Just over a year ago, ESPN aired The Decision, that ill-fated hour-long special in which NBA star LeBron James bailed on his seven-year professional relationship with the Cleveland Cavaliers. For lifelong Cleveland fan Scott Raab, that moment was personal.
Since then, James has joined the Miami Heat and played on the team for one season, which ended in an embarrassing collapse in the Finals against Dallas. Perfect timing, then, for sportswriter Raab to put out his first book, The Whore of Akron (its title alone will certainly grab attention in bookstores). The book, ostensibly about James, strays far from traditional sports journalism in explaining Raab’s own personal demons: divorce, obesity, drug addiction, overbearing Jewish mother, and therapy. That’s not to say this is just a deranged guy airing his own problems in the guise of a sports book (though it occasionally feels that way), because although Raab is the book’s narrator and protagonist, the narrative returns to James and his whereabouts at every turn. Raab’s subtitle is “One man’s search for the soul of LeBron James.” Spoiler alert: He doesn’t find the soul. What he does find is a story that, while not for everyone, will certainly stir up controversy and inflame readers to either love or hate the author, as the best books do.
It’s wise to be wary of any nonfiction work that compares itself to Hunter S. Thompson; Raab is hailed as “the last vestige of gonzo journalism” on his book jacket. The Whore of Akron is a far cry from Thompson’s work, though Raab does channel the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author for an imagined conversation he has with James over peach cobbler. Raab doesn’t just insert himself into the story; he broadcast the book’s entire process via Twitter (and made headlines for his antics on various occasions, like when he was denied press credentials at Heat games, or when he coined the phrase “Whore of Akron”). That being said, you will hear people complain that this is not a sports book but a memoir. It is actually both, and although Raab devotes many pages to introspection, he gives more of the book to sports, in all its power, bliss, and agony. (At one point, he recounts crying in front of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.) LeBron and the NBA are a lens through which Raab dissects baseball, football, and the very nature of being a fan. (Miami, he contends, has no real fans; it is therefore “the perfect place to play” for James.)
You can’t write a book about one individual — even a book that is basically a hit piece — without a healthy amount of obsession for the person. Yes, Raab hates James, but that doesn’t stop him from ruminating over the star’s sculpted body (“Muscled yet sleek … James looks different from every other player in the league, especially in a damp towel.”) or from describing another, highly specific part of LeBron’s body, which in so doing, Raab admits, he “flout[s] what is unarguably sports journalism’s most precious and closely guarded rule.” In another early scene, Raab, star-struck, approaches James and tells him, “You’re the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. Thank you.” If that lack of professionalism (sportswriters are strictly taught never to openly support or praise those they’re covering; recall Tom Bowles, the Sports Illustrated freelancer fired for applauding a NASCAR driver) bothers you, The Whore of Akron maybe shouldn’t be your next book choice.
But Raab’s dreamy feelings for James don’t last long. Once the King abandons Cleveland, Raab’s book becomes a searing manifesto that is impressively pointed and, in the end, even feels fair — not balanced, of course, but justified. You expect anti-LeBron rants (of which there are many, all over the Internet) to be bawdy, hilarious, and unrestrained. What’s more surprising is how well Raab backs up his anger with anecdotal evidence and historical background. By the end, whether or not you’re convinced that what James did was really so unforgivable depends not on whether you care about Cleveland sports, but if you care about sports at all. That’s to Raab’s credit: His own ire is fueled by personal frustrations with all Cleveland teams (the city hasn’t had a major sports championship since the 1964 Browns), but he convinces you that no sports fan, even one with no particular hometown favorite, should give James a pass for his classless departure. Raab describes that moment by directing outrageously funny profanity at both James and ESPN that would appall any conservative sports fan, or certainly any of their mothers. In fact, it’s almost certain that devoted readers of Deadspin will love this book, but for those who get their sports news strictly from ESPN or SI, no guarantee.
Regarding that infamous hour of television (the process of which is chronicled in Those Guys Have All the Fun), Raab goes on to insist that, “No one with any sense will ever again consider ESPN an honest source of NBA coverage.” Not after it aired The Decision and went on to pull various feats of King James-worship, like creating a special “Heat Index” feature just to track Miami’s season (the assumption being that the team would certainly win a title in its first outing with the James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh triad; it did not). Or when it yanked from its own site a story that lampooned LeBron’s showy birthday party. Raab’s claim about ESPN is a bold one, but he makes it convincingly.
The dominant criticism of The Whore of Akron will be that the entire premise for the book is flawed because, essentially, Raab and others still bashing LeBron need to get over it, move on, etc. Or many will simply say that for a professional to harbor such hatred of one athlete — just for doing what most athletes do in a career, switch teams — looks silly and immature. Raab is well aware of that likely refrain, and his argument is all the stronger for acknowledging it: “Yeah, it’s only sports, asshole,” he admits, allowing that, “His defenders are quick to point out that all he did was exercise his right as a free agent … they don’t understand that this is beside the point.” Indeed, LeBron defenders (or even those indifferent to him that say he didn’t do anything so horrible) point to the fact that The Decision was set up by James and friend Maverick Carter as a way to raise money for charity. They note that he was just going where he could play with his buddies and have a shot at winning a championship; who could blame him? Well, Raab does, and, in his estimation, legions of true basketball fans should too. “NBA fans loved LeBron,” he writes, but “What they see now is a fraud. A brand name with no more substance than a marketing plan to move shoes and soft drinks.” Whether or not you agree with that, it’s difficult not to appreciate Raab’s hilarious invective and smart commentary.
Now, we wonder, will LeBron read it?