‘The greatest feature sports writer in history’

Legendary sports writer Frank Deford spent five decades as one of the defining voices of Sports Illustrated.

‘The greatest feature sports writer in history’

The sportswriter, Frank Deford, died last month at the age of 78.

He left a dazzling body of work, ranging from stunning pieces about tennis star, Jimmy Connors, and boxer, Billy Conn, to in-depth studies of basketball icons, Bobby Knight and Bill Russell.

Deford was one of the leading figures in the explosion of talent at Sports Illustrated fifty years ago, along with Mark Kram and Dan Jenkins, and his awards shelf bore witness to his talent.

A six-time US ‘sportswriter of the year’, a National Magazine Award recipient, and a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, Deford was also the first sportswriter to be given a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony in 2013.

In latter years, Deford moved onto a parallel career on National Public Radio, giving droll talks on sporting issues. His last was broadcast in May.

So much for the black-and-white details of Deford’s life: the colour in between the facts made for real entertainment.

Deford stood six foot four (a radio fan who met him said, “You don’t talk that tall”) and adopted, in one colleague’s words, a fashion sense that leaned on Elvis and Savile Row in equal measure, with purple a dominant colour.

Deford sported a trademark thin moustache that added to his swagger, and he once fronted a TV campaign for Miller Lite beer, in one commercial posing at a bar with combustible baseball coach, Billy Martin.

(Yes, you read that correctly: a sportswriter with the profile to feature in a beer ad.) The writing and reporting which created that profile was immortal.

One of his all-time greats, a profile of long-retired Billy Conn, has an easy rhythm that rolls you along (“The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter’s mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941…)

The piece on Jimmy Connors kicks off with a quote from Sigmund Freud (“A man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of conqueror, the confidence of success, which often induces real success.”).

It makes sense with the title: ‘Raised By Women To Conquer Men’.

His profile of Howard Cosell distilled the broadcaster into a pair of telling attributes: “You take the whole last generation of sports, listening to them, even reading about them, watching the games, analysing them, arguing about them, instant-replaying them, second-guessing them, and all you’ll distill from them is quickness and momentum”.

The opening of his Bill Russell piece went a long way towards explaining the great Boston Celtic centre’s reticence with people. “The old player said, ‘I’m sorry, I’d like to be your friend.’ The young writer said, ‘But I thought we were friends.’

‘No, I’d like to be your friend, and we can be friendly, but friendship takes a lot of effort, if it’s going to work, and we’re going off in different directions in our lives, so, no, we really can’t be friends.’ And that was as close as I ever got to being on Bill Russell’s team.”

In between his stints with Sports Illustrated and NPR, in 1990, Deford was recruited as the founding editor-in-chief of The National Sports Daily, also known as The National, a sports tabloid newspaper.

Deford’s time with the paper spawned enough stories for several books: he hired great writers like John Feinstein (“I had dinner with him,” Deford recalled, “and he said, ‘This sounds great.’ I said, ‘You look like you need a new blazer. I’m going to give you a signing bonus of a new jacket.’ And I did.”)

It was a similar experience for Norman Chad, who would say of their dinner: “He’s the greatest feature sports writer in history, and he just looks immaculate. He had barbecue ribs. I’ve had barbecue ribs 500 times in my life. He did not get a drip of sauce anywhere on his face, suit, tie. The guy is carved out of stone. I don’t even know how he ate the ribs. He was like a god. He didn’t even need a napkin.”

Deford was so generous with owner Emilio Azcárraga Milmo’s money that sportswriters all over America rang him up, so they could tell their editors The National was interested in them and, therefore, they needed a raise.

Charles Pierce remembered being interviewed by another editor for a job with The National, until Deford stuck his head around the door and said: “Hey, gotta run to a meeting. Glad you’re joining us. We’re going to have fun.”

Two years after it opened, The National closed, having cost Azcárraga, the richest man in Mexico, just over $150m. Deford said circulation problems were so bad he had had to cancel his subscription. To his own paper.

Among his 20 published books were The Entitled, Big Bill Tilden, and Everybody’s All-American, which was later made into a movie starring Dennis Quaid.

Another book, Alex: The Life of a Child, was written about his daughter, who died of cystic fibrosis when she was eight years old: the book was later the basis of a film for television. Deford served as national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for 16 years.

Deford was strong in defence of his trade, pointing out that that many people feel “ . . . sportswriting should be like sports playing, something you should do when you’re young, before you move on to the serious things in life.I’m sure men like [Jimmy] Cannon and Red Smith and Grantland Rice were being badgered on their deathbeds about what they were going to do when they grew up.”

A last anecdote? When he was in college, Deford had English novelist, Kingsley Amis, as a visiting professor.

“One of his first questions was who were my favourite writers,” Deford recalled, many years later.

“JD Salinger, naturally, fell trippingly off my tongue; I added Tennessee Williams and backed them up with somebody like Joyce or Melville, as a measure of my deep erudition (neither of them could I read with a gun to my head). ‘Anyone else?’ Amis asked. ‘Well’, I said. ‘Red Smith’.”

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