A good reporter would have figured that Frank Deford must have been in bad shape because he had been quoted as uttering pleasantries when he emerged confidently from the hospital a few days ago, only to die Sunday in Key West. Or else, he merely remembered that the reporter is never the story, one of many lessons he taught writers willing to pay attention to a sportswriter, and well beyond that limited category, he was best of breed.
Today he's recalled sometimes for his long pieces in Sports Illustrated, for which he wrote for a half-century, as well as having delivered more than 1,600 commentaries for National Public Radio, mostly early on Wednesday mornings, until last year when he cut back to once a month and then last month, when he stopped them entirely. He also researched and reported major stories on Real Sports, the Bryant Gumbel sports investigative cable program for years and for a wonderful two to three years, he edited The National, the first and only all-sports daily paper. And there were the twelve books: his wonderful memoirs published a couple of years ago and the incredibly moving first book he wrote, about the death of his first daughter at age 8 from cystic fibrosis.
But I remember him from when he was a real, on-deadline reporter for SI, covering things like college basketball and hanging out, as he had done when editing The Daily Princetonian, at the great basketball temple, the Palestra, in Philly, and reporting on the many fascinating specimens who inhabited that shrine. Here's the greatest sportswriter of our generation and I loved his recalling how he was hired at SI because no one else from an Ivy League paper would deign to apply to be a sportswriter--he also added, tellingly, that the 50s were a great time to be a white guy looking for a job at Time-Life, where all sorts of minorities, not just black people, weren't even let in for an interview.
His long pieces in SI, of course, were what made his rep. I remember the great one--recalled by others today--about Billy Conn, and what his life was like after losing a great fight to Joe Louis in his prime. It was titled "The Boxer and the Blonde" and it showed how Conn managed to make the most of the brief moment he had in the limelight. Although Conn managed his life after boxing far better than Louis, which isn't itself saying much, Louis's line was marvelous, noting how he had taken quite a few rounds to get used to Conn's boxing skill: "I gave you the fight for eight rounds, but you couldn't hold on to it."
Deford also had an amazing ability to cut through the phoniness in sports and the pompousness of sports owners and officials. He looked for those nuggets that give you a real perception into a sports legend's personality, which at heart is what we all want to learn from sports writing. He didn't get trapped in focusing on the business of sport--except to point out glaring inequities in the way players were treated both before and after they formed unions. Most old-time sportswriters sided with management, from whom they got their free food and drink.
He never got hung up on all the ancillary stuff--agents, contracts, except to comment pungently on NPR about how ridiculous the competition among countries and cities for the sleazy International Olympic Committee and its trinkets was. But he never let that necessary corrective to the palaver put out by house shills divert him from spotting the extraordinary athletic performances that in the end are what continue to draw us to watch the Olympics. He will really be missed as sports pages increasingly ignore what we all yearn for and which he provided so well.