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Books | Sports

November 29, 2011

Rage Against LeBron's Machine

Hot-blooded Cleveland native Scott Raab makes clear in his new book that he won't forgive nor forget how the former Cavaliers star left Ohio for sunny Miami.

Aelfie Starr Tuff

Socrates wrote that "from the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate." Scott Raab, author of The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James, is testament to Socrates's ancient and enduring wisdom.

Scott Raab. Photo courtesy of Scott Raab.
"There is something biblical about the travail of the Cleveland teams and especially of the Cleveland fans."

Scott Raab. Photo courtesy of Scott Raab.

Raab is a man of desire, having struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, and obesity. It is a Cleveland championship, however, that he has yearned for most deeply, manifest in the survival of a little slip of paper and memento of hope—a ticket stub from Cleveland's most recent championship, the Browns' NFL title in 1964.

It is from this well of sustained, unrequited desire that Raab's hatred spews.

Part memoir, part sports journalism, The Whore of Akron chronicles the despair and disgust felt towards LeBron James in the aftermath of The Decision—a televised, hourlong event in which the Ohio native abandoned Cleveland's Cavaliers for the sunnier Miami Heat.

The following interview, which explores the more private threads of Raab's work, was conducted over the phone and has been condensed and edited for clarity. Raab tells Gelf why he wouldn't trade places with LeBron, discusses his loathing of ESPN, and explains why secrecy is endemic in sports.

Gelf Magazine: When you were high on Vicodin and Valium, you had a vision of LeBron. He came to you and demanded, "How dare you judge me?" Did you ever question writing this book, and was it difficult to sustain the anger, albeit at times nuanced anger?

Scott Raab: I questioned writing the book, but not in any moral terms.
I watched an ESPN documentary on soccer in Colombia called The Two Escobars. One Escobar was a great young player on the national team, and the other Escobar was the infamous Pablo.
It was drug money that built that particular national team into an international powerhouse. In the movie, people talked about how much that team meant to Colombia and how much it raised Colombia's vision of itself as a cool place, as a happening place and as a good place.
In certain rust-belt towns—I don't think Cleveland is alone in this—it's not just sports. There is a love of the place that can legitimately be described as patriotic. Part of doing the book which transcended everything else about doing it was a chance to tell Cleveland's story.
I feel I have a duty to Cleveland. There are people who have internalized the worst of Cleveland's image. The media has spent decades crafting that image, and I don't deny its basis in reality, but it is almost entirely negative and portrays the town as a stinkhole of despair and the fans as losers from loserville.
I didn't have any doubt that I was going to write a book about Cleveland and Cleveland fans. Had LeBron executed his free agency in any way shape or form that resembled how every other athlete since the advent of free agency has done it, I don't think there would ever have been a book deal. The way he did what he did on ESPN, calling it The Decision, while particularly outraging to Clevelanders, also alienated millions of sports fans.
For a lot of people who had no love for Cleveland or Cleveland teams, LeBron seemed like a great guy. He was a hometown hero to a fan base who, for two generations, had never seen a champion. It played to a lot of people's liking, who had no connection to the town or team. When he had that ESPN show, fans by the millions felt snookered.
If people in Portland, Oregon, felt that way, imagine how the people in Cleveland felt, people who looked at that narrative as a biblical promise.

Gelf Magazine: What is the Dayenu Principle?

Scott Raab: "Dayenu" is the song that basks in god's power and goodwill. There is this refrain, "had He simply freed us from bondage, it would have been enough—Had He only smitten our enemies, it would have been enough—Had He just led us to the holy land, or given us the torah, it would have been enough."
These two threads of my being, the Cleveland sports fan and the Jew, are inextricably entwined to me. If you apply the Dayenu Principle in reverse to Cleveland sports, it would have been bad enough if the Indians had lost the World Series in 1954, and on and on and on for as many stanzas as a Cleveland fan can muster.
I don't know that I ever really believed in curses in terms of sports. I've always believed in talent and execution, but over the years it seems to me that there is something biblical about the travail of the Cleveland teams and especially of the Cleveland fans.
You could make an entire song of the endless sequence of gut-wrenching, heartbreaking events in Cleveland sports history—any one of which would have been enough—but they were followed one after another, over the decades.
We belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue where they don't believe that whole chosen-people stuff, which I think is certainly for the better, but the old joke to God is, "Choose someone else for a change."

Gelf Magazine: That's interesting that you go to synagogue, considering you mention in the book that you don't believe in God.

Scott Raab: On any given day at any given point I find myself giving thanks or praying to a higher power to whose existence I am never entirely convinced. If there's a higher power with any investment in human affairs, it's not looking like a particularly competent higher power. Or friendly. Or kindly.

Gelf Magazine: Would you consider your book Jewish Literature?

Scott Raab: [Laughs] For 15 years I have been a full-time Esquire writer. A lot of the stories I have written are not necessarily on Jewish subjects or full of Yiddishism.
I grew up in a household where both my grandparents spoke Yiddish and Hungarian, and English was their third language. It's not as if I'm fluent in either Yiddish or Hungarian, but I think of things, terms, and phrases in that way. There is no degree of consciousness of that voice. It's just the way I think.

Gelf Magazine: There was a line in your book that broke my heart: "LeBron loves Gloria; I have mixed feelings about Lucille." Can you just explain what that means, and how LeBron's relationship with his mother (Gloria), in contrast to your relationship with your mother (Lucille), might play into your hatred of him?

Scott Raab: I'm not sure I've come to any great conclusions. Even at my age, with a mother in her 80s, it is still a very fraught, difficult relationship. She hates the book. I knew there would be difficulty, but I didn't know she would incorporate it into her one-woman tribute to Shelley Winters.
For LeBron and his mom, I think things have been simple for a long time. If there is complexity, I don't know about it. From high school forward, he would paint "Gloria" on one of his basketball shoes and "James" on the other. In some ways his ongoing success has been a tribute, as he expresses it, to his mom and her ability to overcome the circumstances that they found themselves in. I feel that the book that I wrote is not unlike that, but it is of course—I don't want to say jaundiced—but a lot more barbed in some ways, partly because I'm not a basketball player. I'm a writer.

Gelf Magazine: Are you jealous of LeBron's aloofness?

Scott Raab: No. I think it costs him a great deal. I don't know that he was always walled off or if at that level of celebrity there is even that much of a choice anymore. That doesn't apply merely to LeBron, but to anyone. Although, he is particularly walled off and particularly iconic right now—in good and bad ways.
I would never want to be in a position where the aloofness became self-protection.

Gelf Magazine: How does your struggle with weight inform or interplay with your career as a sports journalist?

Scott Raab: A decent bowel movement is a great physical accomplishment for me, and these guys have vertical leaps of four feet.
People who look at the book and say that the hatred is really twisted love and admiration—well, I think they are absolutely right.

Gelf Magazine: I think it is also another instance of cruel irony.

Scott Raab: I wonder about irony. I wouldn't dispute the more global and micro aspects of it in the book, but I wonder whether it is innately cruel. I think I would not trade places—bank accounts, maybe, but not places—with LeBron. I'm not sure which way the irony goes sometimes.

Gelf Magazine: You say of ESPN that "greed has reduced its journalism to self-parody." How do you see this book affecting your career? You openly hate so many people…

Scott Raab: I do. Rarely has anyone I've profiled emerged unscathed, even in the friendliest of profiles. It's not an exceptional book in that regard. There wasn't anything calculated about the book. I didn't ask myself, "What is the effect of this chapter going to be on my mother and her friends; or on the Worldwide Leader, ESPN; or on my career?"
I wanted it both ways. I wanted to be able to say I reported the book to the best of my journalistic abilities, but that I wrote it like a crazed fan.
The Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor—all these journalistic institutions paid attention to the publication of the book, but somehow ESPN, which devotes an enormous amount of attention and focus to LeBron, behaves as if the book was never published.
While my opinion of their credibility is merely an opinion, the fact that all of these other media outlets marked the book's publication—while ESPN did not—is a fact that tends to strongly support my opinion.

Gelf Magazine: In the book you highlight Delonte West's mental illness, and in another article you describe it as "if a large dysfunctional family had agreed that uncle Delonte and his illness were a horrible, inexplicable embarrassment and the entire family was better off pretending that he was fucking invisible." What is it with sports and secrecy? I'm thinking now of Penn State.

Scott Raab: These cultures form with no sense whatsoever of obligation and duty, or of keeping the public informed. They squeeze taxpayers for help in building these sports palaces, but if the owners want to move the team, well, it's a private enterprise and it's the owner's business.
Transparency is not only besides the point but is to be avoided at all costs. What goes on between Nike and star players—there is no space whatsoever, no daylight whatsoever in the relationships between NBA, its franchises, certain apparel manufacturers, or certain broadcast enterprises, such as ESPN. They function essentially as one business. It's not as if beat writers are owned, but they are owned de facto if they want to gain any access whatsoever. So, you have cultures of secrecy that are just part of the game.

Gelf Magazine: Are you beat from this whole experience, or do you still carry the ticket stub from the 1964 NFL championship game?

Scott Raab: It's in a Ziploc bag upstairs where I write. My mother has asked, "How did you hold on to that?" Well, because it meant a lot to me. It signified a huge personal event.
I don't know how much more hostility or animosity I'm still carrying towards that particular player.
I think any Cleveland team winning a championship would go a long way toward seeing LeBron as just one more unhappy ending in Cleveland's sport history, but yes, I will be an ardent Cleveland fan 'til the day I die.

Front-page image of LeBron James courtesy of Keith Allison's flickr via Creative Commons.

Aelfie Starr Tuff

Aelfie Starr Tuff studies religion at Columbia University.

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Article by Aelfie Starr Tuff

Aelfie Starr Tuff studies religion at Columbia University.

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