A Tribute To Frank Deford

05/30/2017 06:57 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2017
Evan Agostini via Getty Images

By James D. Zirin

I met Frank Deford in 1958, some 59 years ago, when we were both “heeling” for the Daily Princetonian. I guess we were competitors then, but I never felt a sense of rivalry. As writers, we played in different leagues, but became fast friends. His original by-line on the “Prince” was “By B. Frank Deford” as his given name was Benjamin Franklin Deford III. With maturity, he soon dropped the “B” and the “III”.

Tall and wiry, he had played basketball at Gilman School in Baltimore, and was trying out for the freshman basketball team. I don’t remember that he made it, but basketball and competitive sports became his consuming passion.

Frank had a gift. He understood the power of words. He also had a feeling for people in whom he had a deep interest. He understood what might interest them. His writing style was unique and original as was he. He wrote as he spoke, with the trace of a Southern twang, and in his writing, fifty-cent words were fluidly strung together to make million dollar sentences.

Frank became chairman of the Prince where his journalistic skills transcended just sports. I remember we drove together to Fort Dix, New Jersey one snowy day in March 1960 to interview Elvis Presley when Elvis was mustered out of the army. Frank talked to Elvis as though he were just another country boy who loved music, delighted to welcome Elvis back in town. And when Frank cheekily asked Elvis if he would continue his “suggestive movements,” I gasped as I took copious notes of the interview, and we had a story.

There were a lot of interesting stories back then, and Frank made sure that they were all well covered. Fidel Castro came to Princeton, proclaiming that he was a great friend of America; Martin Luther King preached racial justice from the pulpit of the Princeton University Chapel. William F. Buckley talked conservatism to a liberal audience in Whig Hall; and fiery Catholic Chaplain Father Hugh Halton trashed secularization and the denigration of religion. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Ray Bremser read their poetry of protest on the all-male 99% white, ostensibly heterosexual campus. I remember Frank asking Jones to compose an impromptu poem, and on the spot. Jones recited:

There are no girls in Tigertown.

And Tigertown is falling down.

Escape, escape escape.”

Frank wrote as he thought--with clarity and self-deprecating wit. For our 40th Princeton reunion in 2001, he wrote to the Class: “I had the unique experience—especially for someone who graduated with what was then called ‘a gentleman’s C’-of being invited to teach for a semester at Princeton….Notwithstanding all the public speaking I do, I was scared to death of facing these seventeen guaranteed brilliant modern Princeton students, who I also assumed to be generally humorless and altogether driven. As it turned out, I had a much happier time than I had anticipated. This was because the students were a great deal nicer than I had expected…not…all that smarter than we were.”

Frank moved on from the “Prince” to achieve eminence as a sportswriter. With his characteristic string tie, and his pencil thin mustache, he had the air of a Mississippi Riverboat gambler. He wrote for Sports Illustrated and became a senior editor. His passion for basketball went unabated. He interviewed all of the greats, towering figures physically and iconically: among them, Michael Jordan, Kobe, Kareem, Bill Russell, Magic, Isiah, and Wilt the Stilt. He also interviewed stars of other sports, such as Muhammad Ali and tennis greats, Billie Jean and Martina, who became his friends. He spent so much time talking to glammy tennis star Maria Sharapova, he was rumored to be having an affair with her. Who would ever deny it?

Prolific in his writing, he wrote some 14 books. I thought the best was his 2013 memoir, Over Time: The Life of a Sportswriter. He landed a weekly gig on public television. People in a position to know have likened him to his heroes, Red Smith and Grantland Rice, the greatest sportswriters of all time.

Certainly his saddest moment was the death of his eight-year-old daughter, Alexandra, from cystic fibrosis, which led him to adopt another child. Perhaps as a cathartic for his agony, he wrote the moving bestseller, Alex: The Life of a Child. It was a grief from which he never fully recovered.

Frank drowned in accolades too numerous to mention. President Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal in 2012. He won a Peabody, an Emmy, six times named U.S. Sportswriter of the year, was elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and on and on.

He wore the mantle of his extraordinary talent with amazing grace. But mostly, I will remember his zest for fun, the sparkle in his eyes, his nimble wit, and his generosity of spirit, which will endure in the hearts of those who knew him best.

The guy really had the touch. He rode “on eagle’s wings.” In the land of sportswriters, he lives in County Legend.

James D. Zirin, is a lawyer, a talk show cable TV host, and the author of two books: Supremely Partisan—How Raw Politics Tips the Scales in the United States Supreme Court, and The Mother Court—Tales of Cases that Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court. An earlier version of this article was posted to Huffington Post.**I met Frank Deford in 1958, some 59 years ago, when we were both “heeling” for the Daily Princetonian. I guess we were competitors then, but I never felt a sense of rivalry. As writers, we played in different leagues, but became fast friends. His original by-line on the “Prince” was “By B. Frank Deford” as his given name was Benjamin Franklin Deford III. With maturity, he soon dropped the “B.”

Tall and wiry, he had played basketball at Gilman School in Baltimore, and was trying out for the freshman basketball team. I don’t remember that he made it, but basketball and competitive sports became his consuming passion.

Frank had a gift. He had a feeling for people in whom he had a deep interest. He also understood what might interest them. His writing style was unique and original as was he. He wrote as he spoke, with the trace of a Southern twang, and in his writing, fifty-cent words were fluidly strung together to make million dollar sentences.

Frank became chairman of the Prince where his journalistic skills transcended just sports. I remember we drove together to Fort Dix, New Jersey one snowy day in March 1960 to interview Elvis Presley when Elvis was mustered out of the army. Frank talked to Elvis as though he were just another country boy who loved music, delighted to welcome Elvis back in town. And when Frank cheekily asked Elvis if he would continue his “suggestive movements,” I gasped as I took copious notes of the interview, and we had a story.

There were a lot of interesting stories back then, and Frank made sure that they were all well covered. Fidel Castro came to Princeton, proclaiming that he was a great friend of America; Martin Luther King preached racial justice from the pulpit of the Princeton University Chapel. William F. Buckley talked conservatism to a liberal audience in Whig Hall; and fiery Catholic Chaplain Father Hugh Halton trashed secularization and the denigration of religion. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Ray Bremser read their poetry of protest on the all-male 99% white, ostensibly heterosexual campus. I remember Frank asking Jones to compose an impromptu poem, and on the spot. Jones recited:

There are no girls in Tigertown.

And Tigertown is falling down.

Escape, escape escape.”

Frank wrote as he thought―with clarity and self-deprecating wit. For our 40th Princeton reunion in 2001, he wrote to the Class: “I had the unique experience—especially for someone who graduated with what was then called ‘a gentleman’s C’-of being invited to teach for a semester at Princeton….Notwithstanding all the public speaking I do, I was scared to death of facing these seventeen guaranteed brilliant modern Princeton students, who I also assumed to be generally humorless and altogether driven. As it turned out, I had a much happier time than I had anticipated. This was because the students were a great deal nicer than I had expected…not…all that smarter than we were.”

Frank moved on from the “Prince” to achieve eminence as a sportswriter. He wrote for Sports Illustrated and became a senior editor. His passion for basketball went unabated. He interviewed all of the greats: among them, Michael Jordan, Kobe, Kareem, Bill Russell, Magic, Isiah, and Earl the Pearl. He also interviewed stars of other sports, such as tennis greats, Billy Jean and Martina, who became his friends. He spent so much time talking to glammy tennis star Maria Sharapova, he was rumored to be having an affair with her. Who would ever deny it?

Prolific in his writing, he wrote some 14 books. I thought the best was his 2013 memoir, Over Time: The Life of a Sportswriter. He landed a weekly gig on public television. People in a position to know have likened him to his heroes, Red Smith and Grantland Rice, the greatest sportswriters of all time.

Certainly his saddest moment was the death of his eight-year-old daughter, Alexandra, from cystic fibrosis, which led him to adopt another child. Perhaps as a cathartic for his agony, he wrote the moving bestseller, Alex: The Life of a Child. It was a grief from which he never fully recovered.

Frank was drowning in accolades too numerous to mention. President Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal in 2012. He won a Peabody, an Emmy, six times named U.S. Sportswriter of the year, was elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and on and on.

He wore the mantle of his extraordinary talent with amazing grace. But mostly, I will remember his zest for fun, the sparkle in his eyes, his nimble wit, and his generosity of spirit, which will endure in the hearts of those who knew him best.

The guy really had the touch. In the land of sportswriters, he lives in County Legend.**

James D. Zirin, is a lawyer, a talk show cable TV host, and the author of two books: Supremely Partisan—How Raw Politics Tips the Scales in the United States Supreme Court, and The Mother Court—Tales of Cases that Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court.

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