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An Afternoon with a Legend

It’s not entirely true to say that my main reason for writing a book about the 1957 Carolina basketball team was to meet Frank Deford. But it was one of the primary reasons.

In the early 2000s, I was working on a book on the 1957 Tar Heels. I talked to the usual sources–all the players were amazingly generous with their time, and I was lucky enough to spend hours with each of the five starters. But I needed more sources. I spent days in the UNC library, learning all those research skills I foolishly ignored during college.

In the course of that research, I came across a Sports Illustrated story on the ’57 team written by Frank Deford. In my eyes, Deford was almost as big a star as Lennie Rosenbluth or Pete Brennan. I’d been a subscriber to SI since I was about eight years old. When I was growing up, it was harder to admire writers who weren’t from your immediate area, because you couldn’t just go online and read their stories. But Deford was different, because he was national.

In fact, at one point, he was The National, which was a briefly-lived national sports newspaper in 1990. Deford was the editor of what I thought was one of the greatest ideas ever–a newspaper without all the stuff I didn’t care about (news) but with all the stuff I did care about (sports). Apparently, however, no one else agreed, and the newspaper died after 18 months. But during the 18 months it was alive, my dad would bring me a copy anytime he came across one, and I would read it from cover to cover. It was around this same time that I realized my basketball and baseball skills were not going to allow me to play in the NBA and/or MLB for more than ten or 12 years, so I would have to find another way to spend my life going to games. Deford, it seemed to me, had figured it out. I wanted to be like him.

The fact that Deford had written about the ’57 team, in my mind, made him a perfectly logical source. It seemed completely improbable that I might simply call up The Frank Deford and ask him for an interview. Somehow, though, I came across his email address on the internet. I emailed him, expecting to never hear from him again.

He responded within the hour. He invited me to visit him in New York City the next time I was in town, and a couple months later, there I was, meeting him on a street corner in the city. He was much taller than I expected but dressed exactly like I expected, wearing a suit and tie and a scarf. He looked like he had just left Frank Sinatra’s house. Today, we think of sportswriters as being somewhat nerdy. Deford was cool. Not sportswriter cool. But real life cool. Put him in a room with athletes or singers or movie stars, and he fit in. Maybe that’s why he wrote so well about them. He understood them better than those of us who looked up to them.

At this point in my life, it’s fair to say I have done thousands of interviews. I would rank sitting in The Frank Deford’s den as among the five times I have been most nervous doing an interview in my entire life. This guy had interviewed every person who mattered in sports in the last half-century. And now, I was asking him questions.

He gave me nearly an hour, which was about 57 minutes more than I deserved. The audio of the interview is attached. We talked mostly about Wilt Chamberlain, because Deford had covered him extensively and I needed some color on Carolina’s mythical opponent in the ’57 title game. But we also talked about the Tar Heels; Deford was a close friend of 1957 point guard Tommy Kearns. I don’t expect you to listen to an hour of a starstruck kid interviewing one of his idols, but here are some interview highlights:

10:00: While describing Frank McGuire’s decision to send the diminutive Kearns out to jump center against Chamberlain, Deford said, “It was a mean thing to do.” I had never thought of it this way.

14:00: Deford’s description of driving through North Carolina in 1957 when the Tar Heels returned home, and listening to the celebration on the radio.

24:40: Deford on what struck him about the 1957 team.

26:10: Deford on the South. “I was from Baltimore, and I didn’t know grits existed.”

34:30: Deford on the atmosphere of college basketball in the 1950s and “snake pits.”

38:15: Deford on the impact of the 1957 title on North Carolina basketball. “They made basketball so much more of a national game.”

42:20: Comparing and contrasting Frank McGuire and Dean Smith. “Oh, God. Night and day.” Who else in the world would describe Frank McGuire as “someone out of a Eugene O’Neill play”? If you’re only going to listen to one clip from the interview, this is the one.

49:12: “A fascinating Dean Smith story,” and how a Bear Bryant story nearly torpedoed a Deford profile of Smith. “It was one of the most intriguing episodes in my journalistic career.”

Let me be clear: there was absolutely no reason Frank Deford should have talked to me. He had no idea who I was. I was probably the least significant person he talked to in the entire year of 2005. And yet, there I was, sitting in his den. It was an experience I will never forget.

In 2005, I had a two-year-old daughter. In my quest to read everything Deford-related, I’d stumbled upon his book Alex: The Life of a Child. It was completely different than anything else I’d read by him, and it was even more powerful. I turned the pages and cried. Before I left, I told him how moving the book had been to me.

“Thank you for being part of my life,” he told me. It was exactly what I should have been saying to him. But I wasn’t really surprised that he could say what he wanted to say better than me, and he could also say what I wanted to say better than me. He was Frank Deford, and he made a life out of doing exactly that.

Frank Deford on the 1957 Tar Heels (from 1982).

Frank Deford on Dean Smith (also from 1982).

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