Deford, Frank

views updated


(b. 16 December 1938 in Baltimore, Maryland), sportswriter known for the perceptiveness, wit, and compassion of his comments in magazines and books and on National Public Radio.

Deford was the eldest of three sons born to a middle-class couple, Benjamin Deford, a businessman, and Louise Deford. Looking back on his earliest years, he said, "For a writer, I had a terrible thing—a happy childhood." He decided at age ten that he could write. He enjoyed sports but was not as good at playing them as he was at writing. At Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1962 with an A.B. degree in history and sociology, Deford wrote for and edited the Daily Princetonian and also wrote two plays that were produced on campus. He had not intended to go into sportswriting, but when Sports Illustrated offered him a job after graduation, he took it. He began as a reporter but soon was assigned longer feature articles, which made his reputation. He married Carol Penner in 1965; the couple had three children.

In the 1970s Deford began publishing books. His first, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America (1971), dealt with a nonsports form of spectacle. He also served as a ghostwriter for books by the tennis stars Arthur Ashe, Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King, and Pam Shriver and told the sad story of the tennis great Bill Tilden, whose career was destroyed by the revelation of his homosexuality. The 1970s also brought Deford great sorrow. His second child, Alexandra, was born in 1971. As an infant she seemed sickly, and soon she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The doctors said she might die in days, but she suffered through operations and painful treatments until 1980. Deford joined the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, eventually becoming its chairman, and wrote a moving account of the experience, Alex: The Life of a Child (1983), which was made into a movie.

In 1980 Deford began a weekly sports commentary for National Public Radio (NPR), where he remained for more than twenty years. He gained recognition for his sportswriting, being voted the sportswriter of the year by the National Association of Sportswriters and Sportscasters every year from 1982 through 1988, but he still recognized the low estimation in which his field was held. In 1987 Deford published a collection of his best sports features and called it The World's Tallest Midget, his sarcastic view of the way the world perceived the "best sportswriter." The book showed the remarkable range of subjects that could be covered in just seventeen sports articles. It included studies of such famous sports personalities as the football pioneer George Halas and the Marquette University basketball coach Al McGuire, and an account of the well-known 1957 National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championship. There was also a report of a boxing match between two unknowns that ended in death and the remarkable tale of "The Toughest Coach There Was," an otherwise forgotten Mississippi junior college coach.

By the late 1980s Deford was thinking of moving on to new career challenges. He had been with Sports Illustrated for a quarter of a century, and he was becoming tired of interviewing athletes much younger than himself. An opportunity presented itself in 1989, when the Mexican millionaire Emilio Azcarra set out to create the first American daily sports newspaper. He called it the National and hired Deford as its editor in chief. Deford said that it would show that Americans really buy the newspaper for the sports page. Whatever the merits of that theory, the National never was able to solve its distribution problems. It published its first issue in January 1990 and its last in June 1991.

When Deford left Sports Illustrated to work for the National, there was bitterness on both sides. Some people at the magazine believed that the National was intended to compete with Sports Illustrated, a theory Deford denied. In 1992 he began writing commentary for Newsweek and signed a contract with Vanity Fair to produce three profiles per year. Deford also wanted to be a serious novelist. He already had turned out five light sports novels—Cut 'n' Run (1973), The Owner (1976), Everybody's All-American (1981), The Spy in the Deuce Court (1986), and Casey on the Loose (1989)—but he now grew more ambitious. After the demise of the National, he wrote Love and Infamy, a historical novel with no sports content that portrayed the World War II events at Pearl Harbor through the eyes of two best friends, one Japanese and one American. The novel was published in 1993 to a generally respectful critical response, but it did not become a best-seller.

In 1998 Deford and Sports Illustrated reconciled. He returned to writing for the magazine, and his NPR commentaries began appearing on their website. In 2000 he wrote the Home Box Office television special Bill Russell: My Life, My Way, and in 2001 he published The Best of Frank Deford: I'm Just Getting Started, which interspersed radio commentaries with longer essays on such figures as the Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight and the famed basketball player Wilt Chamberlain.

Deford brought to his sportswriting a knowledge of the technicalities of the sport he was describing (and he wrote about most of them), a graceful prose style often brightened with wit, and, most of all, a compassionate understanding of the human realities of the story he was telling. In writing stature, he was far more than the world's tallest midget.

Deford has written little about himself, but there is some autobiographical detail in Alex (1983), and the two collections of his articles. He discusses his fiction-writing ambitions in Christopher Goodrich, Publishers Weekly (6 Dec. 1993), and reminisces about his NPR work in the "Listen" section of the Durham Sun-Times (Nov. 1999). In Johnette Howard, Houston Chronicle (18 June 2000), Deford is taken to task for his Sports Illustrated article on the sexy image of the tennis player Anna Kournikova. Noreen O'Leary admiringly summarized his career in Mediaweek (8 May 2000).

Arthur D. Hlavaty