Frank Deford was about to celebrate his 78th birthday. And he had long been understood to be the most influential American sportswriter — and even been recognized as a transformative force at the White House with a National Humanities Medal.
He hardly needed another accolade, so it was hard to conceive what an overdue distinction might mean to Deford when I called in my capacity with the U.S. Basketball Writers Association to interview him about his impending induction into the USBWA Hall of Fame.
At best, it seemed like it would be just another honor to Deford, who would have been ushered in decades before if not for a previous policy of honoring only writers who were members in the group.
But Deford couldn’t have sounded more delighted as he gushed for some 40 minutes about the “pleasant surprise” that transported him back to his “golden youth.” (And he was excited enough about it to make a video acceptance speech shown at the USBWA event in April.)
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He talked about his remarkable fortune to be hired at Sports Illustrated in 1962, when the magazine had scant interest in college basketball … allowing him to become the basketball fact checker because no one else was interested.
That led to the Princeton graduate suggesting a scoffed-at story about the bright future of a schoolmate named Bill Bradley.
The tale helped catapult him into a career that took him places he’d never have gone otherwise … and a lot of us along with him.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful time,” he said. “I look back on it very fondly.”
He was speaking of the early days of his career, but, alas, the words would soon serve as a statement on his life:
Deford died Sunday in Key West, Fla., even as his legacy thrives.
Bob Ryan had it right Monday when he posted on Twitter that Deford should be commemorated on SI’s cover this week with a purple background in honor of his favorite color.
The guy who in the early days often wore eyeglasses he didn’t need — to make himself appear older and wiser — became a national treasure who influenced seismic changes in the craft while remaining a singular voice.
He didn’t simply bestride eras of sports writing, emphasis on writing; he was an active agent in making the sands shift beneath him.
“A thousand writers would praise a sports figure and another thousand would rip him, and then Deford would step in and explain him, and his piece would render the others unnecessary,” SI’s Michael Rosenberg wrote in a collection of remembrances of Deford. “He had, in sports parlance, all the tools: He could report, observe, structure and write at the highest level.
“The other greats of my profession — Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, Gary Smith — spawned imitators. Deford was different. You could learn from him, but good luck copying him. I’ve been reading sports stories almost every day for 30 years, and I’ve never read anybody who reminded me of Frank Deford.”
Some overtly tried to be like Deford, as Shawnee Mission East graduate Grant Wahl described himself in the same SI collection.
He probably set a record for the number of times someone checked out of the Johnson County Library Deford’s collection of Sports Illustrated stories, The World’s Tallest Midget.
Wahl even became a “bit of a Deford stalker,” including attending Princeton in part because Deford did, and ultimately was the beneficiary of great encouragement by Deford — who was known for taking the time to do the same for many young writers,
(Including a few whose every superficial question he seemed to embrace when we served as “Deford escorts” as he received an award at the University of Missouri in 1987.)
More were probably influenced by Deford in ways they didn’t realize until later, including those of us who started subscribing in 1972 and took to cutting out clippings that resonated … and later came to realize most of them were the work of Deford.
Like “The Rabbit Hunter” in 1981, about Bobby Knight.
Or the Jimmy Connors tale from 1978: “Raised By Women To Conquer Men.”
Or the less conventional tale of Nolan Richardson in 1988, told as a stage play that could make you weep.
Longtime Sports Illustrated writer John Garrity, an eloquent and absorbing writer in his own right, consciously admired others more but never consciously emulated anyone else.
But he came to realize he was “a Defordian” in the way he approached stories and appreciated the evolution between Deford and his notable predecessors.
Of what Garrity called a “constellation” of great writers at SI, Deford and Dan Jenkins emerged as the most influential.
But Deford was a departure from Jenkins, whose gift was caricature akin to the spirit of Mark Twain or the most gifted political cartoonists.
Deford typically resisted that route and was much more serious about exploring the complexities of people and the way they lived.
“He could be very funny, but there was an earnestness about the way he approached the profile,” Garrity, who lives off Ward Parkway, said by telephone Tuesday. “He was seriously trying to get to the bottom of people and understand them.”
There were many other reassuring and admirable aspects of Deford, of course, but a few that should reverberate now more than ever with the burgeoning of social media and proliferation of the fake news industry.
As The New York Times noted, quoting from a 2008 Deadspin article, Deford “mourned the loss of what he saw as deeper storytelling in favor of gossip and ‘x’s and o’s coverage.’”
“I think there are more good sportswriters doing more good sportswriting than ever before,” he wrote in “Over Time.” “But I also believe that the one thing that’s largely gone out is what made sport such fertile literary territory — the characters, the tales, the humor, the pain, what Hollywood calls ‘the arc.’ That is: stories. We have, all by ourselves, ceded that one neat thing about sport that we owned.”
Moreover, Deford’s revered career was built not just on his immense talent but on his elegance and integrity.
He could tell it like it was without stooping to cheap shots or short cuts.
His commitment to accuracy was second to none, said Garrity, noting that on the occasions when he entered territory Deford had been in he could count on everything being as Deford had said it was.
While Garrity only met Deford a few times, their paths typically divergent in their work, he also found this:
Deford was one of the most charming people he ever met, and probably the most popular writer with staff, editors, fact-checkers and photographers.
“He carried himself like a star, because he was a star in our world,” Garrity said. “And yet at the same time, he was totally approachable and expressed an interest in everybody.”
So, yes, it was a “wonderful, wonderful time” — one so many were fortunate he shared in so many ways.