Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

October 11, 2009

Buzz Bissinger Goes Back to School to Co-Write LeBron's Autobiography

'Friday Night Lights' author Buzz Bissinger goes back to highschool, this time to help LeBron tell the story of his youth.

Justin Adler

Like many basketball fans, I've followed LeBron James since he was a sophomore in high school. I remember the Sports Illustrated cover. I remember the SLAM cover. I remember watching his St. Vincent-St. Mary squad take on Oak Hill on ESPN. I remember listening to Dick Vitale broadcast the game and bash everyone who was profiting off LeBron and knowing damn well that Vitale was not offering his services pro bono.

Buzz Bissinger. Photo by Caleb Bissinger.
"LeBron at least did his homework, which he knew was good enough to pass. He did not take advantage of his celebrity."

Buzz Bissinger. Photo by Caleb Bissinger.

As a basketball junkie, I can tell you exactly where I was when LeBron was chosen with the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. Having never looked at LeBron's Wikipedia entry, I could probably recite 95 percent of its content off the top of my head. So I was curious what new information I would learn from reading LeBron and Buzz Bissinger's new book, Shooting Stars. Because the book tells LeBron's life story up to the point he graduated from high school, I expected to read about him being offered shady deals worth millions and cavorting around college campuses like Jesus Shuttlesworth. But there wasn't much in the way of new or revelatory information. As Bissinger—who knows how to write a story about high school sports—explains, Shooting Stars is not meant to be an all-inclusive LeBron James autobiography. At its core, it is a simple book about five kids, with the odds stacked against them, overcoming their fair share of adversity to win a state championship or three.

I spoke with Bissinger over the phone to talk about writing a book with King James, why it's not a work of investigative journalism, and how the sports culture in Akron compares to the one in Odessa, Texas. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Can you describe your first interaction with LeBron?

Buzz Bissinger: I met LeBron some time last year. The book was his idea. We had a book agent in common. His agent said, "Hey, if you wanna write a book like this, we have the perfect guy, because he has written Friday Night Lights."
LeBron was interested. I went up to his house and I met with him for about four hours. My concern was that I had seen his public persona, but what was his private persona really like and how much was he gonna be into doing this? Does he really want to write a book? Does he know what it entails? Is he going to be surly? Is he going to be quiet? Is he going to find it a pain in the neck?
Instead I found that he is what he is. He's down to earth, he's quiet, and he has a good sense of humor. He's relaxed and he's easy to be with. I came away thinking the book could work and also knowing that a book of this nature will not simply depend on him. There was reporting that needed to be done, in particular interviewing the heck out of the other four kids who made up the "Fab Five" as well as LeBron's other role models and family members.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel like you were able to connect to LeBron as a person and get past his superstar, public-relations-crafted persona?

Buzz Bissinger: Yes. Definitely. I spent a lot of time with him. I probably saw him a total of five or six times—watching how he interacts with people, or driving around Akron with him. He was very relaxed and down to earth. It definitely is his book; he had veto power and made no bones about it. But when it was time to go over it, he was there. His agent/manager Maverick Carter was there and coach Dru Joyce was there. We sat at his round kitchen counter for four or five hours really going through it page by page. He did not make a lot of changes, but it was clear that he had read every word.
He did add some stuff, but he took nothing out. I thought there might be stuff he would take out. Like the part about smoking marijuana that was embellished in the media. A pro athlete might say, "Look what just happened to Michael Phelps. I don't want to get into that." He took nothing out.

Gelf Magazine: What was your reaction to some media outlets trying to make a story out of an excerpt where LeBron admits to smoking marijuana?

Buzz Bissinger: Well, I was happy because it was good for the book. Frankly, I thought it was overblown. It would have been a better story if he never smoked marijuana. The point was not to reveal that he smoked marijuana, but to show that the kids during that particular year were not respecting their coach and were fooling around and it had repercussions for their dream of winning a national championship.

Gelf Magazine: Was there any thing about LeBron that completely surprised you and went completely against your preconceived notions of him?

Buzz Bissinger: Yes and no. I did not know much about LeBron. I only knew what I read in Sports Illustrated, the stories about the Hummer and throwback jerseys. I knew nothing about his relationship with the four kids, who made up the "Fab Five." I knew he was born to a single mom who was 16 when she had him. I knew very little of his back story; maybe that was my ignorance. I just figured he lived in the projects. I did not know he has moved 10 to 15 times as a child. I did not know he lived away from his mom for a year. I really did not know the extent to which he was impoverished and living on the edge. I knew little about scandals.
As I went through court records and interviewed the commissioner of Ohio High School Athletic Association and the counsel to the OHSAA, then it became clear that it was a complete witch hunt and one of the worst investigations I have ever seen.

Gelf Magazine: Obviously when you think LeBron James, you think basketball, but did you have to chance to interview any of his former teachers or non-basketball related faculty at St. Vincent-St. Mary? If so, why did that material not make the book?

Buzz Bissinger: I spoke to a few of them. They confirmed to me that, given his stature, given he was a worldwide superstar at 17, he was a pretty good student. He was diligent. He at least did his homework, which he knew was good enough to pass. He did not take advantage of his celebrity. Unlike some of the other kids in the "Fab Five"—Sian Cotton was declared ineligible, Little Dru sunk below a 2.0, and Romeo was in academic danger. With LeBron there was candor. If he was screwing up, it would have been in the book.
Because the book is in his voice, I thought to put quotes from his teacher and principal in there would be self-serving.

Gelf Magazine: None of the players in Friday Night Lights had the media attention or pressure like LeBron encountered throughout high school. But I believe Akron and Odessa are similar, as they are both small, former industrial giants that each have their own issues with racism. Did you find many similarities between the St. V Irish and the Permian Panthers?

Buzz Bissinger: There were similarities in that at a certain point in time basketball became enormously important to St. V and to the city of Akron. In Odessa football had always been important. I don't think basketball plays the same role at St. V or in Akron now that LeBron has left, but when he was there, there were similarities: it was kind of the be all and end all of existence. However, the publicity that LeBron received and his team received was exponentially greater than what the Panthers received. They are different books, but I see Shooting Stars in many ways as being the flip side to Friday Night Lights. You can compare LeBron to Boobie Miles, who was also a great athlete but could not handle the exposure and could not handle the environment of being a superstar athlete.

"I never intended for it to be the definitive autobiography of LeBron James, in which every detail of his life is in the book."
Gelf Magazine: Did you have to show Nike or any of LeBron's other sponsors copies of the manuscript before it was finally published?

Buzz Bissinger: No. The only people who saw it beforehand were LeBron, Maverick Carter, and coach Dru Joyce.
I co-wrote the book because I loved the story. I never intended for it to be the definitive autobiography of LeBron James, in which every detail of his life is in the book. First of all, in any autobiography, no one ever puts in every detail of their life. At a certain point in time, LeBron may write that autobiography and may go deeper into certain aspects of his life, but now is not that time; he's too young. This is just a story. It's a story with a beginning, middle, and end. In its simplest roots, it's a story of kids getting together at the age of nine and developing a dream of winning a championship together. They went through beautiful highs and beautiful lows. That's why it ends with his last game of high school.
If LeBron had come to me and said, "I want to do an autobiography and I want it to be about me," I would not have done it.

Gelf Magazine: I felt like an underplayed aspect of the book was the corruption that surrounded LeBron. There is a line in the book that reads, "Just for the record, there was no major scandal. I never took a dime from anyone." Did you try to get deeper into any of those issues?

Buzz Bissinger: No. Because this was told in his voice and I took him at face value. This is not an investigative book. If I was doing the book on my own, I might investigate those people and probably come up with nothing. If Henry Abbott wants to go do it, let him go do it. Instead of suggesting all sorts of rhetorical questions for which he has no answer, he can go investigate it. All he does is raise rhetorical questions, which to me is not reporting or writing, but the very antithesis of both. I took LeBron at face value. I think he is a man of candor and honesty. If it's wrong, it's on him and he's going to have to live with it.
My reporting involved fleshing out the story. This obviously was not a book about whether or not LeBron took payoffs. The autobiography of Ted Kennedy was not a book about what he did at Chappaquiddick because besides mentioning it, he shed absolutely no light into what happened. And I don't see him condemned for it. And that was a hundred times more serious than anything LeBron has done.

Gelf Magazine: Would you collaborate with LeBron again?

Buzz Bissinger: I would definitely work with LeBron again, and I think he would be the only pro athlete I would work with, because I think his story is an exceptional one. His seamless transition into the NBA is remarkable. This kid was in a fishbowl of exposure for the last 10 years. I saw high schoolers self-destruct in Odessa who were not getting one-one-hundredth of the publicity he got. He handled it well. He handled his transition in the NBA with tremendous maturity. He's really done nothing wrong except not shake hands and I think that was dramatically overblown.

Gelf Magazine: LeBron talks about "The Chosen One" Sports Illustrated cover being too much pressure, yet he would later went on to have the words "Chosen 1" tattooed on his back. Did he talk about that irony?

Buzz Bissinger: No. I did not bring that up with him. I actually did not know he had that tattoo. Had I known that I certainly would have probed further into making sure he wasn't saying something simply for the sake of saying it.
The pressure was real, whether he got a tattoo on his back or not. The exposure went to their heads. He says in the book that he acted like a jerk. He admits to being arrogant. I don't see too many people in any autobiography who say that about themselves.

Gelf Magazine: OK, be honest. In the acknowledgments, LeBron refers to you and says, "I have never met a writer more professional or dedicated, and at this point in my career I have met many of them." Was that LeBron's voice or Buzz's?

Buzz Bissinger: That was LeBron. I was incredibly flattered. It was a nice thing for him to say, given that he has met more writers in his life than me and you combined.

Related in Gelf: Buzz Bissinger previously spoke with Gelf about the future of journalism. And—yeah—that whole Costas thing.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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