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Deford: Sportswriting Is `Great Drama'

Profiler says he'll write about anything

FRANK Deford, best known for his sportswriting, has profiled the likes of Nike founder Phil Knight and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Yet he insists that he'll write about anything - so long as it's a good story.

``It could be my next-door neighbor,'' Mr. Deford says. ``If it's an interesting story, I'll do it.''

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In Boston recently to give a speech, Deford was as eloquent and intelligent as the profiles he has written. He spoke on topics ranging from the sportswriter's craft and how it has changed to a potential Major League baseball strike.

Now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Deford spent most of his career at Sports Illustrated, where he was a writer and editor for 27 years. It was here that his profiles made him a star.

``There's an odd thing about sportswriting,'' Deford says.

``It should be the best writing. You're writing about young, vibrant people; there are wins and losses. In other words, it's great drama.''

He says he was born with a gift for writing, a talent that was recognized and nurtured by his teachers in elementary school.

Besides his numerous sports profiles, he has written 10 books. One of the most recent is ``Love and Infamy'' (Viking, 1993), a novel of two men. One is raised in Japan, the son of American missionaries; the other is a Japanese raised and educated in America.

As World War II approaches, each is forced to choose between his loyalty to the other and loyalty to his country. In 1980, Deford wrote ``Alex, the Life of a Child,'' three years after the death of his young daughter.

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Deford's most recent article for Vanity Fair is a story about Bob and Bill Bennett: two powerful political siblings in Washington. Bob is a high-powered defense lawyer; Bill was Reagan's secretary of education.

For Deford, an interview subject is like a date in high school: ``You flirt,'' he says. ``You try to put your best face foward; you ask a lot of silly questions, only on a slightly higher level. It's a good game. Then,'' he concludes, ``you have to go home and write the high school term paper.''

IN 1990, the National Sports Daily was born. The publication was bankrolled by Emilio Azcarraga, a Mexican media baron who picked Deford as editor. After 18 months on the newsstands and an estimated $100 million in losses, the presses stopped running. Deford attributes the failure to high distribution costs.

But even in the light of that shortcoming, Deford's wife, Carol, says he has led a wonderful life. ``He hasn't had many disappointments,'' Mrs. Deford says.

Along the way, though, Deford has had to adapt and remake his craft because of television's influence.

``Sportswriting has had to go beyond the game,'' Deford observes. ``We've had to be less and less reporters and more and more commentators, because you see the game on the screen.''

``And you'd better be good to stay in this business as a newspaper reporter,'' he says, adding that this is especially true for sportswriters. Deford follows his own advice: On ESPN and National Public Radio, he delivers weekly commentaries on a range of athletic events.

With a professional baseball strike looming later this week, he offered this view:

``The conventional wisdom is that the strike will last until the end of the season, and then they will all rest like it's a religious holiday,'' Deford said.

He disagrees: ``After two or three days, the owners will look around and say, `We've got to get back to business.' The team that is not unified is the team that will not win. In this case, it's the owners.''

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