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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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Now in those days, virtually every NHL player was from Canada. There, hockey prospects would be divvied up among the six NHL franchises as soon as their voices changed, taken from their families and schooled on the ice in jerkwater towns. It was called Junior A hockey, and it was adolescent servitude. But as the Bruins finished in the cellar year after year, as the Celtics made the playoffs and as I drank in Howie McHugh's suite with the Boston writers, I would be told late at night, in hushed voices, tales of the Canadian ice Christ child who would someday be the Bruins' savior. It would be only three more years now ... two....

The teenager's name was Bobby Orr, and he was playing Junior A hockey in Ontario. So, even though I didn't know a hockey puck from a quoit, I realized that I had got me another Bill Bradley, the fellow Princetonian on whom I had written the first national story. For a sportswriter, this was the equivalent of stumbling on two Lana Turners, back-to-back, at Schwab's Pharmacy. As a consequence, in the summer of '66, when Orr turned 18 and was finally old enough to play in the NHL, I traveled up to Parry Sound, Ont., with Leo Monahan, a hockey writer from the Boston Record-American. In the coffee shop we asked the waitress if she knew the way to the Orr residence. Well, yes, as a matter of fact she did, inasmuch as she was Bobby's mother.

So I wrote the first national story about Bobby Orr, too, and he went on to become by far the finest defenseman in the history of the game, and my reputation for discovering phenoms increased apace. Orr was sensational right off the bat. "I don't think most people can understand what little pressure I felt out there," he told me years later. "It was like I was skating in a little balloon. Only you can't take that balloon anywhere else with you."

That's about the best definition I've ever heard of what it's like to be blessed with great talent in one glamorous thing. Imagine being a kid and finding out that you're in that balloon. But also imagine how hard it is to understand that you're in the balloon only when you're on the blue line or in the batter's box or on the 18th green. And imagine what it's like when you're still playing, but you're older and all beat up and the balloon is starting to deflate. And then the balloon is busted and you're not even middle-aged in real life.

Twenty-two years after Parry Sound, I was doing a story on Larry Bird (whom I did not discover), and a big dinner was held in Boston to unveil a statue of him. By now Orr was long gone from hockey. He never even broke a tooth all the years he played, but his knees went on him early, so he'd lost his reservation in the balloon. But he continued to live in Boston, and he came to the Bird soirée, and when it was time for dinner, we sat down together.

When Bird got up to speak, he started talking about what it was like to play in Boston Garden and how, before every game, as he stood there during the national anthem, he would look up at the championship banners hanging from the ceiling. And, Bird said, he always focused on one. There was a pause. "Number 4," he said. Bird paused again, perfectly. Everybody was trying to remember what Celtic great was number 4 when Bird finally said, "Bobby Orr."

Orr, of course, had already caught on. His face was frozen in shock. The two athletes had barely met, and Bird had never told anybody this story before. When he pronounced the name and started talking about how he idolized Orr, Bobby reached over on the table almost involuntarily and grabbed my hand. "Oh, my God, Frank," he whispered, his fingers tightening over the back of my hand. "Oh, my God."

Most players, even some of the biggest stars, quickly disappear from our journalistic purview once they're put out to pasture, but there was one exceptional athlete whose relationship with me changed considerably for the better. That was Wilt Chamberlain, a singular man of manifold contradictions who remains the most imposing physical specimen I ever encountered.

I'm sure Wilt's great size—or how everyone he met reacted to his great size: How's the weather up there, yuk, yuk, yuk—affected him from early on. He appeared to block out the sun, but it was not just that he was tall. Bill Russell told me he was convinced that Chamberlain was scared that he might accidentally hurt someone, so he always played a bit timidly.

Wilt's freakishness didn't make him withdrawn, however. In fact, unlike many other U.S. athletes, whose interest in geography is pretty much limited to the length of the Las Vegas strip, Wilt spent much of his free time abroad. Had he been self-conscious about his height, he never would have ventured so far afield. Indeed, even as a civilian, in middle age, Wilt dressed in a way that called attention to his body: tank tops, tight pants and (even on city sidewalks) bare feet.

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