Few writers have been as closely identified with anyone place as Frank Deford was with Sports Illustrated. In two separate stints at the magazine, first from 1962 to ’89 and then from 1998 to 2017, Deford established himself as the best sportswriter in America. His bonus stories for SI became the stuff of legend. Here are 10 of his very best. They are presented in no particular order. Each one is its own gift.
Deford was a longtime supporter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Readers wishing to make a donation in his memory can contact the foundation at Media The Boxer and the Blonde
Issue Date: June 17, 1985
The boxer is going on 67, except in The Ring record book, where he is going on 68. But he has all his marbles; and he has his looks (except for the fighter’s mashed nose); and he has the blonde; and they have the same house, the one with the club cellar, that they bought in the summer of 1941. A great deal of this is about that bright ripe summer, the last one before the forlorn simplicity of a Depression was buried in the thick-braided rubble of blood and Spam. What a fight the boxer had that June! It might have been the best in the history of the ring. Certainly, it was the most dramatic, alltime, any way you look at it. The boxer lost, though. Probably he would have won, except for the blonde—whom he loved so much, and wanted so much to make proud of him. And later, it was the blonde’s old man, the boxer’s father-in-law (if you can believe this), who cost him a rematch for the heavyweight championship of the world. Those were some kind of times. Read the whole story…
Q&A: Deford on his only regret from a perfect story
Issue Date: August 28, 1978
Playing, competing, with a racket in his left hand, Jimbo is more a Thompson than a Connors—in a sense, he is Jimmy Thompson. Has any player ever been more natural? But then, in an instant, he wiggles his tail, waves a finger, tries to joke or be smart, tries too hard—for he is not facile in this way and his routines are forced and embarrassing, and that is why the crowds dislike him. He is Jimmy Thompson no more. He is trying so hard to be Jimmy Connors, raised by women to conquer men, but unable to be a man, to be Big Jim or Bill Riordan. He is unable to be one of the boys. Read the whole story…
Issue Date: May 10, 1999
It was 30 years ago, and the car containing the old retired basketball player and the young sportswriter stopped at a traffic light on the way to the airport in Los Angeles. (Of course, in the nature of things, old players aren’t that much older than young writers.) The old player said, “I’m sorry, I’d like to be your friend.”
The young writer said, “But I thought we were friends.”
“No, I’d like to be your friend, and we can be friendly, but friendship takes a lot of effort if it’s going to work, and we’re going off in different directions in our lives, so, no, we really can’t be friends.”
And that was as close as I ever got to being on Bill Russell’s team. Read the whole story…
Q&A: Deford on friendship, Russell and a raod trip to remember
Issue Date: Jan. 16, 1981
As Bobby Knight is the first to say, a considerable part of his difficulty in the world at large is the simple matter of appearance. “What do we call it?” he wonders. “Countenance. A lot of my problem is just too many people don’t go beyond countenances.”
That’s astute—Bobby Knight is an astute man—but it’s not so much that his appearance is unappealing. No, like so much of him, his looks arc merely at odds. Probably, for example, no matter how well you know Coach Knight, you have never been informed—much less noticed yourself—that he’s dimpled. Well, he is, and invariably when anyone else has dimples, a great to-do is made about them. But, in Bobby’s case, being dimpled just won’t fly.
Q&A: Deford explains why Bobby Knight will always hunt rabbits
After all: DIMPLED COACH RAGES AGAIN. No. But then, symbolically, Knight doesn’t possess dimples, plural, as one would expect. He has only the prize one, on his left side. Visualize him, standing in line, dressed like the New Year’s Baby, when they were handing out dimples. He gets the one on his left side. “What the bleep is this?” says little Bobby drawing away.
“Wait, wait!” cries the Good Fairy or the Angel Gabriel or whoever’s in charge of distributing dimples. But it’s too late. Bobby has no time for this extraneous crap with dimples. He’s already way down the line, taking extras on bile. Read the whole story…
Issue Date: September 1, 1975
The late Tony DeSpirito could have been the best there ever was on a horse, the very best. He knew that himself. When he visited his children, who had been too young to see him when he was great, sometimes he would laugh and say, “I’m the king. I am. Nobody could ever do on a horse what your father did.” And there was no braggadocio to it. It was almost teasing. He just wanted his children to know, for the record. He would laugh. “The king, Donna. Your father was the king.” Read the whole story…
Issue Date: April 30, 1984
Coach Bob “Bull” (Cyclone) Sullivan was a legend in his place. That place was Scooba, Miss, in Kemper County, hard by the Alabama line, hard to the rear of everywhere else. He was the football coach there, for East Mississippi Junior College, ruling this, his dominion, for most of the ’50s and ’60s with a passing attack that was a quarter century ahead of its time and a kind of discipline that was on its last legs. He was the very paradigm of that singular American figure, the coach—corch as they say in backwater Dixie—who loved his boys as he dominated them, drove off the weak and molded the survivors, making the game of football an equivalency test for life. Read the whole story…
Issue Date: November 23, 1981
The first of the two-a-days in the 24th year of Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant’s tenure at Alabama takes place just after dawn on a steamy summer’s day, Monday, August 17th. It would be winter, four and a half months later, before the Crimson Tide would be finished playing; the team has gone to a bowl for 22 straight years and, by now, as The Bear says, “We win two games, some bowl will invite us.” Oddly, he overslept this morning. You’d have thought The Bear would have been raring to go, he being a legend in his own time, this being the start of his supreme season; besides, he’s an early riser. But Billy Varner had to rouse him, up at his house by the third green at the Indian Hills Country Club.
Billy drives The Bear around in a Buick LeSabre. He has for six years, since, The Bear explains, “I started gettin’ death threats and all kinda things.” Billy was a bartender out at the club, and The Bear had him taught to shoot a pistol so he could pass the police tests. They get along beautifully, which is important, because by now The Bear probably spends more time with Billy Varner than he does with his wife, whose name is Mary Harmon if you know The Bear and Miz Bryant if you only worship from afar. Read the whole story…
Issue Date: Aug. 8, 1983
Even now, so few comprehend. About Howard Cosell, that is. Cosell does. “I have won,” he says, as is his wont. As we know. In that jejune world up in the booth—high up in the booth—only one man possesses quickness and momentum. He is not the one with the golden locks or the golden tan but the old one, shaking, sallow and hunched, with a chin whose purpose is not to exist as a chin but only to fade, so that his face may, as the bow of a ship, break the waves and not get in the way of his voice. For as long as he speaks, whoever rails at Cosell’s toupee isn’t seeing the bombs for the silos. Read the whole story…
Issue Date: September 23, 2002
After I got that autographed Unitas football, every now and then I’d pick it up and fondle it. I still do, too, even though Johnny Unitas is dead now, and I can’t be a boy anymore. Ultimately, you see, what he conveyed to his teammates and to Baltimore and to a wider world was the utter faith that he could do it. He could make it work. Somehow, he could win. He would win. It almost didn’t matter when he actually couldn’t. The point was that with Johnny U, it always seemed possible. You so very seldom get that, even with the best of them. Johnny U’s talents were his own. The belief he gave us was his gift. Read the whole story…
Issue Date: March 27, 1978
Like most boys, I had a favorite player. His name was Bob Repass, and he played shortstop for the old minor league Baltimore Orioles. While I lived and died with Bob Repass (“Hey, Bob-a-re-pass!” we shouted), I do not recollect that he seriously diminished my devotion to my father. On the other hand, the heritage of Bob Repass still resides with me. He wore No. 6. To this day it is my firm belief that six is my lucky number. Why? Because it is my lucky number, that’s why. Because Bob Repass wore it when I was eight years old. Read the whole story…
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