There is nothing sadder, or more self-serving, than an aging hack sportswriter looking back on a life misspent in print. But when the memoirist is Frank Deford, one of the few diamonds in a rough trade, the result can be both illuminating and enchanting.
Deford, in case you didn't know, was for decades the cleanup man in Sports Illustrated's murderer's row of brilliant writers. He has been a fixture on National Public Radio and is the author of 15 books, including the novel Everybody's All-American (1981).
In this week's Sports Illustrated, he has executed a shapely mini-memoir of his career, and the best way to show you how beautiful it is is to quote three passages:
I always thought that reading Red Smith in the New York Herald Tribune for the first time was like being in Delft around 1660 and stumbling on Vermeers: perfectly framed little portraits with just the right touches of light.* * *
I've never felt altogether comfortable in a locker room. I always feared I was intruding on someone else's privacy. The point was brought home to me when I did a story on the Boston Celtics' opener the year after John Havlicek retired. He had come to the game as a civilian, and we were standing outside the locker room. As I started to enter, John said, "I'll see you later. I can't go in there. I don't belong there anymore."
Excuse me: John Havlicek didn't belong in the Celtics' locker room, but I did?* * *
Unfortunately, being a sportswriter is like being Oscar Wilde's picture of Dorian Gray. You age as all around you the players stay forever young. You stick around while your contemporaries grow old in sports years and fade away. "I'm sorry, I'd like to be your friend," Bill Russell told me when he retired, "but friendship takes a lot of effort if it's going to work, and we're going off in different directions in our lives." And so here comes the next cohort, only now they're not your peers. Your portrait ages some more, and now the coaches are of your vintage. As you grow older, in fact, you gravitate toward stories about coaches, not just because they're now your new contemporaries but because they've lived longer, more complicated, lives. They're simply better stories. Coaches are plots. Players are snapshots.
Now there is a writer both humane and literate.