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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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Kearns was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals—he played in one NBA game, took one shot and made it, retiring from the league with a 1.000 shooting percentage—and after he was cut, he became a stockbroker. As an indication of his superior salesmanship, he persuaded Wilt, the man whom he'd helped make a figure of fun, to let him handle his portfolio. They became good friends, and occasionally Tommy would tell me I ought to reconsider my assessment of Wilt, who he said was a good guy.

The Kearnses and Defords liked to travel together, and late one night at, of all places, a bar in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I agreed to Tommy's suggestion that if Wilt were up to it, the three of us go out together back in the States. Wilt accepted Tommy's invitation, and we three went to a track meet at Madison Square Garden (Wilt loved track) and then had dinner. Wilt and I, though shy and tentative at first, got along quite well. To cap the evening he insisted on picking up the dinner tab, which most athletes do not make part of their M.O., having been fussed over all their lives.

A couple of years later I called up Wilt and went out to Los Angeles to do a long story celebrating the 50th birthday of a physical marvel. It struck me almost immediately how content he was. In his playing days he had often said that his happiest year had been the one before he joined the NBA, when he had traveled with the Globetrotters. Now he was even more at peace. In fact, I'm not sure there's ever been a star athlete other than Wilt who was so uncomfortable when playing and so much happier retired.

Anyway, in Los Angeles our rapprochement was complete. He even started calling me Frank, instead of my man, which was how he addressed most everyone. (Remember, everybody knew who Wilt the Stilt was, and he could hardly be expected to reciprocate by remembering the names of the whole human race.) We had a few laughs together. Nothing amused Wilt more than the glad-handing phonies who would corner him and tell him they had been in Madison Square Garden cheering him on the night he scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962. Wilt would just nod and grin. That game, you see, had been played in Hershey, Pa.

We also could laugh at people such as flight attendants who always told tall people, "Watch your head," even though tall people naturally watch their heads. Wilt and I also talked about how smaller people are never embarrassed to ask tall people exactly how tall they are, even though no one would ever ask a short person how short he is or a fat person how much he weighs. Not only that, but when a tall person answers the question, he's not believed. Others always say, "You're taller than that." I'm 6'4". Of the thousands of times people have asked me how tall I am and I've told them, no one has ever said, "No, you're not that tall."

And more years passed.

Then Wilt made an ass of himself by writing a book claiming that he had slept with 20,000 women. Oh, my man, how could you? But Wilt had always been measured by numbers. Be the tallest. Score the most points. Grab the most rebounds. Hand off the most assists. Make the largest salary. And, yes, screw the most women. It quite surprised him that his sexual braggadocio put people off, even disgusted them. Here he had become, if not a Grand Old Man, at least the Grandest Old Man of height-sensitive commercials, and he'd frittered it all away on a stupid boast. Wilt Chamberlain was now thought of as, for lack of a better word, a slut.

In 1999, as the century wound down, Bill Russell was himself coming out of the shadows. He'd spent much of the previous years, if not in seclusion, then certainly out of the spotlight. Friends began to point out to him that he was being forgotten. Never mind that he'd won 11 championships and become the first major league African-American coach; in a world where even black baseball players admitted that they didn't know who the hell Jackie Robinson was, Russell was being lost. So he agreed to something of a comeback coming-out party.

I happily did my part by writing a cover story for SI that proclaimed Russell the greatest team player of the century, and then an HBO special about him. Russell began to make appearances, even to sell his autograph, which he'd always resisted giving away (sometimes taking far more time to explain why he was opposed to the practice than it would've taken to scribble his name).

To culminate his reentry into celebrity, Russell returned to Boston that May to have his number 6 jersey officially retired to the heavens of Boston Garden. It was a huge affair, and Wilt graciously agreed to fly across the country to help honor his old rival—even though he knew he'd be the designated villain at the celebration.

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