SPORTS ILLUSTRATED AT 50

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Practice over, the high school basketball player headed home to his family's gray clapboard house in north Baltimore. There, Frank Deford went for the mail - and the magazine.

Sports Illustrated had arrived.

Half a century later, Deford can guess what was on the cover. A rainbow trout. The Matterhorn. A spaniel with a bird in its mouth.

"I was very taken by much of the writing," he says of those early issues. But his typical response to the fledgling weekly was one of disappointment. Why? There wasn't enough of the mainstream sports that would become the magazine's staple.

"I thought I was getting a sports magazine," says Deford, who'd persuaded his dad to order a subscription after Sports Illustrated made its debut on Aug. 16, 1954. "There was some of that, but it was [overshadowed] by articles on hoity-toity sports and stuff that wasn't sports at all. When the cover has the chairman of Merrill Lynch bagging a pheasant, you knew it wasn't a sports magazine."

Sports Illustrated would go on to become the sports magazine and Deford its best-known writer. But it took nearly a decade for SI - now entering its 50th year (it is celebrating with weekly reviews of sports in each state, and Maryland's turn is this week) - to shake free of its stodgy origins.

The early focus was on sports fashion, travel, food. Football? Let's write about tailgate parties. Eclectic SI covers featured bird-watching or Princeton's marching band.

Deford recalls one blousy cover of drifting leaves - and nothing else. "A Walk Into Autumn," the October 1957 caption read. Three years later, the magazine trumpeted a three-part series on the art of wet-fly fishing. The public didn't bite; SI lost millions.

"The magazine was very insecure about sports," Deford says. "There was a feeling that [big-time athletics] were too declasse, too sweaty. I know it sounds silly, but they were scared of these things."

Another reason for SI's reluctance to jump into popular spectator sports: their perceived lack of national appeal.

"So much of sports was still regional [in the 1950s]," Deford says. "If you lived in Chicago, did you care if Southern Cal beat UCLA in football? Basketball was fragmented; there were East Coast games and West Coast games."

Then television came along to nationalize sports and stitch those fans together. And SI was there to cash in.

It's no coincidence Sports Illustrated and TV Guide evolved within 16 months of each other, says Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "These were handbooks to the obsessions of the post-war leisure culture," he says. "TV made sports the huge thing it was, and SI provided a 'how-to' guide for those who watched TV sports.

"What Sports Illustrated did 50 years ago was to push up rocks to find all the sporting life that was under them," Thompson says. "Nowadays, anything beyond two kids playing hopscotch is given cable rights."

It didn't happen overnight.

At SI, little had changed by June 1962, when Deford began work there. Fresh out of Princeton, he joined a staff that listed, among others, a full-time equestrian writer but no regular basketball beat man.

Basketball was Deford's game. He had played at Gilman and Princeton. At the time, Princeton boasted a rising star named Bill Bradley.

Deford brought Bradley, later the college Player of the Year, to the magazine's attention. "I told them that he was the best college sophomore in the country," he says. Some at the magazine had not heard of the player. "Can you believe that? Today, everyone knows who's the best high school sophomore."

So Bradley became the subject of an early Deford profile. "He certainly speeded up my career," the writer says.

Both Deford and SI flourished under the tutelage of managing editor Andre Laguerre, who scuttled the vein of blue-blood prose for broader coverage.

"Sports Illustrated was the first real national sports magazine. We knitted this stuff together," Deford says. "The Sporting News was all inside baseball and couldn't appeal to a wide audience. And Sport Magazine was full of stories like, 'My Friend Mickey Mantle, by [Yankees catcher] Elston Howard,' and crap like that."

Covering college basketball, Deford learned firsthand of SI's growing status.

"We were treated like visiting royalty on campuses," he says. "People would say, 'He's coming from New York to see us play?' On the cover of the program for a New Mexico-Colorado State game, you'd see, 'Welcome, Frank Deford.' And I'd always be interviewed at halftime.

"It threw them for a loop that I was only 26, so I'd wear glasses to make myself look older."

Pro basketball, he says, took the same starry-eyed tack. At an NBA game in 1963, Los Angeles coach Fred Schaus invited Deford into the Lakers' locker room at halftime. "They'd have died to get that coverage," he says.

The magazine began turning a profit, even before the swimsuit issue became a phenomenon.

"While SI has contributed to the excesses of the sports world, on occasion it is deeply critical," says Michael Oriard, professor of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University and a former college and pro football player.

"The magazine provides a pretty good case study of our conflicted and divided feelings about sports, and how they are both the most wonderful and appalling activities that human beings engage in."

The magazine can elevate athletics with skillful treatment of its subjects, says Jay Coakley, author of Sports In Society: Issues and Controversies.

"At its best, SI sculpts our ideas about sports," says Coakley. sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "It has given us a vantage point for viewing sports that we don't get from other media, one that is more thoughtful and issues-related. Deford may work for months on a story. That's a luxury you don't have in the newsroom."

Now 64, Deford remains a senior contributing writer for SI. (He also does commentary for National Public Radio, appears on HBO's Real Sports and has authored 13 books.) But the magazine has changed, he says. Stories are shorter and driven by statistics.

"At a certain point, TV set the agenda," he says. "Twenty-five years ago, [a writer] could say, 'I found a fascinating track coach at a little college,' and an editor would say, 'Wow, do that.'

"Now, he'd say, 'No, we'd rather have you write about the football coach at Ohio State.'"

Says Deford: "I came along at the right time."

He has reveled in painting characters. There was "The Boxer and The Blonde," a film-noir opus on fighter Billy Conn; "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," the triumph and tragedy of Bob "Bull" "Cyclone" Sullivan, a junior college football coach; and a provocative expose of Jimmy Connors that splayed open tennis' bad boy for all the world to see.

Historically, Deford says, SI has been "an overarching journal that allows [readers] a chance to breathe or to put an event or person in perspective. So much of TV coverage is breathless.

"We have shown how sports are important and how they are foolish. We've cheered, but we've also said, 'This is ugly. This stinks.'

"We've been a good gauge of what sports mean without going ga-ga over them."

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