In May of 1989, I was working on my third book, “Forever’s Team,’ a chronicle of the 1978 Duke basketball team when I got a phone call from Frank Deford.
Even though I had known Frank for several years—he covered a lot of tennis for Sports Illustrated in those days and I covered it for The Washington Post—a phone call from him was a surprise and a thrill. We were both working for Sports Illustrated at the time; he as the magazine’s star; me as a contributor who wrote 10 to 12 pieces a year. The stories I wrote were fine. Everything Frank ever wrote was jaw-dropping because it was so good.
He had written a piece on Bob Knight in 1981 that was both inspiring and intimidating to me when I moved to Bloomington four years later to begin work on what would become, ‘A Season on the Brink.’ Inspiring because it told me so much about Knight; intimidating because I knew nothing I wrote could possibly give people more insight into Knight than the Deford piece.
That same year, I had written a two-part series in The Post on Dean Smith. What made the stories noteworthy was that Smith had given me both access and sit-down time with him to write the piece—something he almost never did. In fact, a year earlier, he had refused to give Deford time on the grounds that he didn’t want Sports Illustrated to write one of its famous long-form pieces on him. Deford wrote it anyway and, even without Smith’s voice, produced arguably the best story ever written about him.
Deford’s piece was Smith’s defense when I insisted that I needed time with him to write about him well–and I WAS going to write about him.
“Frank Deford wrote a very long story about me that people tell me (Dean never admitted to reading anything about himself) was very good,” he said. “Why can’t you do the same thing?”
“Because I’m not Frank Deford,” I answered.
Dean smiled. He understood. He gave me the time.
Like a lot of writers of the last 50 years, Frank had been my hero as a kid—and especially when I got to college and realized I wanted to write about sports for a living. Frank was the standard against which all others were measured. On Monday, after Frank died at the age of 78, the great Bob Ryan tweeted that he’d always aspired to be Frank Deford.
I didn’t. I knew I’d never be that good. I just wanted to get as close as I possibly could.
So, when I heard Frank’s voice on the phone on that spring afternoon 28 years ago, I jumped to attention. “Are you going to be in New York anytime soon?” he asked. “I’d like to take you to dinner.”
I was on Shelter Island, two hours east of the city. If Frank had asked, I’d have jumped in the car and gotten there that night. I told him I was a couple of hours away and would come to town whenever he wanted. I didn’t ask what it was about. Frank Deford wanted to have dinner with me. The reason didn’t matter. If God had called and said, ‘hey, meet me for dinner and I’ll tell you exactly what happened on the first Easter Sunday,” I wouldn’t have been any more excited.
As it turned out, Frank wanted to offer me a job. He told me he was leaving Sports Illustrated—after 27 years—because he’d been offered the chance to be the editor of an all-sports daily newspaper. All of that—Frank leaving the magazine; the start-up of an all-sports daily; did I mention Frank leaving the magazine?—was stunning. Then came, what was for me, the headline: “I’d like you to come and work for me.”
Frank wanted to announce three hires when the news about the new paper, “The National,” was released that summer: Mike Lupica, Dave Kindred and me. I had left The Post a year earlier because I simply couldn’t be a full-time newspaper guy and write books. I explained that to Frank.
“I know all about balancing books and a full-time job,” he said. “I’ll make sure when you need time to work on a book, you’ll get it.”
After the publication of ‘A Season on the Brink,’ I’d been offered the same deal at The Post, only the sports editor had refused to live up to the deal. I knew Frank’s word was good as gold. I had one condition: “If I do this,” I said, “I want YOU to be my editor. I want to learn from you.”
Frank smiled, said something about me not needing to learn–which we both knew wasn’t true–and said, “if that’s what you want, you’ve got it.”
I said, “deal. I’ll do it.”
He looked at me curiously. “John, don’t you want to know how much you’re going to be paid?”
I laughed, feeling a little bit silly. “I guess so,” I answered. “But I’m taking the job.”
Nice negotiating, huh?
I was well-paid at The National, but the reason I went there, to a place that, as it turned out, only lasted 16 months, was to work for Frank—to learn from Frank. I’d had the chance to work for Bob Woodward at The Post. Then I worked for Frank at The National. Talk about an education in journalism.
Frank’s death on Monday was both shocking and sad. He’d been sick for a while—had moved to Florida several years ago because of his health and because Connecticut winters were too tough for him. I had talked to him on the phone a couple months ago when the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association FINALLY inducted him into its Hall of Fame.
I was on the nominating committee and argued that the Hall of Fame would be incomplete until Frank was part of it.
“But he didn’t really cover college basketball,” someone feebly argued.
“If the only two pieces he ever wrote were the ones or Knight and Smith, he’d belong,” I said. The debate more or less ended there. I had the honor of calling Frank to tell him he’d been voted into about the 112th Hall of Fame of his career.
I think he was genuinely touched and told me, sadly, that his health would make it impossible for him to travel to Phoenix during the Final Four to be inducted. Instead, he did a sweet, touching video that was shown during the ceremony.
I could tell that day on the phone that he wasn’t doing well. And yet, when the news broke on Monday, I was stunned—and very sad—because not only had the best sportswriter of my lifetime passed away but a wonderful, kind and generous man had passed away.
I called The Post to offer to write about him. The editors had already heard from Sally Jenkins and she was going to write. That made sense, not only because Sally’s so good, but because her dad, Dan, was Frank’s colleague for years at SI. In a galaxy of writing stars, Frank and Dan shone the brightest—even though their style could not have been more different.
I vividly remember the day Dean Smith died in February of 2015. The Post asked me to write a front page story and the first person I called was Mike Krzyzewski, his great rival and later, great friend. When Krzyzewski answered the phone, it was clear he was upset.
“I just can’t believe it,” he said. “I can’t believe Dean’s gone.”
I was a little surprised when he said that. By then, it was well known that Dean had been suffering with dementia for years and Mike had seen him when he was in a wheelchair and could no longer speak. When I said that, Mike answered quickly.
“I know that,” he said. “But somehow I figured Dean would never die.” He paused and then added, “Of course, he’ll never really die. He’ll live forever because of everything he did.”
Monday, when I heard Frank had died, I felt the same way. I wasn’t surprised, but I was stunned. And, I understood what Krzyzewski had meant that day hearing about Dean Smith’s death. I can’t believe Frank’s gone. But he’ll never be completely gone: his work and his accomplishments will live forever.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and The Story of an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list in hardcover and has been on the NY Times list since publication in paperback this past March. His Young Adult mystery, “Last Shot—Mystery at the Final Four,” won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the YA category. His new YA book, “Backfield Boys,” will be published in August.