Frank Deford
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Frank Deford

We talk with sportswriter and commentator Frank Deford. Deford, who has written 16 books, is a weekly commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition" and senior contributing editor at Sports Illustrated.

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About the Episode

We talk with award-winning sportswriter and author Frank Deford. He's been lucky enough to cover the world of sports, its evolution, and great moments, for more than 50 years. In his memoir, "Overtime: My Life as a Sportswriter," Deford details his journey from the early days at Sports Illustrated to meeting and writing about iconic figures in sports, from tennis greats Arthur Ashe and Billy Jean King, to NBA legend Bill Russell.

Enrique Cerna:
Frank Deford, welcome to Conversations. And welcome to Seattle.

Frank Deford:
It's very nice to be back.

Enrique Cerna:
Well, you know, reading this book, and your career, I guess the one thing that really struck me and you sort of allude to it, is that you have great timing. You have had great timing from the day that, you know, you were at Princeton and you go into timing, and somehow they lead you upstairs or downstairs and you talk to the guys at Sports Illustrated. And you get a gig.

Frank Deford:
I go back further than that. I even say in the book that I was conceived at the right time. [LAUGHTER] I was conceived in 1938, which was a recession in the middle of a depression, and you can look at the demographics. Less people were born that year. And my parents were like the only ones who were having babies then. So I had less competition from the day I was born.

Enrique Cerna:
And you know, being a white guy...

Frank Deford:
Oh!

Enrique Cerna:
At that time. With a Princeton education.

Frank Deford:
I make no bones about it, I am absolutely the luckiest guy around. I said there was a... A Hollywood agent who once said that I was the most majority person that she had ever met in my life. [LAUGHTER] The last of the tall white heterosexual Episcopalian ivy league writers. I make no bones about it, right time.

Enrique Cerna:
You do sports, you do radio, some film work, a little commercial work along the way.

Frank Deford:
I don't know whether versatility is a curse or a blessing. I sometimes think, well, maybe I should have concentrated on one thing and not tried so many. But that's not my nature. And I think I've been very lucky to have bounced around and done as many different things. And yet all within pretty much the same media range. It's not like I'm also going over here and I'm a great cook or a great gardener. I can't do anything else. So that's...

Enrique Cerna:
But you can write, you can write.

Frank Deford:
So that's why I've stayed in that little jungle of mine.

Enrique Cerna:
And sports has been that world for you.

Frank Deford:
And I've also been, by the way, lucky that sports took off pretty much at just the time that I arrived on the scene. It was, luckily, thanks to television. But sports was sort of more over in the parlor with the brandy and the cigars that the gentlemen were smoking. And now, it's much more universal, there's just no question about it. And a lot of that is thanks to people like Billie Jean King and Title 9, which this month is its 40th anniversary and so forth. But there's no question that I got into sports at the right time. I don't think I would have stayed in it had I come along a generation earlier.

Enrique Cerna:
When you went to Time Incorporated.

Frank Deford:
Yes.

Enrique Cerna:
What you call Time Inc.

Frank Deford:
Time Inc. Sounds racier that way.

Enrique Cerna:
It does. Sports Illustrated was looked on as what?

Frank Deford:
We were the sweaty D class. And not only that, we were losing money. And so it was costing everybody their profit sharing or a little bit of their profit sharing. And so we were not only disliked for being touch a disreputable rag, but also people didn't like us because we were, you know, taking money out of their pockets, within the building. That changed very quickly, as a matter of fact. Again, dumb luck. The first year that I showed up at Sports Illustrated in 1962 was the first year the magazine broke even. And then after that, it soared. And within a very short period of time, Life magazine, which had then been the king, was out of business, largely because of television. We profited because of television. Life died because of television.

Enrique Cerna:
And was it television finding football or the NBA or what?

Frank Deford:
It was bringing all of those sports into the living room for the first time. And making sports personalities a part of a daily conversation, which they really hadn't been before. Of course, there had been babe Ruth, of course, there had been Jack Dempsey and Joe Lewis and all of these stars, but they were never as big as say movie stars or singers or other entertainers. And then all of a sudden, they were on that level. And pro football, in particular, was very important to Sports Illustrated because for the very simple reason that, well, let me go back to the 19th century. Newspapers came out every day, baseball was played every day. So baseball and newspapers worked together. Football was played once a week. Sports Illustrated came out once a week. And we really soared with the popularity of the NFL.

Enrique Cerna:
Tell me about Andre Laguerre.

Frank Deford:
That was my first editor. And how rare is it that your first boss turns out to be the most important and significant of your whole life. He was a frenchman with an English mother who had also spent part of his youth in San Francisco, where his father was the consul, the French consul. He, ah, he was literally plucked out of the English channel during Dunkirk, saved from the flaming waters. Went on to become a press secretary during the war at the age of 25 or 26. Was almost killed in Indochina covering the war in Saigon. Comes back and becomes, despite the fact that he's a frenchman, becomes the editor of Sports Illustrated and saves it. The magazine was floundering. He comes in and absolutely figures out how to make it work.

Enrique Cerna:
What did he do to make it work.

Frank Deford:
The first thing he did was say if we're going to be a sports magazine, then let's cover sports. Before that, the people at Time Inc., the geniuses there, had thought, well, if we're going to sell advertisements to a sports magazine, we really have to have high tone sports. So there was, for example, a horse show writer on the magazine, but there was not a basketball writer. Now André came in, he did a lot of other things, he straightened out the magazine, he made it more readable. And the other thing he did was he began to bring in really good writers. He was not a great writer himself. As a matter of fact, his writing career had reached a peak in Paris where he had been a horse racing writer under the name of Eddie Snow. Very rakish. But he was not a great writer himself, but he was a great editor. And he said something to me one night when I was questioning if I wanted to stay in sports. Frankie, he said, I was Frankie then, he said it isn't so much what you write about, it's how well you write it. In other words, it's not the subject, it's the craft. And that meant a lot to me, it told me it was kind of okay to write about sports. But he was an absolute giant in the profession, there's no question about it.

Enrique Cerna:
What was your first big story with Sports Illustrated?

Frank Deford:
It's funny, my first big story, I again talked about luck. My senior year at Princeton was Bill Bradley's freshman year. And in those years, the freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity. So Bill played, you know, before 200 or 300 people, and against Brown and Cornell. Who saw it, who knew he existed? And I come to Sports Illustrated that summer, and when the basketball planning is going on in the fall, I said, you know, the best sophomore in the country is down at Princeton. And they all laughed at me, ha, ha, ha, you old Kiger. And I should know, really. And the fact that Bill was the son of a bank president, I mean he was a good story. So they allowed me, I think threw me a bone might be the accurate assessment, to go do a story on him. And and it was a good story, but he turned out to be even better. And that made me look very smart. Bill, I've told him often, was a real spring board to my career. That was. And within the year, I was at the age of 24, 25, I was the basketball writer, it was America's sports weekly.

Enrique Cerna:
Who would have known Bill Bradley, this guy playing for Princeton, goes on to the Olympics, the Knicks, U.S. senator.

Frank Deford:
Hey, listen, he only lost the New Hamshire primary in the year 2000 by a couple hundred votes. He wins that. I think the history of the 21st century would have changed. I really do. Maybe I'm being dramatic or melodramatic, but I think he would have been a wonderful president.

Enrique Cerna:
I read a story that he could tell when he was on the court if the basket was off by an inch or something like that.

Frank Deford:
Yes.

Enrique Cerna:
Just by his shot.

Frank Deford:
Yes, that was Bradley. And by the way, one thing, and I write in the book about this, I wish he'd shown the humor that he has and the, you know, he's a much funnier, more entertaining guy than he showed when he was campaigning. If he had just shown America that he was just this... But he can be absolutely delightful.

Enrique Cerna:
Yeah.

Frank Deford:
When I got there, there were five people in the NBA office, 5 people, the commissioner, the PR guy who would dispense, give out bottles of scotch of year at Christmas to the handful of writers who covered the league, and then three or four secretaries. That was it. That was the NBA. There were no assistant coaches. Most teams just carried 10 guys. Only two teams in the league I think actually took trainers with them. A team would come in and they'd get somebody to come in and tape ankles. I mean it was really rinky dink, nobody made any money. But let me tell you, it was a lot of fun, it was intimate. There were only 80 or 90 players in the league. It was more like a summer stock than it was a league.

Enrique Cerna:
But now, the way media works with the NFL, NBA, even major league baseball, to some degree, it's like the Kremlin or something like that because there's a bureaucracy just to get to the players sometimes, it was very hard. And that wasn't the case.

Frank Deford:
Oh, yeah. It was very easy then. And not just in the NBA, but you could pretty much walk up to a guy and say, hey, I'd like to do a story on you. Fine. Of course, now, you've got to go through managers and act and posse, and everything else. But it was a much more informal. And I mean, I know this sounds crazy, but I think the players kind of liked us. There weren't that many other people around. So if you were a pretty reasonably good guy, and you didn't break any trusts, then the writers kind of liked, I mean the players kind of liked hanging out with the writers. We were not the enemy. We were sort of part of the team in an odd way, particularly if you were young, as I was then. That's one of the problems about being a sports writer. The longer you stay in it, the further you move away from the people who are most important.

Enrique Cerna:
Right, right, yeah.

Frank Deford:
It's odd. It's strange.

Enrique Cerna:
But you were never a guy that was a, you know, write about the game, the sports scores. You were always looking for something deeper.

Frank Deford:
I would never have stayed in sports if I had had to continue to be a beat writer. It was great for six or seven years to see America basically. I mean I covered college basketball as well as the NBA. I went to all kinds of places and saw all kinds of things and learned a great deal. I mean what a great education. But at a certain point when I was around 30 years old, I went into Andre and I said, Andre, I don't want to do this anymore. And his answer was, I was wondering when you were going to come by. He knew. And that gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which was to write about people. And that's the beauty of sports is that it provides such, such material for story telling, just for simple story telling, the characters that are in it, the drama, the glamour. It's a wonderful canvas for a writer to paint on. It really is. And that's why I stayed in it.

Enrique Cerna:
More than just scores, because as you say, it's the people, but there's race, there's politics, there's poverty, there's wealth, religion.

Frank Deford:
Religion, sex. I don't think there's any part of sports that I haven't written. But I remember writing a long series on Bill Tilden, the great tennis champion of the 1920s, and he would have been a pedophile. And that would have been hidden, bringing homosexuality into the sports pages was something, you know, pretty radical at that time. I can remember writing a three part series on religion in sport. It gave me the opportunity to go right across the spectrum of all human emotions and human conditions. I don't know, I can't thank sports enough for giving me that opportunity.

Enrique Cerna:
I want to get some of your reaction to some of these people. Billie Jean King.

Frank Deford:
The most enthusiastic person I ever saw in my life. And she's so, and then passionate beyond enthusiasm, passionate. And she was so determined that people would look at women athletes differently and that little girls would play sports. And that they had the right to play sports. And she was at the right time too, the '60s, when things were changing. And I'm writing tennis, which I'd fallen into. And there I am in this side car of history, and she's changing, I believe to this day that she is the single most important cultural sports figure there has ever been. You can certainly make the argument that Jackie Robinson is, but Robinson needed Rickhy to give him the opportunity. Billie Jean did it all by herself. And she'd do it. And at the same time she's running a movement, she's also trying to be the number 1 tennis player in the world, and often succeeding. Absolutely.

Enrique Cerna:
When she played Bobby Riggs in that televised game, what do you think that did?

Frank Deford:
I'll tell you this, I'm the worst predictor in sports. That is the only time in my life that I knew who was going to win. I would have bet my children. I would have said, here. She was playing for a cause. Bobby Riggs was having fun. And that was the difference. And not only that, she was working hard and he was out, you know, gallivanting around. And there was no way that she was going to let this old man beat her. I mean she would have beaten him 10 times out of 10. So it was an important match because it did forward the cause of, you know, the women's movement. But she knew if she had lost, it would have been disastrous. In many ways, it was a no win situation for her. She had to win. And she won easy.

Enrique Cerna:
Arthur Ashe.

Frank Deford:
Where do I start with Arthur? I mean he was, he was the athlete that I was closest to. We were about the same age, had many of the same interests. Arthur is a little bit like Bradley. People don't have any idea how much fun he was because he was identified with serious causes, and of course, he died so tragically. But Arthur was a lot of fun. We had a ball together. He was just a great guy, but he too was determined to work for the things that mattered to him. He took a beating from a lot of American blacks for caring so much about South Africa. Hey, Arthur, we got enough problems here, what are you you know. But he called himself a citizen of the world. He saw, you know, the world in much more global terms than most Americans who can be, you know, so limited. And I went with him to South Africa when he broke the color line and actually lived with him. And he was the first performer, black performer ever to play on the same stage or the same court with whites and changed things. It opened up a breach that they couldn't close again, and apartheid was gone within 15 years and Arthur had a lot to do with that. He was the first.

Enrique Cerna:
Bill Russell.

Frank Deford:
I was scared to death of Russell when I first met him. I'm 6'4" and Bill is 6'9", and he looked down at me with that long face of his with that goatee. And he wasn't, you know, he didn't dislike writers, but you sort of had to prove yourself to him. I'd put it that way. It's a little bit like, you know, Russell would not give autographs but by the same token, he would sit there and explain that to somebody who asked for an autograph and take two minutes to explain it, when he could have dashed off his name in 5 seconds and been done with it. That was Bill. That's the way he thinks. And I love to tell the story that when he finished playing, and I went out to help him write sort of a Valedictory. We were in Las Vegas then. And we were leaving, we had been there for a week. And the car comes to a stop at a red light and he turns to me very somberly and says, Frank, I'm sorry, we can't be friends anymore. And I'm like, what? And he said, oh, we can remain friendly, but our lives are going to go in different directions. And he paused, and he said, and friendship takes too much work. The interesting thing about that is not simply that he had conjured this up, but he had also explained to me in a nut shell what made him such a great team player. The greatest ever. He obviously was applying the same principle to team as he was to friendship. Bill is a serious figure and an important one, he's another one of those important cultural figures. He had a lot of guts. And he was right there with the Jim Brown and some of the other black athletes who were not afraid to speak out in the 1960s.

Enrique Cerna:
What would you have done without sports and the ability to write about it? Because you were given a gift. Writing is just something that comes easily for you.

Frank Deford:
Yes.

Enrique Cerna:
Little flowery at times, but you know, you're okay.

Frank Deford:
Um, I don't know exactly what I would have done if I had not been a sports writer. I know that I would have been, because I wrote better than I did anything else. Whether I would have gone out to Hollywood and tried to be a screen writer, whether I would have, ah, waited on tables and tried to write the great American novel, I don't think so. I don't think I would have done that. I like the good life too much. I just know that I would have written something. Maybe I would have been a foreign correspondent. That might have been the road that I would have gone down. I don't know, I just know I would have been a writer of some sort or another. Because as my kids always told me, daddy, you can't do anything else. And they're right.

Enrique Cerna:
Well, as someone who really admires your work and listens to you all the time on NPR, watches you on real sports, great stories there, as we were talking right before we sat down here. And the book itself, "over time, my life as a sports writer," Frank Deford. Thank you for taking the time to be here.

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