The late Deford (above in 1968) had his own view — “I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Philadelphia, whether it’s a small Chicago or just a larger Baltimore” —but he wrote gems about the great tennis player Bill Tilden, Wilt Chamberlain, Eddie Gottlieb and Moses Malone
By Theodore Beitchman
Frank Deford was an artist, as surely as Picasso or Springsteen or Streep.
His palette was the back of the book space that Sports Illustrated called the Bonus, usually 10-plus pages in the magazine.
Best known today, two days after he died at 78, as a sports commentator on NPR and as a mainstay of HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” Deford was a wizard on both.
But for those of a certain age Deford was the greatest writer in Sports Illustrated’s majestic 63-year history.
He used his observation and mastery of the language to paint portraits of the most interesting people in sports, ranging from the obvious like Pete Rozelle, Jimmy the Greek and Howard Cosell, to the not so obvious like Moses Malone, whose achievements were worth Deford’s time but whose public utterances seemingly were not. The result was a compelling 1979 Bonus on the then-Houston Rocket who was leading the NBA in scoring and rebounding, in which his basic philosophy was described in one quote:
“Basically, I just goes to the rack.”
Three years later owner Harold Katz traded for Malone (after signing him to a free agent offer sheet), and he went to the rack enough to propel the Sixers to their second NBA title.
Deford went to Princeton while Malone went directly from a Virginia high school to the NBA, but what they had in common was a work ethic — Deford was an indefatigable reporter and observer and no one worked harder to get position for a rebound and a follow-up than Malone.
In his memoir, “Over Time,” the subtitle is, “My Life as a Sportswriter,” — an understatement on the order of Warren Buffet calling his book, “My Life as an Investor.”
“Another 50 years from now when some old man says that, back when he was a boy, he’d read sportswriters in newspapers and magazines — that is, in print — I hope he speaks kindly of us,” Deford writes. “Otherwise, no one will appreciate what sportswriting was really like at its apogee. I fear all you’d know would be blogs and/or statistics — the pole-dancing of sports journalism.”
Deford paid homage to the great newspaper writers of the 20th century — Red Smith, Jim Murray, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, Stanley Woodward and Grantland Rice — but none of them had the power and the glory of a national magazine (Murray briefly did at SI before joining the L. A. Times) and none could use words as effectively as Deford.
The exception was the late, great Pete Axthelm, who was hired at the New York Herald Tribune right out of Yale in 1965 and became Newsweek’s best writer in a firmament of great writers. He could write deftly and swiftly on deadline, and his metier was the 1,500-word newsmagazine staple while Deford’s was the 4,000-word Bonus.
In “Over Time” Deford writes powerfully about his good friend Arthur Ashe, the pioneering tennis great who died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 49; gambler and commentator Snyder, with whom Deford shared a tragic history, each having lost a child to cystic fibrosis; and basketball star and politician Bill Bradley, who also went to Princeton.
And of course there is Philly’s own Wilt Chamberlain. He recalls the fallout from writing an article that was very critical of Wilt as a Lakers center. “As huge as he was, [Wilt] was not a man of confrontation,” says Deford, but he didn’t take criticism lightly. The next time Chamberlain saw Deford in the Lakers locker room, he sent his teammate Jerry West over: “Frank, Wilt would like you to leave,” West told him.
Since the press had the right to be in the locker room, Deford didn’t have to leave. But, out of respect for Chamberlain, he did. “I said, ‘OK, Jerry,’ and I made a very quick exit,” he remembers. “When I went by Wilt, he dropped his eyes. … But that’s the sort of thing that a beat writer has to do a lot of, and I never could have done that.
“The big guys — and I’m talking about any sport — don’t feel the need to be tough guys,” he says. “It’s the little feisty guys … the little terriers. They’re the ones who’re going to feel like they’ve got to puff their chest up and so forth.”
A magnificent 1978 Bonus on Jimmy Connors is my favorite Deford piece, in which he took Jimbo on directly as a mean-spirited bully in the piece called “Raised By Women to Conquer Men,” which ended with this sugar plum:
“ … Jimbo has always depended on hate to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.”
Deford loved tennis and also had a preference for the ladies. When the tennis world was ga-ga for Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Deford recognized that the best competition — and the best story — was between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
He was hired right out of the Princeton by the legendary managing editor Andre Laguerre — who transformed SI from “the four-color scrapbook for the two-yacht family,” as Dan Jenkins called it, into the weekly bible of what was becoming a true sports nation.
And, as the youngest staff writer on the magazine, Deford was assigned in 1962 to the least important sport, pro basketball. He rode that beat for about eight years and concentrated on the characters that made great stories. Of course, Red Auerbach and all the championship-winning Celtics were naturals, and even then he had a contentious relationship with Wilt, who perceived that Deford had bias toward the C’s Bill Russell.
“The Best Advice I Ever Got” is a short chapter in “Over Time” in which Colonel Sanders offers: “Son, if you want people to listen to you, wear a white suit.”
Deford eschewed that advice (Tom Wolfe evidently took it to heart), though nearly every time I ever saw him — especially in the offices of SI, where I was a senior editor in the 1980s — he wore something purple. He was tall and still gangly, if a 78-year-old can be called that, which I was reminded of six years ago when I spotted him unloading his car at the Four Seasons when he came to town to flack his book at the Free Library. I didn’t have the heart to rib him about his opinion of Philly — “I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Philadelphia, whether it’s a small Chicago or just a larger Baltimore.”
However, he did devote a couple of pages to Eddie Gottlieb, who owned the Warriors when Deford began covering the NBA. He was most impressed by Gotty’s ability to single-handedly construct the NBA schedule, but the Mogul earned even higher praise when he sold the team he had purchased for $25,000 in 1952 for $850,000 in 1962, with the team moving to San Francisco. And even though Gotty was rich beyond his imagination, Deford points out, he still dined at a Horn & Hardart automat and did the league schedule on his kitchen table.
Deford prepped at the esteemed Gilman School (where they still hold students to a nine and a half-hour day) in his hometown of Baltimore, and then he went off to Princeton, but his best writing has been about blue-collar types like Malone, Connors, Russell and Pete Rose.
And then there was Billy Conn, a ruffian from Pittsburgh who won the light heavyweight title around the time Joe Louis was running out of bums-of-the-month to defend his heavyweight title against. Louis fought Conn, who was lighter by 30 pounds, in 1941 and was losing after 12 rounds on the judges cards. But Conn got cocky and discovered why Louis was called the Brown Bomber as he got knocked out in the 13th round.
Deford and I talked about him doing a piece on Conn for a couple of years and when he turned in his piece in 1985 it was longer than anything I had seen at the magazine. The piece turned into a profile of a lower middle class kid who won the hearts of the public, married up to be sure, and did it all in a town that was part of the industrial engine that drove the nation’s economy in the 1940s and 1950s, but no longer did.
Underdog. Love. Sociology. A perfect Deford piece that was cut by 300 lines by the dimwitted managing editor who excised all the Pittsburgh stuff but was talked into restoring those lines by Deford and anyone else who had read the piece.
“The Boxer and the Blonde” is a masterpiece, and it opened with a photo of Conn and his new wife, Mary Louise, romping out the surf at Ocean City, N. J.
“The Boxer and the Blonde” began this way:
“The boxer and the blonde are together, downstairs in the club cellar. At some point, club cellars went out, and they became family rooms instead. This is, however, very definitely a club cellar. Why, the grandchildren of the boxer and the blonde could sleep soundly upstairs, clear through the big Christmas party they gave, when everybody came and stayed late and loud down here. The boxer and the blonde are sitting next to each other, laughing about the old times, about when they fell hopelessly in love almost half a century ago in New Jersey, at the beach. Down the Jersey shore is the way everyone in Pennsylvania says it. This club cellar is in Pittsburgh.”
“Over Time” was Deford’s 18th book, among them “Big Bill Tilden,” the story of tennis’ greatest player in the 1920s who came from Philly’s Germantown Cricket Club to rule the sports world only to be brought down by his sexual indiscretions with young men before dying penniless and alone at the age of 60.
Words are powerful and can have consequences. The characters that Deford was attracted to were a diverse lot and prove that there is no better beat to meet real characters than the world of sports.
He covered a beat when access to these characters was as simple as hanging out at a practice or taking a player to dinner, both of which are verboten in the highly protective world that sports has become.
Deford could find truth and beauty where few others ever looked. Moses Malone. Howard Cosell.
And lucky for us, he could write.