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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Scott Raab's Hate Letter to LeBron James

No one hates LeBron James as much as Scott Raab does--or at least that is what Raab wants you to believe after you read The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James, Raab's blunt, profanity-laden and highly personal account of the pain that he has endured as a long suffering fan of Cleveland sports teams, culminating in James' infamous "Decision" to "take my talents to South Beach." Ironically, for all of Raab's professed loyalty to his Ohio roots--the book's brief About the Author notes emphasize that he was "born and bred in Cleveland"--Raab lives in New Jersey and on page 11 he offers this description of his departure: "I had left Cleveland in 1984--I was not some schmuck doomed to failure and disgrace--no f------ way."

James' flaws are clearly evident and well documented, from his tone deaf handling of the "Decision" to his disappearing act in clutch situations versus elite teams, but--despite Raab's strident tone--one cannot help but wonder how much of the rage Raab expresses is genuine and how much of it is simply posturing to pander to the presumably large audience of James haters. Is Raab venting to soothe his troubled soul, is he authentically ruminating about the addictive way that sports--specifically, rooting for certain teams and/or players--can readily consume so much of our lives or is he merely being sensationalistic in the hope that his book will sell a lot of copies?

Raab boldly declares, "My mission is to bear witness," though much of what he says he has witnessed during his writing career pertains to the drug-related and/or sex-related escapades of celebrities ranging from Robert Downey, Jr. to Tupac Shakur; Raab's self-declared witnessing mission does not quite measure up in grandeur or substance to the reporters who risked their lives to document the Civil Right Movement or to the researchers, Nazi hunters and prosecutors who dedicated themselves to bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. It must be noted that Raab has an odd--which is to say curiously sympathetic--take on John Demjanjuk, the SS death camp guard who apparently also murdered a Holocaust survivor in cold blood after World War II ended.

Raab asserts that bearing witness to James is different than any of Raab's previous missions because James brought hope to Cleveland and then James "betrayed" Cleveland. Raab believes that he is uniquely qualified to limn the full depth of James' story. The boldly defamatory title of the book introduces a metaphor that Raab graphically employs right from the start: "For seven years, LeBron did the same thing as any trollop worth her taxi fare..." Raab goes on--and on and on--but you get the point.

Raab is surprised--or perhaps just bemused--that the NBA and the Miami Heat decided not to issue him any more credentials for Heat games or practices after Raab posted an obscenity-laced tweet in which the nicest thing he called James was "loser" (prefaced by another word). Raab's prose is often over the top, even when he offers an otherwise on target description--in the form of a monologue directed at James--of why Cleveland fans were so infuriated by the "Decision":

"They burned their jerseys right after your hour-long ESPN smarm fest, when the whole world saw you for the stunted, soul-dead bumpkin you are. Those Cleveland fans knew for the first time what utter fools they had been to believe that LeBron James ever gave a damn about anything but LeBron James.

And because they were born and grew up and will die Cleveland fans, those fans also instantly grasped your legacy as a Cavalier: You will forever be the player who choked and quit against the Celtics in the 2009-2010 playoffs. You surrendered. You gave up. You and your team--while the clock still ran, with the coach urging you on--quit trying, laid down and died.

For that disgrace alone, those fans were right to burn the stinking jerseys they themselves had paid for. Add the disdain and the disrespect you showed for Cleveland as Jim Gray and Michael Wilbon fellated you on national TV--not a single question about your playoff tank job or the phantom elbow injury that floated in the same ether as the rumors of your mother's sexual dalliance with one of your teammates--hell, those fans should have torched those jerseys with you and your sycophantic posse wearing them."

Raab is right that James quit versus the Celtics--I will never forget watching that meltdown in person and we all just saw James do the same thing in the 2011 NBA Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks--and Raab is right that the only thing worse than James' conduct during the "Decision" was the total abandonment of any pretense of journalistic integrity by Wilbon and Gray (and others). However, burning jerseys in the street is sophomoric and speaking of burning said jerseys while James and his "sycophantic posse" are wearing them may accurately express the raw rage felt by a great many people but it is also excessive; I agree wholeheartedly that James' playoff performance was disgraceful and that the whole "Decision" fiasco--from the preamble of various teams sending representatives to Cleveland to court James as if he really were "King James" to the ridiculous TV special to the stage show in Miami during which James bragged that he would win "Not one, not two, not three..." championships--reflected poorly on James' maturity and sense of perspective but he does not deserve to be burned to death in his jersey. Even if Raab meant this as a stress-relieving metaphor, there are so many nuts who probably would really like to do this to James that a responsible writer should not even go there. If karma exists, then the karmic result of James' quitting and his ego-fueled "Decision" will be that he never wins a championship and thus never completes what once seemed to be his inevitable ascent into the Pantheon.

While some of Raab's observations about James and the Cavs ring true, in general what passes for basketball analysis by Raab is not particularly in depth and at times it is contradictory; first Raab suggests that if the Cavs had hired Byron Scott a year or two earlier then Scott's championship pedigree and strong personality might have influenced James to stay in Cleveland but later Raab snidely refers to Scott being paid $4 million a year to stand on the sideline "with your arms crossed and your mustaches twisting with disdain. Aren't you supposed to be motivating these guys somehow? Or does that cost extra?"

The Whore of Akron is sloppily edited: a sentence on page 36 begins "I was married when I met her to a potty-mouthed Cleveland girl..." and a sentence on page 57 contains a similarly faulty transposition of words ("I was Demjanjuk's son-in-law following Ed Nishnic up the stairs..."). The book also includes far more information about Raab's sex life than you would ever want or need to know, details that a good editor could have (and should have) removed from the book; this is not to suggest that great writing cannot contain profanity or sexual references: literature can (and does) contain those things but in the case of this book they are unnecessary and gratuitous. Removing those elements from the text would not at all compromise Raab's style or voice; Raab clearly possesses fine writing chops and it is a shame that he did not exercise them more fully. His take on ESPN is accurate, brilliant and concise:

"Now ESPN is throwing money and bandwidth at a new brainchild: the 'Heat Index,' a full-court phalanx of reporters and columnists paying daily homage to the primacy of a single NBA team even as the vast bulk of news coverage of the entire league is dominated and driven by ESPN, which pays the NBA a billion dollars a year for broadcast rights and in turn derives huge profits from the ad time it sells to Nike and all the other companies who are themselves paying hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement fees to the athletes ESPN's newshounds are paid to cover. Which obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with ESPN pulling a story about LeBron James acting the fool at a Vegas nightclub. Obviously.

Whatever John Walsh might choose to call it, this isn't credible journalism. It's a daisy chain.

No one with any sense will ever again consider ESPN an honest source of NBA coverage--but if anyone in charge at ESPN or the NBA cared about that, The Decision would never have aired. One ESPN executive said after July 8 that the network expected to have a one-on-one with LeBron as the season approached. The World Wide Leader got what everyone in Cleveland got the past seven years: bupkes."

That passage contained no profanity and no references to Raab's sex life, weight problems or battles with substance abuse. If he had written the whole book in that vain he could have produced a book of enduring significance--but I am not sure how many copies such a book would have sold and, more importantly, I am sure that Raab and his publisher are not sure how many copies such a book would have sold. Instead of sticking with substance, Raab wrote a long hate letter to LeBron James, a missive filled not just with hatred of James but also with self-hatred and hatred of his own family. Raab fully realizes that he has fallen short but he does not care or at least he does not care enough to change his ways: "I was past forty when I began to make real money as a writer, but real money couldn't make a good writer out of me, much less a good man...I am not the man I want to be. Being that man isn't possible--and it doesn't matter." What matters, Raab concludes, "is the effort."

Despite the truths that Raab tells about LeBron James and ESPN, Raab's book is in many ways cut of the same flawed cloth: James is a great player who could be transcendent but--so far--has repeatedly failed on his sport's biggest stage, ESPN has the resources to be a powerful source of important journalism but instead settles for superficiality and mediocrity and Raab is a gifted writer who wastes his talent spewing profanity and providing way too much detailed information about sordid aspects of his personal life.

A great book could be written about the tempest of talent, ego and insecurity that is LeBron James, but Raab only provides tantalizing glimpses of the insights that book would contain.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:27 AM



At Tuesday, January 03, 2012 8:48:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Good expose.

I've a feeling you'll be the one writing that authoritative book on LeBron James once he retires - a balanced one without the gushing fanboy-ism or the vitriol of the jilted Cleveland fan.

But my hope is that one day you'll write an authoritative book on the NBA, sort of like Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball, but minus his Boston Celtics homerism and with your keen analytic views of the game.


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