George Solomon on Frank Deford

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George Solomon on Frank Deford
May 30, 2017

Most sportswriters and sports editors envied Frank Deford, who died May 28 at age 78 at his home in Key West. Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Sally Jenkins compared his looks to the late movie star Clark Gable because Deford was 6-feet-4 and had a pencil-thin mustache.

Case in point: On trying on a cream-colored Italian suit a number of years ago at Nordstrom’s, my saleswoman friend, the late Judy Lewis, said simply: “No, George. You’re not Frank Deford.”

Not to say most male members of the sports media look more like Danny DeVito than Clark Gable or Frank Deford; but Deford stood apart from the crowd in more ways than height or fashionable clothing. In his days at Sports Illustrated and his18 books, he proved he was perhaps the greatest sportswriter of his generation – and maybe of all time.

In 2012, the Associated Press Sports Editors awarded Deford the Red Smith award for “major contributions to sports journalism” — joining the ranks of previous winners including Smith himself, Jim Murray, Shirley Povich, Edwin Pope, Dave Anderson, Dave Kindred, Dick Schaap, W.C. Heinz, Dan Jenkins, Furman Bisher, Sam Lacy, Mitch Albom and Jimmy Cannon. Who would argue that Deford may have been the best of this distinguished group and even better than the legendary non-winner Grantland Rice.

Six times the National Association of Sportswriters named him Sportswriter of the Year, he’s a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and winner of a National Humanities Medal, presented in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

A native of Baltimore and a high school basketball standout, Deford went to Princeton where he became editor of the college newspaper. At first, he tried out for the freshman basketball team but was told by the coach his writing ability exceeded his basketball skills. Deford gave up the game.

In an interview with Merrill College students Alex Silverman and Robbie Greenspan several years ago for the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” e-book on the Povich Center website, Deford said: “I found out early I could write.  It was just something I could do better than the other kids in the class, just like somebody finds out they are the fastest runner in the class or draws the best pictures or play the best piano, I could write.”

Deford wasn’t boasting. He joined Sports Illustrated right out of Princeton in 1962, enriching a cast of superstar writers that included Dan Jenkins, Mark Kram and many others. Michael MacCambridge, author of “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, wrote Deford was “the anchor of the magazine, the writer around the rest of the issue was built.”

Among his books, Deford wrote about his daughter’s struggle with cystic fibrosis in “Alex: The Life of a Child.”  His daughter died at the age of 8.  For 16 years Deford served as chairman of the association that continues to fight the disease.

In his 27 years at Sports Illustrated Deford wrote memorable pieces about famous sports personalities including former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, Celtic great Bill Russell, boxer Billy Conn, TV personality Howard Cosell, Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas, tennis star Arthur Ashe, coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, boxer Max Schmeling and the not-so-famous: Equestrian Mark Todd and a junior college football coach Robert Victor Sullivan, who earned two nicknames: Bull and Cyclone.

He combined exceptional writing skill and an ability to find insights in his subjects while drawing them out.  Such as Deford’s piece on Knight, cited in “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century””

“In the Indiana locker room before a game earlier this season, Knight was telling his players to concentrate on the important things. He said, ‘How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t fight the rabbits, the elephants are going to kill you.’  But the coach doesn’t listen to himself. He’s always chasing after the incidental; he’s still a prodigy in search of proportion. ‘There are too many rabbits around,’ he says.  ‘But it doesn’t do me any good. Instead of fighting the elephants, I just keep going after the rabbits.’ And it’s the rabbits that are doing him in, ruining such a good thing.”

In 1989 Deford left Sports Illustrated to start “The National” — a daily sports newspaper that was circulated nationally. Deford attracted many of the best sportswriters and editors in the country, offering them higher salaries and the biggest lure: working for Frank Deford. Deford came after a number of my gang at The Washington Post, but only succeeded in hiring the talented TV sports critic Norman Chad. Still, Deford’s recruiting increased the value of many in the business. The paper was an artistic success, but folded after 18 months because of circulation problems and huge financial losses. It should have worked.

After the National, Deford wrote books, worked for Newsweek and Vanity Fair and occasionally for Sports Illustrated. He was a fixture (37 years, retiring in early May) with smart commentaries for NPR and probing stories for HBO’s “Real Sports” with Bryant Gumbel.

His 2012 autobiography, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter” brought him to the Merrill College and Povich Center for a memorable evening with students. He recalled his days at SI with his first editor Andre Laguerre, who tried without success to convince Deford not to marry his wife Carol. He even offered Deford a $3,000 raise if he did not get married. But Deford went ahead with his marriage and not long after, Laguerre covered the expenses for a trip to Miami with his wife.

The last chapter in his book, Deford recounts the final days of print’s dominance over television in sports, a 1960’s NBA final game won by the Celtics over the Lakers, when a production assistant “buttonholded” Celtic coach Red Auerbach for a postgame television interview.

“Where were you in February?” Deford quoted Auerbach saying to the speechless TV man.

Deford continued. “Then, gloriously, he threw his other arm around me. ‘I’m going with my writers,’ Auerbach declared, and “we marched off the court that way, Red and I together.  It was the last hurrah for the press. After that, it was the media.”

How fitting; the final chapter in Frank Deford’s book was entitled, “Last Call.”

 

 

 

 

 

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