NPR Commentator Frank Deford Visits Richmond
NPR sports commentator Frank Deford has just published his 16th book, a novel called Bliss, Remembered set at the 1936 Olympics. Many of Deford's followers and fans are unaware that for 17 years, he served as the chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and continues on the Board today as Chairman Emeritus. Deford's daughter, Alexandra, died of the disease at age 8. WCVE's Dan Rosenthal asked Deford if progress is being made toward a cure for cystic fibrosis.
N-P-R SPORTS COMMENTATOR FRANK DEFORD WAS IN RICHMOND FRIDAY TO PROMOTE HIS 16TH BOOK, A NOVEL CALLED BLISS, REMEMBERED, SET AT THE 1936 OLYMPICS.
MANY OF DEFORD’S FOLLOWERS AND FANS ARE UNAWARE THAT FOR 17 YEARS, HE SERVED AS THE CHAIRMAN OF THE CYSTIC FIBROSIS FOUNDATION AND CONTINUES ON THE BOARD AS CHAIRMAN EMERITUS.
DEFORD’S DAUGHTER, ALEXANDRA, DIED OF THE DISEASE AT AGE 8. WCVE’S DAN ROSENTHAL SPOKE TO DEFORD WHEN HE WAS HERE, AND ASKED IF PROGRESS IS BEING MADE TOWARD A CURE FOR “C-F”.
Deford: Extraordinary progress. In the very simplest terms, when Alex died in 1980, life expectancy--she was eight--life expectancy wasn't a bit more than that. It was about ten years old and now the mean age is well up in the thirties; and we're getting closer and closer to, not a cure, but, a control in the same way that insulin controls diabetes. The quality of life of people with cyctic fibrosis is just dramatically better than it was when Alex was alive, so, we've come a long way.
Do you think about your own mortality?
Deford: When you get to be 71 years old you think about your own mortality. There's no question that as you get older. It certainly does cross my mind. Yes, indeed.
You'll be 72 in December and have been writing about sports for more than 40 years. You've taught at Princeton, which is your alma mater, you've written 16 books and raised two grown children now. And you've got your HBO and Sports Illustrated work and, of course, your NPR commentaries. Ever think about hanging it up or laying around on the beach somewhere?
Deford: Well, I have cut back. I'm not as active as I used to be. Right now, when I'm on book tour, I wish I'd cut back some more. Because travel is the real hard part of it, but, I still love the work I do for HBO and I give a few speeches and moving around selling books is part of the process. But, I really think that working keeps me alive in a way. I don't mean that dramatically, but, I think the longer you can work the better off you are and I'm lucky to be doing something that I really love. So, until they put me in assisted living, I'm going to keep right on going.
Can we play a little word association? I'll give you a name or a phrase and you give me a couple of sentences on what's on your mind. Let's start with Bryant Gumbel.
Deford: Bryant is misunderstood by a lot of people because he was for so long the hard guy on the Today Show. In other words, Katie Couric was sweet and Bryant was tough and a lot of people, because he's such a tough interviewer--he's as good in interviewer as I've every seen--and the fact of the matter is he's a pussycat. He's a sweet guy. Everybody who works for him loves him and that tells you a great deal about a man and he's a delight to work with. We had a lot of fun together.
Deford: A fool. Total, absolute fool. Why in the world he would have put his neck in a noose by demanding to go before Congress. Being warned, "You understand, Mr. Clemens, you're under oath here. You understand the jeopardy that you're placing yourself in." 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.' It's hard for me to imagine how dumb he could be. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever.
LaBron James and the decision.
Deford: A bad decision. Now, his decision to go to Miami, we can analyze that forever. I tend to sympathize with a lot of the old ball players, like Magic Johnson, Larry Byrd, Michael Jordan--that's a pretty good group--all of whom said, 'We didn't want to play with the other good guys, we wanted to beat the other good guys to prove how good we were.' But, that aside, that alwful show, I think did more damage to his reputation than I can ever remember overnight somebody doing to themselves. OK, Tiger Woods, his reputation caught up with him, but, I'm talking a single decision that James made--I think he's going to pay for that in popularity for the rest of his career.
Speaking of Tiger Woods, how about the PGA now and Tiger Woods.
Deford: You watch television and they don't know what to do when there's a tournament on. Because if Woods is in it they feel obliged to cover him even if he's 14 strokes behind. It's as if ghosts are leading the tournament. I don't ever remember a sport going through this, this void that it has. Having said that I can still see this guy coming back; I mean, he's so good--he's never going to be what he was because--forget all the other stuff--he's older. You don't win that many tournaments when you get into your mid-thirties and beyond. He's kind of a drag on the PGA; that they want to follow him, but, he ain't winning. It's an odd situation. It really is.
Deford: (chuckles) Bret, make up your mind. I don't know Bret Favre, so I don't know whether he's doing this because he wants attention, because he wants love or because he just can't make up his mind. He is an extraordinary athlete, I mean, this is sort of the Cal Ripken of football. Maybe, he misses getting hurt and so instead of getting hurt and coming back, he has to go back and forth on him own. Some people get angry at him. I'm just sort of bemused at the whole Bret Favre episodes.
The Swimsuit Issue.
Deford: People say, "Gee, that's not a sport." And, I say, no, but it makes a lot of money. And at one point, at its height, the Swimsuit Issue was the fourth most money-making magazine in the country. Whatever was number one, Playboy--no, it wouldn't have been Playboy, it would have been a weekly, like Time was number one and People was number two and Sports Illustrated was number three--and the Swimsuit Issue by itself made more money than any other magazine did for the whole year. It's long past the point where it can be parodied now, it's simply prints money and is a tradition. And, you know, women like it, too.
I don't want to ignore your new book, 'Bliss, Remembered'. In it you have an American swimmer, an Olympian swimmer Sydney Stringfellow, falling in love with a son of a German diplomat and the setting is the 1936 Olympics. There's much more to the story, but you didn't originally want to set your story at the 1936 Olympics, but you changed your mind. Why?
Deford: Once I decided to use the Olympics as a background, which, when you think about it is a terrific device for getting people from different parts of the world to come together. But I thought the '36 Olympics was so obvious and so trite--it's the most famous Olympics because of Hitler. So I kept trying to get away from it, but I kept coming back to it because, largely because I knew I remembered that I had interviewed two of the principals-- Leni Riefenstahl, the very notorious German director who made the movie 'Olympia'; and Eleanor Holm, the very beautiful gold medal winner in 1932 in the backstroke, who was thrown out of the 1936 Olympics for being a naughty girl on the ship over to Berlin. And because I'd met those two ladies, I could visualize my characters a little bit better. And my heroine, Sydney Stringfellow, I made her a backstroker and I made myself a woman, as a writer. It's Sydney's story and I write it as a woman in love.
How was it writing as a woman?
Deford: Sydney is a little bit younger than my mother and I sort of viewed Sydney through my mother. And, after all, I'm not unfamiliar with women of the 20th century. I've known a few and have married one and had a couple of daughters. It wasn't like I was writing about some Mongolian woman from the 14th century. I had one scene in the ladies' locker room, where Sydney is taking her clothes off and putting her bathing suit on and she's very shy and embarrassed. I had a little trouble with that because I've never been in a ladies' locker room where somebody's been taking off their clothes and putting on a bathing suit. But I had a pretty good idea how it went and I said, well, I'll leave it in and see what happens and, yes, the woman have said, 'Yeah, you got that right.' So, if I can get women dressing and undressing, if I can get that right I think I can get the rest of it. After all, we all fall in love the same way, men and women, I think.
The book is 'Bliss, Remembered', published by Overlook Press. Senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and correspondent for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and, of course NPR sports commentator heard each Wednesday on Morning Edition here on WCVE FM, Frank Deford. Thank you, Frank, for being with us this morning.
Deford: Dan, you're very welcome. It's been fun.