If there was a Mt. Rushmore for great sportswriters of the last 50 years, one of those faces would belong to Deford. While it would embarrass him to hear it (or maybe not), he remains a hero to people like us who grew up turning to the back of Sports Illustrated to see if Deford had a piece in that week’s issue.
I’m not going to wax poetic about Deford’s work in SI, NPR, HBO and elsewhere, because it wouldn’t do him justice. I know he would write it so much better.
Fortunately for us, Deford decided to wrap up his glorious career in a new book: Overtime: My Life as a Sportswriter.
It’s a terrific read. Deford chronicles his early days at Sports Illustrated in the 60s, when the magazine really hit its stride and changed the face of sports journalism, thanks in part to writers like himself. He writes about covering the biggest of the big; Wilt Chamberlain, Bobby Orr, Arthur Ashe, along with his fondness for obscure tales, such as spending time on the road with a roller derby team. He also weaves in a fascinating treatise on the evolution and current state of sportswriting.
Deford writes that legendary Sports Illustrated editor Andre Laguerre once gave him a piece of sage advice. He said: “Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.”
Nobody did it better then, and at age 73, Deford shows he still has his fastball, along with several other pitches. He elegantly sums up our craft as only he could.
I asked the bartender if there is any drink named ‘Sports Journalist’? No, he says. So I have made it up: Cheap scotch and Gatorade. Slivorice for hard-nose-ness, sherry for sentimentality, and a dash of steak sauce.
I recently did a Q/A with Deford. It was one of the best hours I have enjoyed in a long time.
Did you ever think you’d write your memoirs?
People would say to me in the last 10 years or so, ‘Hey you ought to write a book.’ I’d say, ‘Nobody wants to read about a stupid sportswriter.’
My wife, Carol, we’re having a drink, and I said, ‘Can you believe it? They want me to (write a book).’ She said, ‘All the stories you tell all the time that I had to hear…Yeah, you’ve got book in you. People are interested in the people you’ve talk to.’ It’s not the Frank Deford story. It’s Wilt Chamberlain relating to me. Or Bobby Orr when he finds out that Larry Bird worships him.
What was it like writing about yourself?
The hard part was writing about me. I think I have a pretty good idea when I write a story through the years of what the reader is going to like. When it’s you, and you’re thinking, ‘That was interesting to me, but will it be interesting to everyone else’?
For a memoir to be any good, people have to relate to you the writer. I had this idyllic life (as a writer). I didn’t have to pull myself up from the bootstrap. I just sort of drifted along.
You didn’t have a conventional career as a sportswriter. You weren’t a press box kind of guy.
I wanted to write about the people more than the games. What I got to do was what I wanted to do. Not many people get to do that. I feel blessed in that regard. And I got to do it at a time when SI was the crème de la crème.
Obviously, dealing with athletes in the 1960s is much different than today. You often were inside their circle. What was that like?
You’ve got to understand that’s the way it was when I got into it. I just assumed that’s the way it was going to be. You’d hang out these guys. They’d bum drinks off you, cigarettes off you. I chased girls with them. I was their age. Remember that too. I was just another guy.
I had an expense account. ‘Hey, let’s let Frank buy a couple of rounds for us.’ I did make a point in the book that I got in with the athletes not because I was Frank Deford. It was because I was Frank Deford from Sports Illustrated. I got more access than someone from the Bloomington Herald. I would get through to people. They would call me back.
You dedicated an entire chapter to Arthur Ashe. What kind of impact did he have on your life?
He was an incredible guy. The first thing I say about him, hey, he had a tremendous sense of humor. Everything thinks he was a serious person, which he was and because he died so tragically. But he was great company. He was fun to be with. Great laughs. I traveled all over the world with this guy. It was important for me to say that. I wasn’t just writing about this serious historical figure. When I was with Arthur, it was two guys hanging out. He happened to be a tennis player, and I happened to be a writer.
Tennis also turned into a favorite sport to cover. Why?
Tennis players were great. Now, they’re all surrounded by entourages. But then, they were delighted to see any press at all.
Tennis was the best thing I fell into. Everyone said, la-de-da, tennis anyone? Oh crap. But it was fabulous people, great places to go in the world. All of sudden, it became very popular. The world moved underneath my feet because of Connors, McEnroe, Billie Jean King. Billie Jean is like Arthur. She is this iconic figure. Back then, she was just this chubby little kid. It was like being with George Washington at Valley Forge in sporting terms. Who knew?
In the book, you write that your favorite stories were on off-beat subjects, such as roller derby. Why?
I always liked Americana, for lack of a better word. That embraces a lot. It was interesting. None of that stuff is left because it’s on TV. Even it’s an obscure sport, it’s still on TV. You can’t introduce it to the world. All the goofy stuff going on. Only people still out there are the Globetrotters. They still barnstorm.
There were only three channels back then. When I could write a story about the roller derby, it was like writing about aliens. Most people had no idea what this was. I wrote about a guy who carried a whale around. I loved that. Selfishly, it was me getting to see America and to meet people who were very different than me.
I loved obscure coaches. I remember doing a story on a guy at Idaho State. Nobody would want you to do that today. They’d say, no, you do that on Bill Self. So the characters that were out there..Nobody making any money, and a lot of them coming from nowhere. All of sudden, this guy parachutes in from Sports Illustrated. The funny thing is, they looked at me the same way I was looking at them. They were a laboratory specimen for me, but I was a laboratory specimen for them too. They were checking me out. This guy is going to write about us? In a national magazine? They always were so disappointed when I’d show up because I was so young.
While writing about yourself, you also weave in your view on the evolution of sportswriting. It includes a spirited defense of the craft. You don’t think sportswriters get enough credit.
This is important. When (it was mentioned) to do something about sportswriting, it gave me a chance to defend sportswriting. I didn’t want it to be a polemic. C’mon the Pulitzer Prize. If Jim Murray had been writing politics, he would have gotten it 10 years before. I do get ticked off when people put down sportswriters.
I came in at a time when guys still were fighting (the emergence of) TV. I’ve seen a tremendous part of that.
Dan Jenkins was a storyteller. Even though he was writing deadline pieces, they were storytelling pieces. You go to the other side. Mark Kram. He was writing almost poetry, lyric poetry about these Greek gods. And I’m somewhere in the middle.
What’s your view on the current state of sportswriting?
Unfortunately, we’ve gotten swamped by the numbers. People have gotten buried under the numbers. Statistics. That has become everything. Pitch count is more interesting than what the guy is made of. I think that’s a shame because so much of sports is drama.
There are wonderful personalities. These guys are entertainers, and a large percentage are show-offs in one way or another. They do give of themselves. They’re young and they say stupid things.
However, I don’t think there are nearly as many characters because kids grow up seeing how you’re supposed to behave if you become a star. They learn to talk in clichés. I don’t think they give of themselves as much as they used to.
It’s partly we’re not looking for the stories of people, and the other part is, the people are a little more reluctant to reveal themselves. They’re surrounded by professionals. I can’t remember the first time I ever had to go through I had go through an agent, but I remember it was shocking. Mostly, you’d just walk up and say, “Hey, I’d like to do a story on you.’ Guy would say, ‘Yeah sure. Want to have dinner tonight?”
Did you find yourself being careful about saying, ‘It was better back then…”?
I remember when I broke in, the old guys were saying that. I said to myself, “If I ever get to be an old sportswriter, God forbid me from doing that.”
It’s always the case that the people playing and people covering it think that when they broke in that was the best time. I think it is simple enough to say it was the best time for me. I’ll stick to that.
I do think this, though, in so far as what I could write and the access I had, because TV did not dominate it, it was the best time for a writer.
This is such a personal book. This is your life as opposed to somebody’s else life. How do you feel about the reviews?
I don’t think there’s any question that if I read a review and somebody thinks I’m an asshole, I’m not going to like it. If somebody says, “Deford comes off as a blowhard, and he’s not very interesting…” We all want to be loved. It’s not like I’m a politician trying to support a point of view. It’s not an advocacy book. It’s a book of remembrances.
Yeah, I want to be loved. I want people to like me in the parts where I hope I was self-deprecating enough. There were times when I had to show off, because it worked. I couldn’t have false modesty. I tried to walk a line between making fun of myself and saying, ‘Yeah I can write a little bit.’
And one last point.
I was a natural writer, but that doesn’t mean I was better than other people. Simply being natural means you were born with a gift, you still have to play it to its fullest. I hope I did that.
Mission accomplished, Frank.