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Picking Nits with Frank Deford

In the Hyperbolic World of Sports Journalism, the Sports Illustrated Icon Is Considered a Master Storyteller. And Most of the Time, He Gets It Right.

January 11, 2004|Glenn F. Bunting | Times staff writer Glenn F. Bunting last wrote for the magazine about televangelist Dr. Gene Scott.

I am warming up at Rancho Park's driving range in July 2002 when the old instructor approaches. He is wearing a beige Gilligan's hat pulled down to his eyebrows and quietly observes me hitting balls off a faded green mat.

"When did you start playing?" he asks. As a teenager, I reply. "How often do you practice?" Not enough. "What is your occupation?" Investigative reporter. He pauses a moment, then gently inquires, "Do you know Frank Deford?" Of course. "Are you familiar with his work?"

It seems an odd question. I am there for a golf lesson and the old instructor who barely knows me first wants to chat about one of the most accomplished sportswriters in America?

Indeed, he does. In the middle of my backswing, the old instructor mentions that Deford recently referred to Serena and Venus Williams as the first sisters ever to play in the finals of a major tennis tournament.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Frank Deford -- A Jan. 11 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on writer Frank Deford incorrectly stated that Deford collaborated on books with five professional tennis players. In fact, Deford wrote "Big Bill Tilden" in 1975 on his own. The article also referred to Robert Victor Sullivan as a Mississippi prep football coach. He was a junior college football coach.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 08, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 8 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Picking Nits With Frank Deford" (Jan. 11) incorrectly stated that Deford collaborated on books with five professional tennis players. In fact, Deford wrote "Big Bill Tilden" in 1975 on his own. The article also referred to Robert Victor Sullivan as a Mississippi prep football coach. He was a junior college football coach.

"That's wrong!" he barks. "How is a writer with such prestige allowed to keep making errors?"

Ed Coleman, octogenarian, has been teaching golf professionally since 1949. He has a nimble, encyclopedic mind and has been a stickler for detail since the 1930s when, as a teenager, he wrote letters pointing out mistakes to the sports editor of the New York World-Telegram. These days, he takes pride in spotting a misspelled word on a movie billboard or a miscue in the Los Angeles Times.

At our next lesson, Ed informs me that he has caught other great sportswriters in the wrong, among them the late Jim Murray of The Times and Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker. But in Ed's view, Murray and Wind were jaywalkers compared to Deford.

"I do respect the man," Ed says. "He is a beautiful writer. But his articles lack integrity. Would it ruin his column to eliminate the exaggerations and mistakes?"

He's got my attention. I begin listening to Deford's weekly commentaries on National Public Radio every Wednesday at 7:45 a.m. My phone frequently rings minutes afterward. It's Ed on the line.

"Deford did it again!" he exclaims on the morning of Nov. 6, 2002. Ed says Deford reported that no woman had ever before played in a men's professional golf tournament. He tells me that Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias competed in the men's Los Angeles Open in 1938 and 1945.

"This is reprehensible," Ed complains. "It isn't right to gloss over the Babe's accomplishments . . . Are you getting my point? Don't I have a right to be angry?"

Frank Deford is, by any measure, a distinguished writer. a google search of his name produces more than 21,000 hits, many of them calling him "the world's greatest sportswriter." The description is included in Deford's biography and splashed across the cover of "The Best of Frank Deford," the latest anthology of his work.

The "world's greatest" title is cited frequently in introductions before Deford speaks on the lecture circuit and when he appears on radio or TV. He has been named "Sportswriter of the Year" six times by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Assn. The Sporting News wrote that he "arguably is the most influential sports voice among members of the print media." The American Journalism Review hailed him as the nation's best magazine writer. GQ magazine proclaimed him "the greatest sportswriter of the generation."

In four decades as a journalist and an author, Deford has profiled some of the biggest names in sports, including Wilt Chamberlain, Billie Jean King, Jack Nicklaus, O.J. Simpson, Sadaharu Oh and Steve Cauthen.

In an interview with Inside Sports magazine, the late writer George Plimpton once said of Deford: "I just wish he wouldn't write so much--and embarrass the rest of us."

"Frank Deford with a pen in his hand is like Michael Jordan with a basketball and Tiger Woods with a driver," Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, tells me.

"His description of people and places is unmatched in our business," says Van McKenzie, associate managing editor for sports at the Orlando Sentinel. "He sees things that average writers and reporters don't see. He gets information out of people that other reporters simply can't get."

Today, at 65, Deford remains remarkably productive. He is a senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, the publication where he got his first job in 1962. He left in 1989 to serve as editor-in-chief of The National, the all-sports daily tabloid that bled $150 million before collapsing within 18 months. After spending several years writing for Newsweek and Vanity Fair, Deford returned to SI in 1998.

His weekly NPR commentaries, which began in 1980, are published as columns on the Sports Illustrated Web site and in the Westport News, Deford's local paper in Connecticut. He has served as a correspondent on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" since the program's inception in 1995. His work as a television writer has garnered an Emmy, a Peabody and a Cable Ace award.

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