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SI 60 Q&A: Frank Deford on his award-winning Bill Russell feature, "The Ring Leader"

For the latest installment in the SI 60 Q&A, associate editor Ted Keith spoke with Frank Deford about his award-winning 1999 Sports Illustrated story on Bill Russell, "The Ring Leader."
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In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, is republishing, in full, 60 of the magazine's best stories. On Friday, republished "The Ring Leader," Frank Deford's award-winning bonus story on legendary Celtics center Bill Russell. It originally ran in the May 10, 1999 issue, 30 years after Russell, as player-coach, led Boston to its 11th title in his 13 seasons in uniform. associate editor Ted Keith spoke to Deford about the piece, which won the 2000 National Magazine Award for profile writing, an award that did not exist during Deford's unforgettable first stint at the magazine.

SI: You had been one of the most storied writers in Sports Illustrated history throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s before leaving the magazine in 1989 to become the editor of The National, an all-sports daily newspaper that was much-celebrated but short-lived. You returned in 1998. What brought you back to SI?

DEFORD: I had been invited back to SI almost from the time that The National folded [in 1991]. I had gone to work for Newsweek, left Newsweek and went to work for Vanity Fair and then went back to Newsweek. I came back to SI as a contract writer. Hard as it is to believe, there were three magazines fighting over me. Newsweek wanted to keep me, ESPN The Magazine was coming into existence and wanted me and SI wanted to bring me back. Isn't that amazing? I had a choice, like a free agent. Norm Pearlstine, at the time the Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc. [and now the Chief Content Officer at the company], came to me and said, "You gotta come back." He's the man who was primarily responsible for my coming back. He was great, he was terrific. That's not to say that [SI managing editor] Bill Colson didn't want me back, he did very much.

SI: The Russell story was one of your signature bonus pieces, and it was on a player you had written about before. How did it come about?

DEFORD: I didn’t suggest we do the story on Russell. But I can tell you this: Russell had approached me sometime before that because friends of his were saying, "Bill, you’re being forgotten." He was very reclusive. Now he’s ubiquitous, he’s everywhere, but in the period leading up to 1999, Russell had sort of disappeared. And as a consequence he approached me with some friends of his. I met him down on 42nd street in New York City at a hotel next to Grand Central Station. And everybody said, "How do we get Bill publicity?" The main thing I did first was a documentary on HBO. They were thrilled with the idea. "Russell wants to do a documentary? Yeah!"

Then the idea came up at SI at about the same time of doing all these pieces about the turn of the century. SI came to me and said we want you to do a story on Russell as the greatest team player, which I certainly agreed with. I was the logical choice to do it because a) I had covered him when he was a player and b) I had done a story with him -- he wrote it, I did the ghostwriting part -- when he retired in 1969. 

All those things led together and he was delighted to do the story. 

The Ring Leader: Bill Russell helped the Celtics rule their sport like no team ever has

SI: The story is essentially a travelogue with the two of you driving from Seattle to Oakland together. That's an 800-mile trip. Whose idea was that? 

DEFORD: He suggested the drive. He said, "I’m going down to see my father, why don’t you come along." So I flew out to Seattle and spent the night at his house. The next morning we got in the car to drive off to Oakland. The deal was we'd switch off driving but Bill drove the whole damn way. He wouldn't give up the wheel.

When we got to Oakland we couldn’t get a hotel room. It’s a long drive so we showed up too late and we finally got into the Holiday Inn or something like that. That was a very unique story because it wasn’t the usual kind of [reporting process]. It created a wonderful framework for a story. 

SI: The story opens with an anecdote about the two of you going to the airport. He said you could be friendly with each other but you couldn't be friends because your lives would go in different directions. Did you keep in touch with him in the intervening 30 years?

DEFORD: No, we did go in different directions. It was many, many years before we reconnected. Other than one year when me, Bill Russell and Jim Brown watched the Super Bowl together. That was when Kansas City won [1970]. What a threesome that was. Russell had said let’s go over to Brown’s house. It wasn’t a party, it was just the three of us.

[By 1999] this was a time at the end of the century when he came out of his reclusiveness. In Boston, the Celtics had rededicated his No. 6 [jersey]. So this was all part of a reintroduction of Bill Russell.

SI: Was he reluctant to do the story?

DEFORD: Not at all. I think a lot of it had to do with Marilyn, his new love, and his friends had said, "Bill, you oughta be more open so he was very cooperative in everything with the story, in the documentary for HBO and in the celebration in Boston where they sort of rededicated his No. 6.

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SI: Was it a conversation in the car or more of an interview?

DEFORD: I had a notepad out, I never had a tape recorder because I don’t work with a tape recorder, but a lot of it was a casual conversation and a lot of times we went far, far afield. We covered the waterfront down through Oregon and northern California.

The next day we went out to the old people's home and met his father; his name was Charlie. I met his daughter, Karen, she was a very important part of the story as well. He has a son who really didn’t factor into his life.

SI: Did your relationship with him make this harder to write or easier?

DEFORD: This was an easy one to write. Well, when you’re interviewing someone that you know that well and you know they’re that interesting and you have a framework that isn’t just the thing of "Greatest Team Player" -- [the framework] was family, and we’re going to make this trip. So that was a very easy story to write. Some people do better when they labor over something. I do better when it comes easy. I tended to get out when the going was good. I’d leave a day early rather than stay at the party.

SI: The question of whether you two could be friends or just friendly came up at the beginning of the story. After that trip would you say you two were friends?

DEFORD: No, because we’ve gone in different directions again. That’s what he said: You have to grind and work at a friendship. I’d like to say, "Yes, Bill and I are joined at the hip forever." I can’t say that. The direction he went into was to come back and become the grand old man of basketball, which is what he is. I’ve gone off in my direction, which has nothing to do with basketball. We were friends back then but we would now be, by his definition, friendly.

I haven’t seen him in a while. One time he called me up on Thanksgiving. I said, "Bill, what’s up?" He said, "Every Thanksgiving I call a few people I know and like and wish them a Happy Thanksgiving." You never know when he’s going to surface. I remember John Thompson [a teammate of Russell's in Boston and the longtime head coach at Georgetown] saying, "I don’t know why he likes you but I guess he does." [laughs]

SI: What do you remember about the editing process?

DEFORD:Rob Fleder was the editor on the story. When [former SI editor] Pat Ryan died I said that she knew me better than any other editor, understood me and my writing better, even though she was a woman, but Rob Fleder would be the other editor that I worked best with and Rob edited that story.

SI: I don't know if you rank your stories, but does this one hold a special place for you?

DEFORD: I wouldn’t rank it but it certainly is one of my favorites, no question about it. The fact that it won that award that hadn’t existed for me made that very, very special, yes. It was the only time I ever won it.

SI: You were already a six-time National Sportswriter of the Year, though.

DEFORD: I always thought that was a little unfair comparison. Only national writers are going to win the thing. I never took that seriously, and it isn't false modesty, but it was basically, "Who is the best-known writer at SI?" But winning the award with Russell meant a great deal to me. 

SI: So Russell, the great teammate and winner, leads the way to victory yet again.

DEFORD: [laughs] That's a good line. That's right, it was a shoo-in. Once again, Russell pulls everybody along with him.