Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter; by Frank Deford; Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012; 351 pages.
Reading the work of Frank Deford has always been about cold shivers — those jaw-dropping moments of insight or poetry of language so surprising, delightful or meaningful that reactions transcend thought into a physical tingle.
Deford is on the short list of the nation’s most notable sports magazine writers and is almost certainly among the best of his generation across all categories. To call him merely a sportswriter, his area of specialty for the lion’s share of his remarkable career, does him a serious injustice. It’s true that much of his work involves sports-related subjects — appropriate for a writer who was among those who turned Sports Illustrated from a money-losing venture focused on general activities into an iconic literary chronicle of competitions and competitors. But Deford has always managed to tell a larger human story about his myriad subjects from the delightful (Arthur Ashe), the difficult (Bobby Knight) and the ridiculous (Jimmy Connors).
He is equal parts wordsmith and psychologist; craftsman and historian; observer and interviewer. And always, in a way, a participant.
So why would his memoir be any different?
Thankfully, it’s not. Deford, the author of 17 books, including 10 works of fiction, crafts the latest about perhaps his most difficult subject to date — himself. Oddly — and again, thankfully — he does not choose the usual route for his memoir, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.” There is no “I was born in the house that my father built” intro here. Deford takes a piecemeal — almost scrapbook — approach to telling the story of his sports writing career. Along the way, he adds a dab or two about his Baltimore upbringing to move the story full circle. He just takes a different route in getting there.
It’s a welcome technique. Too often memoirs become bogged down in inconsequential childhood tales or amateur analysis of family members or third parties. Here Deford begins his story at Princeton University where he’s trying to determine what will be the next phase of his life. It’s a great first snippet in a book laced with them. Each chapter is a short anecdotal bite from Deford’s life. It follows no chronological pattern. Deford has essentially created a patchwork quilt of his sports writing life with words.
Nothing is covered in excruciating detail and again, that’s a plus. The nuggets Deford does provide are insightful and significant. He doesn’t dwell, for example, upon the death of his daughter Alexandra to cystic fibrosis — a story he wrote about poignantly in the book “Alex: The Life of a Child.” But he does recall a meaningful episode with the famous and now deceased oddsmaker and TV football analyst Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, who lost two children to the same disease.
This focus on relationships, however brief, keeps the narrative lively and entertaining. As one of the first writers to cover professional basketball extensively, Deford met and spent time with many of the luminaries of that time from Elgin Baylor to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The stories of how the NBA moved from barnstorming league to cult status to global phenomenon unfolds through Deford’s eyes and via his interactions with those directly involved.
Because he spent much of his career at Sports Illustrated, Deford covers a lot of territory there, sharing memories of legendary editor Andre Laguerre and how the magazine built an audience when there basically was none. He stays away from kiss and tell stories about other writers. Only Dan Jenkins (the best at being a writer for Sports Illustrated) and Mark Kram get more than a casual mention.
To his credit, Deford does not shy away from editorial missteps either. A chapter is devoted to The National, a daily newspaper launched in 1990 devoted solely to the coverage of sports. Deford was the first and only editor of The National, an ambitious publication never before produced in America. He lured the best writers from across the nation to join his staff. But it closed after a little more than a year with $150 million in losses. High costs and delivery issues doomed it.
For journalists in particular this business of memoir-writing is a tricky path. Too often reporters and editors use this forum to hold forth on the idea that journalism isn’t what it used to be in the grand old days or bemoan the changing habits of younger writers or readers. Deford deftly avoids this trap. While his story is also a history of reporting (he pays much respect to forbearers like Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner), Deford chooses not to dwell on what he doesn’t like about the current state of the business. He makes it clear that certainly how news or sports is presented has evolved over time but chooses not to lambaste those differences, merely point them out. ESPN, after all, is too easy a mark for a writer of Deford’s ability.
The triumph of “Over Time” is that it chronicles an era when sports reporting grew not only in quantity but quality and importance. Deford was and still is a leader in this field. “Over Time” tells readers why.