A talk with sportswriting legend Frank Deford
Sports add texture to a city. And at its best, sportswriting adds texture to the games. Frank Deford is one of the greats of that profession.
Seattle Times staff columnist
A few blocks from his downtown hotel, the rally to bring back the Sonics was about to begin. As Frank Deford strolled into the lobby, an army of basketball fans wearing green and gold Sonics gear marched down First Avenue, on the way to Occidental Park.
Another celebration of sports was beginning in Seattle. But as fans looked ahead to the possibility of another team and another arena coming to town, they also celebrated the past and the Sonics' 40-year history.
The split-personality mood in this city on Thursday afternoon was familiar to Deford. He was a Baltimore Colts fan, and although he had moved away from that city by 1984, when the team left for Indianapolis, he understood the anguish that gripped his hometown.
Like the Sonics in Seattle, the Colts were Baltimore's first truly big-league team. The Colts gave his city something to cheer about. They united Baltimore. Gave it Johnny Unitas. And like the Sonics, the Colts gave their city its first world championship.
"Even though I hadn't lived in Baltimore for many years, when the Colts left it was wrenching," Deford said over coffee in the hotel's restaurant. "It was a part of the city that was being ripped off. I can understand how Seattle people feel."
Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata once famously said that sports offer no cultural value to a city. Deford put down his cup and thought about that.
"OK, maybe sports aren't cultural in the narrow sense of the word," he said. "But I think they're important to a community. Sports matter. You sit next to a guy at a ballgame, and you share something with him that you might not share otherwise.
"And God knows we need community in our cities. They're so divided and separated in so many ways. We don't even watch the same television shows any more. What do we share anymore? So a city council guy says there's no cultural value? Well, there are other values to professional sports, and I would put community right at the top of the list."
I believe many of the people who don't support Chris Hansen's arena plan have a bias against sports. They look at the games as trivial.
"There's a certain element of truth to all of that," Deford said with a grin. "But when you look at the whole picture, sports teams add something to a city. And listen, this isn't just an American phenomenon. It's all over the world. So there must be something to it. It's not just this parochial American devotion to sports. It's a way to bond, and you need that in a heterogeneous society. This is something that brings people together. It's corny, but I think it's true."
Sports add texture to a city. And at its best, sportswriting adds texture to the games.
For me, writing a column about Frank Deford, a column I know he will be reading at some point Friday morning, is as intimidating as addressing a golf ball knowing that Tiger Woods is there, on the tee box, ready to critique your swing.
It was because of Deford's writing that many of us got into this business. He elevates our profession. Like a great athlete, he is equal parts muscle and finesse. And for me it was a thrill just talking with him, like rallying with Rafael Nadal.
Deford's new memoir, "Over Time, My Life as a Sportswriter," is thoroughly entertaining and enlightening. It's not only a look at his life and his work, but also a smart chronicle of the mood and texture of the country in the second half of the 20th century. This is sportswriting, this is writing, at its best.
Years ago, when he was visiting Seattle, I tried convincing one of my favorite novelists, Richard Ford, that sportswriting was important. Obstinately he refused to buy into my argument. I should have offered Deford's prose as Exhibit A.
"It's like Ford's viewing society as some city on the hill, in which everybody is walking around discussing Plato and Aristotle and then reading Dostoyevsky," Deford said. "Come on, that's ridiculous. Sportswriting to me is just another part of the whole journalistic realm.
"Sure, we've got our share of hacks. Terrible writers. Guys who were basically in it because they loved sports and couldn't write. But that doesn't define the whole profession. I think it's often the case in sportswriting that the worst of it is somehow taken for the whole of it. What did Willie Morris call us? The poets of the night? I think most people would agree with that."
Frank Deford is one of those poets, one the greats of my profession. And "Over Time" is 351 pages of greatness.
I hope he returns to Seattle some day soon and writes a piece for Sports Illustrated about the return of the Sonics. I'll save him a seat on press row.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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