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WHEN THE NBA WAS YOUNG
Frank Deford
April 23, 2012
So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas
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April 23, 2012

When The Nba Was Young

So was SI writer Frank Deford, who cut his teeth on a league then so inconsequential that reporters got floor seats. In this exclusive excerpt from Deford's memoirs, the author recalls encounters with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and others who starred on his expense account as well as in the league's arenas

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In the back, the players huddled in the cold, praying, while Baylor simply lay down flat in the aisle. Hot Rod Hundley remembered hearing the copilot call out the descending altitude: "Sixty ... 50 ... 40...." Then, all of a sudden: "Take the son of a bitch up, take it up!" They were coming in too steep.

The plane soared back up, circled, then began to glide down again. "Well, Rod," Slick Leonard said to Hundley, "at least we had some time to smell the roses." But on this try the descent was smooth, and the plane landed so cleanly in the cornfield that the next day, after it was juiced up, a pilot was able simply to turn the DC-3 around and fly it safely off.

Baylor has been largely forgotten, I suppose, but in his prime he was just fabulous—Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan. Elgin had a nervous twitch that made him even more disconcerting to guard. One time he went for 63 against the Philadelphia Warriors, prompting Hundley (who got more free drinks on my expense account than anybody else) to make the famous remark, "Elg and me went for 65 tonight."

My first assignment in the NBA was with the Lakers. Bill Leggett, a writer on the magazine, was going to do a story about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, and since he would travel with the Celtics, I was designated to go along with the Lakers, embedded as Leggett's reporter. I caught up with the team in Cincinnati, where it was playing the Royals, with Oscar Robertson, the Big O. I was supposed to meet the Lakers the next morning in the hotel lobby, where we would jam into cabs, our long legs all entangled, and go to the airport. I was scared to death. This was my debut as a traveling sportswriter. I was 24 years old. I remember picking out my best shirt and tie. I slicked down my hair with both Vitalis and Brylcreem. I put on my fancy new checked sports jacket and a pair of horn-rim glasses in a vain effort to make myself look older. In the lobby I tried to appear as unobtrusive as possible, but Elgin spied me right away. He was not only the star of the team but also the leader—and a very good straight-faced comedian. Loudly, in his deep voice, staring straight at stylish me, he said, "I didn't know Ralston-Purina was making sports jackets these days."

All the Lakers roared.

Welcome to the big time, Deford.

Hundley did make me feel a little better later when, over a couple of Cutty Sarks on me, he said that Baylor had tagged the beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, who had bad teeth, Low Tide at Santa Monica.

Hot Rod revealed this to me at our destination, Detroit, where the Lakers were going to play the Celtics in the lid lifter of a doubleheader. That's right: Because the Pistons were struggling at the gate, the NBA had awarded them the league's best attraction, Lakers-Celtics, as the undercard. I guess the Globies were otherwise occupied.

The Lakers and the Celtics (along with Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors, who were playing the Pistons) were staying at a hotel that was also holding a hairdressers' convention. Now try to envision this: Thirty young guys, most of them extremely tall and randy, and plenty of beautiful models stuck together in one hotel. And it is something like 10º outside, so nobody is going out. And I'm buying drinks on my expense account, picking up the hoop skinny and providentially, because of said expense account, being very popular with both genders.

This, I believe, was when I decided that maybe I really did want to be a sportswriter for a while.

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