Interview With Scott Raab about “The Whore of Akron”

November 14th, 2011 by John Krolik

The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James

The following is an interview with Scott Raab, whose book, “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James” comes out today. I reviewed the book on this site. The link to buy the book is here.

1) I’ll start you out with an easy one — you’re well-known as a fantastic profile writer. How does it feel to be on the other side of interviews now that this book is coming out and you’ve developed your own cult of personality?

To the extent that I think about it, which is not much, it feels all right. I’m troubled sometimes by being judged by my tweets alone, or by a cherry-picked sentence or two from the book or a blog post when I have a 25-year-old, million-word paper trail, so I want to do as many interviews as I can to support the book. It isn’t a 300-page tweet; it isn’t a basketball or sports book per se; it isn’t an easy book to categorize. When I began to write non-fiction — I came up as a poet and short-story writer — it was as an editorial columnist in Iowa City, a college town. That was my first experience of the cult-of-personality thing, and I think and hope that I learned then not to take it seriously in terms of self. I like to write. I write to be read. And I want lots of people to react to what I write. And just like when I’m writing, when someone’s interviewing me, I want to be as clear and truthful as possible while having as much fun as the law or my editors allow.

2) This book is much more about you than a lot of the publicity materials would lead one to believe. At what point during the research and writing of your book did you realize that it was going to end up being such a personal story, and how did you try and balance the “journalistic” elements of the book with the more autobiographical elements?

I didn’t realize it fully until early this past summer, when the NBAseason ended and my big push to the finish line began. For a long time before that, I thought the book would feature a range of Cleveland fans sharing their stories, but even as a celebrity profiler, I’m a first-person writer most times out. My experience of the past season, as a Cavs fan and a Heat hater, was intensely personal. And a pair of questions came to seem more and more crucial: How did I come to be so fanatical in the first place, and why was I so deeply enraged by every aspect of The Decision?

As for ‘balance,’ that’s essentially an objectivity/subjectivity question, and all such questions boil down to bull[expletive]. The idea that journalists who don’t overtly insert themselves into the stories they write are somehow more honest and trustworthy narrators is nonsense. The straightest-shooting reporter makes a series of decisions in the course of his reporting and writing based upon his own unique personal history and belief system. Plenty of readers and plenty of editors mistrust and dislike first-person writing and feel uneasy when a writer uses himself as a character — to me, that’s merely a matter of taste, not truth, especially when it comes to exploring subjects like loyalty, rage, and love, and their relationship to sports.

3) In your most recent blog post, you expressed some (to use a euphemism) disappointment that nobody who had an issue with you wishing a career-ending injury on LeBron James in the excerpt of your book published in Esquire and other places contacted you about it. So I’m asking you — why did you wish a career-ending injury on LeBron James? Looking back on it, do you feel you were justified in doing so? Do you hope he trips over his kitchen counter tomorrow and suffers a career-ending injury? Finally, is it reasonable to expect that other people should have to contact you personally before judging your work?

I would prefer not to see LeBron ever win an NBA championship. Strongly. That’s the ‘why.’

The wishing-injury thing pops up a couple of times in the book; I believe I felt it most viscerally when I saw him take the court at the Heat’s home opener last season. I don’t think ‘justified’ has anything to do with it; perhaps it would if I had Carrie-like powers. Everyone gets to define the differences between being a fan and being a fanatic for himself. I’ve been to sporting events in Cleveland and elsewhere when fans have cheered an injury to a player on the home team, and I heard such wishes spoken aloud — shouted, actually — at Cleveland Browns Stadium last season when Jake Delhomme was Eric Mangini’s starting QB against Carolina. Doesn’t justify a thing, doesn’t make it right, doesn’t mean shit in terms of morality. Don’t bother to claim that you’re a fan if you have never wished for such a thing. Don’t tell me that you grasp human nature, or the history of sport in societies all over the world for thousands of years, if you think this kind of thing is beyond the pale. Don’t tell yourself you have any sense of perspective, humor, or decency if this leads you to believe — as do plenty of my correspondents in Miami and other places — that I’m a stalker or in any way a threat to anyone, including LeBron James. These aren’t discussions I’m willing to waste much time on, or folks I wish to engage.

We’re not talking about ‘other people’ judging my work; we’re talking about journalists writing about a semi-public figure: me. I’m not hard to find, unless you’re too lazy or frightened to try. And by the way, this sort of thing — riffing rather than reporting — is chronic in the blogoshpere, where too many writers who want to be taken seriously have no idea how unprofessional they seem. Nothing wrong with an opinion column, but if you’re going to dismiss my work on the basis of my tweets, or one line in an Esquire excerpt, I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a fellow journalist to pick up the [expletive] phone or shoot me a post and ask a question or two.

4) A paradox present in this book seems to be that you spend so much time trying to work through your past addiction issues, your fear of relapse, your self-image, your past and present relationships, everything, and by the time we get to the end of the book, we sense that you have an ultimately healthy but very complicated relationship with yourself, and one that took a lot of time to make work. Yet your feelings towards LeBron seem to be a relatively straightforward “screw this guy.”

Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: how do you want people who read this book to see you, and how do you want them to see LeBron? I feel like the answer to the latter part of that is fairly straightforward, so I’ll clarify it: is the primary goal of this book  trying to make more people hate LeBron, or hate him more than they already do, or to make them understand why you hate him so much?

By book’s end, I’m addressing James directly about some of life’s larger issues, particularly about his notion that winning championships was going to be easy. (I don’t know if what you read was an earlier galley, where the book’s ending wasn’t as tuned as it wound up being.) I’m talking to him about the absence of anyone like a father in his life, someone who might’ve tested and mentored him in ways that dads, uncles, and older brothers do. I’m talking to him. In the book. As if he were my son. It may not work for the reader, but it isn’t ‘screw you’ in my eyes.

As for how I want people to see me or LeBron, I never set out to be the leader of a mob, despite my twitter timeline. I truly don’t care how people see me. I’m a writer, which is to say that I want folks to read the book and enjoy it. I’m certainly not trying to convert anyone. I do think the story of Cleveland fanhood is worthy, unique, and undertold. And while I didn’t harp on it, LeBron is just one more unhappy ending, nothing more. Maybe a little more, in the sense that he clearly made a big difference in how people felt about Cleveland, and how Clevelanders felt about their city, not only because he’s a great basketball player, but also because the native-son narrative was so appealing. Plenty of NBA fans with no special love for Cleveland or the Cavs ‘hate’ LeBron, thanks to The Decision; I’m not trying to recruit those who still like and admire him. I respect their opinions’ as long as they’re not calling me names.

5) In your book, you praise how Z left Cleveland with a classy thank-you letter in the Plain Dealer, but make no mention of Mo Williams’ twitter pleas not to be traded and twitter proclamation of love for Dan Gilbert — instead, you only describe your elation when you heard that Mo had been traded. You present “The Decision” as the opposite of what Z did, which in many ways it was — was there a way that LeBron could handled his departure that would have prevented you from hating him? To add on to that, was it LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers, his decision to join Wade and Bosh in South Beach, or “The Decision” itself that made you the most angry?

1. Mo surely deserves better than he got from me. He’s a sad figure. I always had trouble with Earnest Byner, too, after The Fumble. I try not to overthink this stuff, even when I’m writing about it. My basic position is, fuck ‘Regular Season Mo’ and his pleading. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Let him write his own [expletive] book.

2. Had LeBron led the Cavs to an NBA championship and left as a free agent, I don’t think I would’ve had a problem with that beyond sadness. (I think it’s vital to add that I don’t hold him responsible for the Cavs failure to do so; he wasn’t in the front office or on the coaching staff.) I can’t imagine feeling hatred toward him under those circumstances. Gratitude, yes. But other than leading the team to a title, there’s no way he could’ve handled his departure without leaving me feeling betrayed and enraged. (And nobody could convince me that the Cavs would NOT have won at least one NBA championship had he stayed.)

3. The Decision made me most angry, by far. Had he and his minions intended to disgrace Cleveland and themselves, they couldn’t have done a better job.

6) Your book is about a lot of things — Your present, your past, Cleveland’s past, Cleveland’s present, sports, family, addiction, and everything else. In your own words, why do you think your abiding hatred for LeBron James was able to bring all of those things together into a 300-page book? Would you describe your feelings towards LeBron as a personal vendetta, or an extension of your devotion to Cleveland sports and his lack of devotion to them? Did LeBron’s post-finals quote, about how much better his life is than the lives of those who hate him, provide a kind of justification for your antipathy towards LeBron on a personal level?

1. I have no idea how to answer the question that begins ‘why do you think’ in any sensible way. When I write 200-300 word pieces for Esquire, an editor will sometimes ask me what I’m going to say. The only answer I’ve ever been able to give is, “Let me surprise us both.” That’s what I love about writing. The book came as a huge surprise to me in every way, especially the writing of it. But I honestly don’t think it was the result of my ‘abiding hatred for LeBron’ that was the trigger; it was my lifelong love of Cleveland and the Cavs, Indians, and Browns. Which pretty much answers the second question: to the extent that I have a ‘personal vendetta,’ it derives entirely from my passion for the city and its teams.

2. Justification, shmustification. I don’t need no stinking justification for my feelings. And no one who knows me would ever think that I’d wish to trade lives with LeBron James, even for a day.

7) Alright, I’ll let you go after this question — assuming (optimistically) the NBA season starts in mid-december, what are three things you’d like to see happen over the course of the regular season and the playoffs?

1. I’d like to see Kyrie and TT emerge as the greatest rookie tandem in NBA history.

2. I’d like to hear Mike Brown talk about how grateful he is to Kobe for letting Mike coach him, the same way he used to talk about LeBron.

3. I’d like to — you’re just baiting me, aren’t you, Krolik? — witness LeBron James continue to succeed wildly at failure. Whatever form that takes.