. The piece got his ticket punched. "Why, I was as much a prodigy in my line as Bradley was in his," Deford wrote.

As a basketball writer at a national sports magazine in the ’60s, Deford had the run of largely unclaimed land. "I could easily get the players to go out with me after a game because they knew I had an expense account," he wrote. Deford once remembered interviewing John Havlicek on an airplane for an SI cover story. Havlicek had to leave the coach section so he could visit Deford, who, thanks to SI’s largesse, was flying first class.

Deford profiled all the giants of the ’60s: Russell, Wilt, and Kareem, the latter of whom once wrote him a nasty letter and with whom he remained "cordially distant." As those men could attest, the world was changing. The civil rights movement had made great strides. But there was a kind of tacit racism among sports’ white power brokers and press corps. Deford was standing in an NBA owner’s office when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. "I’m glad the coon got it," the owner’s wife said. Deford didn’t write that until decades later, when he was composing his memoir — and he never named the owner.

Deford’s prose style was inviting, easygoing, never seeming to try too hard. From "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was" (1984):

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Except for that nut-graffy half sentence at the end, it could be the first paragraph of a short story — an edgy fable. The rest of the piece read like one.

Deford wrote so well it obscured his divining-rod abilities as a reporter. He always seemed to land on just the right quote. One of Coach Sullivan’s players told him, after a plane crashed near the practice field, "The only thing that crossed through my mind was that the Russians were attacking us, and that they had decided they had to go after Coach Sullivan first." In a 1999 profile on Bill Russell’s emergence from self-imposed exile, Deford got Celtics great Tommy Heinsohn to say that Russell "won 11 championships in 13 years, and [Boston] named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams."

Sports Illustrated in the ’60s seemed to produce not only great magazine writers but writers who taught the next generation of impostors how to act. Deford was cool enough to star in a Miller Lite "tastes great, less filling" ad — and shameless enough to write a book about the campaign. By the time President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2012, his youthful pompadour had given way to a rakish, slicked-back look. He still looked cool.

Deford’s second act in journalism was wonderfully varied. It was as if he were following the same nose he used to search for story ideas. The New York Times courted him — "seduced" him, Deford said — to be the literate, worldly heir to Red Smith. Deford thought he was a better marathoner than he was a sprinter — something readers of his reactionary blasts about soccer can attest to. He later became the literary godfather of The National, where he boosted the careers of writers as varied as Chris Mortensen and Charles P. Pierce.

In CNN’s Chicken Noodle Network infancy, Deford delivered commentaries for $50 a pop; he was later a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports. On NPR, he gained new fans as a literate, worldly sports commentator and essayist. His reports were comfort food: I found myself nodding at well-turned phrases, even if I couldn’t quite remember the point Deford had argued five minutes after the segment ended.

In my limited experience, Deford was a gent, too. Well into his 70s, he’d hop on the phone to engage in a sprawling conversation about some picayune issue of sportswriting. The only trick was figuring out whether I would find Deford in his Manhattan apartment or relaxing near the beach in Key West, where he died Monday. Died in Key West — the sentence seems to describe a grand old man of American letters. If the letters were made by one of us midgets, so the hell what?