SPORTSWRITING has the richest dirt in the garden—full of squirmy metaphors and juicy stories. From his 50-plus-year career of covering sports as varied as baseball, tennis, basketball, roller derby, and boxing, Frank Deford has a bumper crop of excellently written essays and life stories. There's nary a slug in the bunch. The man's a master, and his memoir Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter is the shining proof.
Starting as a lowly researcher at Sports Illustrated in 1962, the fresh-faced Princeton grad eventually proved his sports foresight covering the "bush league" NBA (in the days when Wilt Chamberlain was traded in a St. Louis restaurant stairwell), and pointing out the star qualities of many an athlete like Bill Bradley and Bobby Orr. It's Deford's pithy observations that made his career soar. "A basketball player, in glorified underwear, is visible and ours to examine; a football player, buried underneath armor and visor, is but numbered muscle mass. I suppose that's why football players do all that showing off after a good play: They're entertainers, but they're anonymous at the moment that matters, so they feel the need to take a bow."
Besides befriending and writing about nearly every sports great in the last 50 years, Deford ranges far in Over Time with his stories of coaches, sportswriters, and Mad Men-esque days at Time, Inc. And there are some knives to your heart, like Deford's loss of his young daughter to cystic fibrosis, his friendship with tennis great Arthur Ashe, and the way that some titans fell from limelight to be forgotten.
As a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Bruce Campbell, Deford is infinitely likeable, full of vim and self-deprecation. He's also a damned fine writer, and his crusty newspaperman sensibilities reveal glimpses into a golden age of what-was. Perhaps my biggest criticism of this fine book is that when it does slow down, it gets mired in good old boys talk. But then Deford will drop a beautiful cleverism into your lap: "The most salubrious aspect of American sports is that we spread our interest around, so that if your football team is lousy, you can turn to your basketball or hockey team... in most countries, though, if your soccer team is a bummer, that ruins you for the year. Sometimes for all your years." The man's a gem—a living, walking ledger of Americana.