Deford's new memoir captures his polished crustiness.
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Deford country, then. "I looked for what was real and unusual, athletic quaint": soapbox derbies, thrill-car rodeos, big-truck racing, alligator wrestling, waterskiing, cheerleading contests. He wrote about pro basketball when it was bush yet boasted Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, and Deford's early find, Bill Bradley. He covered hockey and introduced us to Bobby Orr, "the Canadian Christ ice child," who lifted the bush Bruins to higher ground when "Boston was fed up with the Sawx…They were losahs. The Patriots were bush…and the Celtics had too many black guys." Ah, Boston...ah well. Tennis is one of Deford's favorite (then bush) sports, and his friendship with Arthur Ashe allowed him to elementally experience Ashe's breaking the color line in apartheid-era South Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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As much as the bush had Deford in its gravitational field, he also felt the pull of difficult sports figures, people like Jimmy Connors, Bobby Knight, and Billy Martin. "These are the best characters to write about, largely because so many people flat out don't like them…so it's a challenge to surprise or even upset the reader with the unexpected." Spare him the young, preening bloviators -- "the highest percentage, it seems, being wide receivers in football" -- and point him toward the people with some mileage on them, the old coaches, say, "because they've lived longer, more complicated lives. They're simply better stories."
The sports pages have been a nursery and a parish of terrific writing: Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, yes, but also Ring Lardner, Westbrook Pegler, Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico, and James Reston, who all cut their teeth in the sports section. Deford sits comfortably in that company, summoning the poetry and rapture -- if he never spoke of it as such -- modern but also conversant with "before television and big money, when a great deal of sports meant hustling and scuffling, when there was a vagabond spirit."
"Of course, I'm old and cranky, so pay me no mind." Sorry, Frank: we're listening.