Archive for November, 2011

Review: “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James” by Scott Raab

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Full Disclosure: Scott Raab and I have had a mutual admiration and respect for one another’s work for some time now, and my name does appear in the “acknowledgments” section at the back of the book I am about to review, which I consider a very substantial honor.

Additional Disclosure: As pretty much all of you know by now, I do not have any feelings of visceral hatred towards LeBron James, and my last basketball post of substantial length was a piece about LeBron James for the Heat Index. As Raab makes clear in his book, he is not a fan of LeBron or the Heat Index. I would hope that everybody who reads this review and/or the book will judge them on their own merits, but I wanted to discuss the elephants in the room before going forward.

I had my fears about The Whore of Akron. (My apologies for not italicizing the title of the book in the title of this post — I can’t make italics in a title, for reasons beyond my comprehension.) Taking potshots at LeBron James has been a national pastime for well over a year, and I’m always wary when a journalist makes himself a part of the story he’s covering, the way Scott Raab (and his infamous Twitter account) did with LeBron over the course of last season. Basically, I was afraid this would be like Joe McGinniss’ The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, but with more luscious descriptions of missed jumpers.

(I am NO fan of Sarah Palin. She terrifies me.  Even so, I also didn’t have much interest in McGinniss’ book, which reviews painted as an orgy vicious character attacks from unnamed sources, complete with McGinnis making himself a part of the story by incorporating his public feud with the Palin clan after he moved in next to them while researching his book — even though I feel McGinniss’ portrait of Palin is probably more right than wrong, his book wasn’t something I was interested in curling up with. Now, back into shallower waters before I drown.)

Raab does not merely insert himself into The Whore of Akron – he absolutely envelops it. This is not a book about LeBron James — it is a book about Scott Raab.

And thank the lord for that, because Raab is infinitely more compelling as both a protagonist and an antagonist than the character LeBron James plays on TV and in press conferences ever has been.

I’ve read countless sports books over the course of my life, and The Whore of Akron was the fourth book I have read about LeBron James. (I skipped LeBron’s Dream Team, nee Shooting Stars; the fact that its author actively loathes LeBron now made me suspicious of the book, but mostly I had no interest in reading a re-hash of how great of an idea it was for LeBron to have his high-school friends run his life. None whatsoever.)

Anyways, the point of all this is that Raab’s book is nothing like any LeBron book or athlete biography (even Michael Leahy’s scathing When Nothing Else Matters, which chronicled Michael Jordan’s fiasco of a comeback with the Wizards)  I’ve ever read, and bears little resemblance to any sports book I’ve ever read. In fact, the book is far more similar to Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood than it is to anything David Halberstam or John Feinstein has ever written.

The similarities between Bukowski’s Roman a clef and Raab’s LeBron sans clef can be hard to miss: both Raab and Bukowski are outsiders from tough backgrounds who began their professional writing careers late in their lives, after long periods of intense substance abuse. Both are gleefully vulgar, and both Hollywood and The Whore of Akron feature them in their Autumn/Winter years (Raab was 59 when he wrote The Whore of Akron, Bukowski 68 when he wrote Hollywood), and both books were written after their writers had settled down and became domesticated. Both Bukowski and Raab’s books feature a second wife who takes exemplary care of them, which both men are eternally grateful for.

Both books are classic fish-out-of water stories: Bukowski was a novelist and poet with an unrelenting love for the “rough” parts of Los Angeles thrown into the world of Hollywood to write a screenplay, and Raab is a hard-core sports fan and accomplished magazine writer with an unrelenting love for Cleveland, warts and all, thrown into the world of South Beach in order to write his first book, and a nonfiction book about sports as well.

Raab’s book is also a post-sports blog creation — it would have been almost impossible to imagine a writer of Raab’s stature writing a full-length sports book with so many declarations of loyalty to a team and a city, so much hatred directed at those who he felt betrayed his city, the aforementioned bursts of profanity, so many autobiographical anecdotes, and some unsourced rumors thrown in for good measure — some are presented as rumors, some are presented as fact, some are 100% believable, and some are tough to take without a grain (or shaker) of salt. It is a book written without access, favor to the players who gave him access, or discretion — the Deadspin credo. On top of everything else, The Whore of Akron may be the first full-length book produced by a successful mainstream writer in the blog era.

Raab’s prose is frenetic and unrelenting. His paragraphs are a pastiche of highfalutin language and lush imagery, the frank, vulgar speech of someone who considers himself a proud immigrant and outsider, Yiddish words, their meanings, and whimsical bursts of stunning profanity. (By page 14, the phrase “may he spend eternity tonguing Satan’s flaming anus” has already appeared, and the “he” in question isn’t even LeBron. Also, that is perhaps the most printable insult in the book’s 300 pages. Also, that’s only half of the insult.)

Raab’s book, much like his prose, is frenetic, which serves it well. Raab is capable of shifting his topics and his tone at blinding speeds. Raab talks about his hard upbringing, his strained relationship with his family, his struggles with addiction and the years he lost to it, extreme weight gain, and his own issues with self-loathing. Then, right after a passage full of that self-loathing and — gasp! — something approaching genuine empathy for LeBron, who after all was thrown into all of this as a teenager, grew up with no father and a mother who, in Raab’s eyes, is something of a train wreck, Raab will go right back to tearing into LeBron, and admitting how good it made him feel to see a “Scott Raab is the man” sign at the Q when the Heat came to town.

Then he’ll talk about his love for the city of Cleveland, particularly its sports teams, and the joy, hope, and misery they have brought him and those he has known over the years. He was there in the stadium when the Browns won Cleveland’s last major sports title in 1964, and he makes it clear in his book that he has been chasing that high for the past 47 years, and believes that the feeling the Browns gave him that Sunday is what will make Cleveland whole again. Then he’ll talk about his genuine love for his wife and son, which provides some extremely heartwarming passages, before going back to talking about the depths of his hatred for a 26-year old multimillionaire who happens to be one of the most gifted athletes of all time. Then it’s back to a tense scene at dinner with his mother or at his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. And it goes on like that, with the only constant throughout the book being that it’s nearly impossible to put down.

1,000 words in, it’s time to stop dicking around. The Whore of Akron is about three things.

First of all, the book is a chronicle of LeBron James’ final 1.5 seasons in Cleveland, and his first season in Miami, with some bits about the history of Cleveland sports thrown in for context. Raab does an excellent job of keeping a clear timeline of the last two years in LeBron , his stellar play in the 2009 Orlando series, which was marred by Mo Williams’ inability to make an open jump shot, his erratic play in the 2010 Boston series, which was notable for an elbow injury that may or may not have been real and a will to win that may or may not have been present, the Heat’s ups and downs through the regular season, and the Cavs’ downs, plummets, and slight upward turns during their own regular season. The timeline ends, of course, with LeBron choking away the NBA Finals. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book for anybody when I say that Raab found satisfaction in the way the 2010-11 season ended.

I found Raab’s basketball analysis particularly astute, although that may admittedly be because I agree with so much of it — he had no love for Mo Williams’ aversion to defense and tendency to shrink in big games, he adored the pitbull that was the Delonte West of 2008-09, and despite his personal vendetta against LeBron and the team he ended up joining, he maintains an appropriate level of respect for what LeBron and his Miami teammates are capable of doing on the basketball court.

What may surprise some people about Raab’s fandom is how ruthless he can be. Raab, who publicly swore off rooting for LeBron James after he wore a Yankee cap to Jacobs Field, adopted an “he’s a jerk, but he’s our jerk, and he’s going to get us a title” attitude when the Cavaliers became legitimate title contenders. As I previously mentioned, he has no love for Mo Williams, despite his public pleas not to be traded at the deadline and his proclamation of love for Dan Gilbert, whom Raab clearly likes a great deal. He has never forgiven Sam Rutigliano for hugging Brian Sipe after Red Right 88 happened. His remarks about how the Cavaliers played during and after LeBron’s first return to the Q are as scathing as anything he writes about the Heat throughout the book.

In Raab’s mind, players are public employees who have an obligation to serve the community by helping the team win, and who they are “personally” is immaterial — if given a choice between a Senator who can help his constituents while philandering and doing drugs and one who is a hapless boy scout, the sports fan in Raab would undoubtedly go with the former. (If you think it is ludicrous to compare the importance of a U.S. Senator to the star of a local sports team, you simply do not understand the depths of Mr.Raab’s passion for Cleveland sports.)

The second thing The Whore of Akron is about is Scott Raab, and the sections of the book Raab devotes to himself are spellbinding. Raab opens up about his family, his addictions, what his actions have done to his body, how he had to fight relapse after being prescribed pills to dull the pain his demons have caused him, his self-loathing, his Jewish roots, his time spent as a drug-dealing vagabond who stole from vending machines, and much more. Raab never lays anything on too thick — the manic energy of his prose keeps him from veering into melodrama at any point — but he takes readers to some extremely dark places, and some passages are legitimately difficult to read.

The third thing The Whore of Akron is about is Scott Raab’s search for LeBron James’ soul. A search for LeBron’s soul is akin to a search for Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse — it’s there somewhere, but woe betide the poor soul who tries to hide where it’s been hidden. LeBron is opaque, a closed book, a cipher — since LeBron has carefully prevented himself from committing to an actual public personality, what people say about LeBron James ultimately says far more about the person saying it than it does about LeBron. Think LeBron’s the best player in the league, despite the crunch time “issues?” (Yes, that was a euphemism. He choked away the freaking Finals.) Then you’re an empiricist to the core. Think LeBron doesn’t deserve to be mentioned among the game’s best players, because he lacks something that players fundamentally must have inside them to win? Then you’re a true “purist.” Look at LeBron and see his drives, passes, and outside shooting? You’re an optimist. See his post game? You’re a pessimist. Et cetera.

So what does a 59-year old  writer, husband, and father’s unyielding, undying, and uncompromising hatred of a 26-year old man-child say about the older man, particularly when the 26-year old has broken no laws, the older man spent most of his 20s and 30s, by his own free admission, getting loaded and doing some horrible things? (This is a paradox Raab addresses in the book, and quite well, so please don’t read the preceding as an attack on Mr. Raab.) From everything we know about Mr. Raab and Mr. James, why does Mr. Raab get to be the protagonist of his own book?

I have two main thoughts on this, and then I promise to wrap things up. When reading Mr. Raab’s accounts of his own past and present issues and violations, I am reminded of something Roger Ebert said about Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways, who managed to gain our sympathy despite being a pretentious, pathetic, acerbic,  condescending, pretentious, self-pitying alcoholic who actually steals from his own mother — “we forgive him his trespasses, for he trespasses most of all against himself.” Mr. Raab carries the burden of all that he has done, all that he has said, and all that he has consumed over the years with him, and spends much of the book describing the penance he pays for it, whether it’s having to wear Crocs, request a seat-belt extension, get banned from the Heat’s media row after some 140-character bursts of rage, or have to come to terms with the way he spent his younger years. Raab doesn’t come across as a miserable person by the end of his book, but he does come across as someone who has had to earn every shred of his own happiness.

Raab, in other words, shows a self-awareness and sense of personal responsibility that LeBron has never shown — we do not forgive LeBron because, while he has trespassed upon others, he appears to have never consciously trespassed upon himself. After each close defeat, after each playoff exit, after the PR nightmare that was “The Decision,” LeBron, at least to us, went to bed every night happy knowing he’d wake up, be 6’9, built like a god, and the most talented basketball player on the planet, that he’d have enough money for 10 lifetimes, that he’d get to spend his free time doing whatever business he wanted to do with his best friends, that he had two healthy children and a devoted life partner.

He made that clear when he played his last NBA game to date, and gave Mr. Raab the money quote he needed to justify his loathing of LeBron after two and a half years of researching a book about him and nearly a full year of hating him with every last fiber of his being: the instantly-infamous quote about how, win or lose, LeBron James’ life would still be better the next day than the lives of the people who enjoyed watching him fail. Even at LeBron’s lowest moment, his absolute lowest moment, the moment where he let down almost everyone who had ever supported for the second time in less than 12 months, he found himself completely unable to look in the mirror and see anything wrong. How can anybody, let alone Mr. Raab, forgive anybody who has so steadfastly refused to acknowledge that he might need to be forgiven for something?

There’s something else in that post-finals quote from James that provides a window into Raab’s hatred of James, which for much of the book is presented more as a postulate than a theorem — James’ refusal to acknowledge the relationship between the team and those who follow it, or root for its rivals to fail, which Raab sees as sacred.

How, Raab seems to continually ask, can a player so good simply fail to understand how important he was to the people of Cleveland, how much those teams meant to them, how much it meant to them to simply watch him fail? After December 27th, 1964, and all the hope and misery that followed it, can LeBron remain oblivious to what he means to those who rooted for him, and those who root against him? How can he sit on a podium and not see how he could have changed the lives, even for a night, of the people who woke up the next day and “had the same life they had before?” Mr. Raab is an inhabitant of a world that LeBron James may never understand, and his book makes that world a fun place to spend a couple of hours immersed in.

Wow, this got very long. I guess that’s what happens when you take a hiatus from your blog. To conclude: whether you hate LeBron, love LeBron, or only know LeBron as the guy who was on Entourage a few times, it is a worthwhile read. It is a quick read, but not a simple one; I started and finished the book in a matter of hours, but it has stayed in my head ever since, and I imagine it will for the days to come. Mr. Raab’s book is far more than a story about LeBron, or a story about sports, or even how sports impact our lives — it’s the end result of a truly talented writer pouring his heart and soul into a book about a city he loves, a man he hates, and a life that he has, after some hard years, come to accept. It was a pleasure to read, and I highly recommend it.

Here is the link to buy the book on Amazon.

Here is the link to buy the book at Barnes and Noble’s website.