NPR listeners normally hear from sports commentator Frank Deford for three minutes at a time Wednesday mornings, as he opines on the latest follies of the sporting world. But Deford fans have been getting to hear the veteran sportswriter at greater length lately. He's on a book tour for his new memoir, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter. When Deford stopped in Washington, D.C., NPR's Steve Inskeep had the chance to interview him in front of a lively crowd.
Deford says he was always "more interested in the people than in who was winning the games." He never wanted to follow one team through an entire season, so he didn't find beat reporting appealing.
But Deford says he greatly admires beat reporters. "The hardest thing in the world is to write something critical about someone and then show up the next day in the locker room," he says. "I mean that is not fun, and that takes an awful lot of guts."
He recalls the fallout from writing an article that was very critical of Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain. "As huge as he was, [Wilt] was not a man of confrontation," says Deford, but he didn't take criticism lightly. The next time Chamberlain saw Deford in the Lakers locker room, he sent his teammate Jerry West over: "Frank, Wilt would like you to leave," West told him.
Since press had the right to be in the locker room, Deford didn't have to leave. But, out of respect for Chamberlain, he did. "I said, 'OK, Jerry,' and I made a very quick exit," he remembers. "When I went by Wilt, he dropped his eyes. ... But that's the sort of thing that a beat writer has to do a lot of, and I never could have done that."
Deford has spent his career up close and personal with "a lot of tall, big guys" like Chamberlain. But he's found that the biggest players are often the most mild-mannered.
"The big guys — and I'm talking about any sport — don't feel the need to be tough guys," he says. "It's the little feisty guys ... the little terriers. They're the ones who're going to feel like they've got to puff their chest up and so forth."
Deford has culled such insights from his many close relationships with sports stars. Starting his career in the '60s, Deford says he had much more access to players, coaches and managers than journalists are afforded today.
"I was so lucky," he says. "If you watch TV, at the end of the game now, the manager will be shown now in what amounts to a press conference. He sits there with a bottle of water next to him and a microphone and a PR guy. When I was covering games ... you'd go into the manager's office."
Deford had long, unguarded interviews with Earl Weaver, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles (one of "the feisty little guys," Deford recalls). "I can just see Earl now in his underwear with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, holding court," he says. "That was the way it was done then, and you could sit and chat forever."
These days, Deford has been enjoying seeing his radio listeners in person. "I'm looking out, and everybody has their clothes on," he observed at the Washington, D.C., event. "Usually, people tell me they're undressed when they listen to me in the morning. So this is very unusual ... It's nice to see everyone dressed, listening to me, and not brushing your teeth or otherwise performing your morning ablutions."