Senior Writer Frank Deford, being of sound mind and not too sound body, is usually content to leave the journalist-disguised-as-jock routine to such as George Plimpton. He has written about horse racing without doing anything more strenuous than tearing up a show-ticket, about the Roller Derby without donning skates and about tennis without lifting a racket. The one time he got trapped was a bad one. While researching a piece on Victor, the wrestling bear, he was conned into going one fall with the beast.
"He beat the bleep out of me," said Deford. "He toyed with me. I traveled with that bear another five days and he treated me with disdain."
So when Victor's victim flew to Europe to tour with the Harlem Globetrotters (page 108), all he needed for the job was a notebook and a ballpoint pen. That is his idea of being stripped for action. Then about the second or third day he was with the Trotters and their stooge team—this time billed as the "New York Nationals"—the pros started urging him to play.
"Unfortunately, I look like a basketball player," said Deford. "I'm 6'4" but I look a little taller because I have long legs. I really did kind of want to."
Deford, in fact, once was quite a good player in Baltimore high school circles, and he also had a one-year college career with the Princeton freshmen, where his high point was a good game against Princeton Theological Seminary. And he once appeared on SI's cover (Dec. 9, 1963), a drawing showing him trying to guard pro Frank Ramsey, who was demonstrating how to draw fouls. There and in the illustrations inside that issue he was a model sucker for Ramsey's tricks, which was probably ideal training for playing against the Globetrotters.
So play with the Trotters he did, on his last night with the troupe, in a nice little arena in Bologna: He dressed up in the baby blue colors of the Nationals and was introduced as a man of Italian extraction, Frank del Ford of Princeton. He had asked to be touted as a three-time All-America, but the Nationals wouldn't go along.
"I was so nervous I just wanted to make my layups. I didn't wear my glasses and I hadn't played in seven years."
In the second half del Ford got his chance, going in at forward where he could do the least harm to the Trotters' routines ("All you have to do is look startled when they cut by you"). He felt sure that he would be the butt of jokes, that Meadowlark Lemon would yank his shorts or Marques Haynes would dribble the ball off his head or the famous water-bucket routine would end up with his taking an early shower.
Instead it was immediately obvious to him that the other nine players on the floor were conspiring to let him look good. His first shot missed, but at least he hit the rim. His second, a jump shot in the key, went right in ("I was just thrilled with myself. At least I hadn't shot any airballs"). The third time he got the ball he earned an assist. Then a second basket. A breather on the bench, then back in leading a fast break. He shot, missed, got the rebound and scored—still unmolested by any pretense of Trotter defense. He hit four of six, had two rebounds and an assist in about 10 minutes.
Afterward, Globetrotter Jerry Venable brought him down to earth.