Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron is a very angry book.
A fun book.
But an angry book.
And in spots it’s a very nasty book.
A funny book, but a nasty one.
It’s a book fueled by hate, pain, frustration, spite, disappointment, guilt, and self-loathing. It’s also a book full of tenderness, love, understanding or at least heartfelt attempts at understanding, and, ultimately, if grudgingly, forgiveness.
At times it’s an ugly book. Raab regularly blots and stains his own otherwise fine prose with unnecessary and unself-justifying f-bombs and its many derivatives, declensions, and combinations and he reaches easily and seemingly eagerly for images of homosexual humiliation and rape to describe the emotional and psychic traumas he’s suffered or that he’s fantasized about inflicting on others or that he feels others have suffered or inflicted. But within pages of that, within paragraphs, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence the writing will turn not just fine again but lyrical, brilliant, and beautiful.
The Whore of Akron of the title is basketball superstar LeBron James, currently with the Miami Heat, formerly with Raab’s beloved Cleveland Cavaliers, and the book is an account of the 2010-2011 basketball season, the season following James’ betrayal of Cavs fans and, as Raab would have it, his breaking of the city of Cleveland’s collective heart by selling himself to the Heat and thus dashing any and all hopes for a long-hoped for sports championship that would redeem Cleveland’s battered civic pride and reward fans for suffering decades of humiliation.
Raab, a Clevelander to the depths of his soul and a writer for Esquire, spent the season following the Heat, hoping to be on hand to witness James failing spectacularly. Which makes The Whore of Akron a book about basketball, and as such it’s, in parts, one of the best basketball books I’ve read, up there with John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are , although very different in tone and approach from McPhee’s. But then LeBron James and the college-aged Bill Bradley are very different sorts of young men playing in very different eras.
And McPhee liked and admired Bradley. Raab hates James with every fiber of his being.
Now and again, when Raab’s anger has temporarily exhausted itself and sat itself down on the bench to rest and rehydrate, he tries to look sympathetically into James’ heart and mind. But he finds no there there. From where I’ve sat, in front of a television hundreds and even thousands of miles away from whatever court James has happened to be playing on when I was watching, he’s looked like a likable enough kid, not empty, just ordinary, with nothing remarkable about him but his talent, which is tremendous but unreliable. James is notorious for disappearing from critical games. He’ll be out on the court but all he does is occupy space. He stops shooting, he doesn’t hustle, he’s a non-factor on defense. Raab attributes this to a failure of character. He calls James a choker and a quitter. Raab is not alone in thinking that. I don’t know though. Obviously something inside James shuts down. I don’t know if the heart goes out of him or he loses his nerve, but from the outside it looks as though his batteries have suddenly drained. Sometimes he powers back up in time to get himself back into the game. Usually, it takes him until the next game to fully recharge.
Not a hero to pin your hopes on then.
Whatever’s going on inside him, whatever the cause, “choking” in critical games seems a permanent feature of his game and something smart fans ought to make allowances for in order to protect themselves against false hopes and unreasonable expectations.
But Cleveland hasn’t had any hero in any sport else as good as James since Jim Brown, as Raab reminds us by detailing the most frustrating and heartbreaking moments from the last 50 years in of Cleveland basketball, football, and baseball misery. The can’t be helped expectation, of fans, of sportswriters, of the Cavs’ owners and management, of Raab, has been or was that James had it in him to be the next Michael Jordan. This expectation seems based on the notion that if you have a certain level of native talent you can then will yourself to greatness. Raab believes James owed it to Cleveland, not just the fans in the stands, to the whole city, to have made that effort. That James never rose to be like Mike is Raab’s proof that James didn’t try.
But as great as he was on his own Jordan needed Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippin to become the transcendent player he was. The Cavs tried to build a team around James that would help him bring a championship home to Cleveland, but they never found him a Pippin who could make that team do the right things in support of the hero and, judging by Raab’s reporting, they never tried to bring in the right sort of coach. And it appears that something else never figured in the thinking either of fans or the basketball insiders. It takes more than talent and will to be Michael Jordan. It takes a certain kind of ambition.
Jordan wanted to be the hero-king.
But he also wanted the responsibilities that went along with that.
That second part makes him an exceptional human being. As I said, James has never struck me as exceptional, except in his talent.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us are not born to play the lead. James may be a natural second banana, a supporting player happier going without top billing. (Not to go all Freudian here, but I suspect he was taught to think of himself this way by his charismatic but narcissistic and domineering mother who seems to think her son was born to make her a star.) James may have known this about himself and it figured in his decision to leave Cleveland. Dwayne Wade, James’ Miami teammate, the Kirk in the triumvirate of Wade, James, and Chris Bosh---and don’t ask me which of the latter two is Spock and which is McCoy---and whom Raab regards as one of the chief devils who tempted James away, appears to have known it too. The Cavs were going about it backwards. Instead of looking for players who could support James, they should have been looking for stars James could mesh with rather than lead.
James’ decision to say goodbye to Cleveland, as obnoxiously and insultingly as that goodbye was made, makes perfect sense to me. James and therefore Cleveland were never going to win a championship as long as it was left solely up to James’ willpower to win it.
It makes perfect sense to Chris Rock too.
Raab portrays himself as so caught up in his obsession with James that’s it’s easy to forget he had a job apart from his Javert-like pursuit of the man who stole a dream instead of loaf of bread. But Raab is a writer for a top-flight magazine, one of the Esquire’s best. He was at work on other stories while he was working on this book and at one point he recounts a conversation he had about James with Rock while interviewing for one of those other stories.
Rock calmly and reasonably points out the obvious.
James is a still very young man who had the good fortune to be able to choose between being paid an obscene amount of money to spend his prime dodging lake effect snowstorms blowing in off Lake Erie or spend it on Florida beaches watching beautiful girls in bikinis swimming in the warm blue-green waters of the Atlantic.
Raab half-sees Rock’s point but then he wails about loyalty and what James owed his fans.
Again Rock replies calmly and reasonably. James took all his friends with him to Miami so they could spend their primes on the beach with him. That’s loyalty too.
This struck me as so convincing I almost expected Raab to end his book right there. But then I double-checked and saw I had almost half a book of Raab’s ranting and railing against James still to go. Oh come on, I said to myself as if I expected Raab to hear my thoughts the way Raab presents himself as seeming to expect James to read his, Give it a rest!
Easy for me to say.
I didn’t grow up living and dying with my favorite sports teams.
The patch of upstate New York where I spent my kidhood had no professional teams in any sport. The local college teams weren’t good enough to beat any local high schools. All my rooting was done at a remove, through television and radio and the newspapers. (Radio, Lance? Newspapers? Yeah, I know. I’m old.) My love of sports comes from having played them (which by the way was not very well) more than from following them and so I’m more of a baseball fan than I am a Mets and Red Sox fan, more of a football fan than I am a Packers or Giants fan, and when one of “my” teams is having a lousy season I can easily switch to rooting for just about any other team just for the pleasure of seeing the game played well. The exception is basketball. I’m far more of a Celtics fan. Which is why I had some trouble feeling Raab’s pain.
I became a Celtics fan by accident too. One night when I was very young my parents let me stay up late to watch a Knicks game on TV. The Knicks happened to be playing this team from Boston. Boston, because of Paul Revere---I was a Revolutionary War buff---was already in my heart my adopted future home. And the Boston team was like me. Irish!
I can’t believe I was this naive but I think I thought every Celtic player was truly Irish. Bill O’Russell. Sam and K.C. O’Jones. John McHavlicek. Their coach too. Who else but an Irishman would have the nickname Red?
So, purely by chance, I grew up watching banner after banner being lifted into the rafters at the Gahdin, watching Red Auerbach lighting cigar after cigar. Larry Bird didn’t arrive in town as a savior but as an heir apparent. When he and McHale and Parish and company raised their first banner Boston fans had had to endure a whole four years without one. Sure, after Bird the team faded. A decade went by spent in the wilderness, marked only by the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. But if in the past ten years the new Big Three plus Rondo haven’t been able to restore the Celtics to the heights of their former glory, they have restored the sense of fun of being a fan. And they did put up a banner, at the expense of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.
What this amounts to is that I don’t have the experience Raab and his fellow Cleveland fans have had of having my heart broken year after year by my sports heroes and the teams they’ve played for.
And something else. I didn’t grow up with nothing decent to identify except the city I lived in and the teams that played there.
The job Raab has set for himself is to describe what that’s like.
It turns out to be like being Scott Raab.
It turns out that a lot of what goes on in life is like being Scott Raab.
After a while, the light goes on. That’s what the book is about, what it’s like being Scott Raab.
The Whore of Akron isn’t wholly or even mainly a book of sports journalism. It’s a memoir. And a particular kind of memoir. A Confession.
Never mind the subtitle of his book, the soul Raab is searching for is his own. The Whore of Akron is a sports book only because its subject is a sportswriter and fan. He’s also, in his own eyes, as great a moral failure as he wants to believe James has been. James gets grudgingly acquitted. Raab indicts himself and tries himself and finds himself guilty on every other page.
Every vice and sin he wants to attribute to James---disloyalty, selfishness, hypocrisy, greed, the failures of nerve, heart, discipline, and will on the court---offers Raab an opportunity to stare into a moral mirror, and whenever he catches sight of his reflection he’s horrified or humiliated…but he can’t look away. As obsessed with James as he makes himself out to be, he is that much more obsessed with himself and in a way only someone consumed by self-loathing and self-disgust can be. When he glares into the mirror, it’s without remorse or real pity.
Raab, according to Raab, is not a good man or even a nice one.
Raab’s feckless, self-absorbed, self-indulgent father and his manipulative, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, angry mother divorced when he was a kid. He grew up in what would have been called then (Raab’s nearing sixty) a broken home but which can be called now a home full of broken hearts and broken spirits and broken affections. The members of his family were like pieces of a shattered bowl, separate and separated, the ways they should have fit together visible but none of them had the power (or was it the desire?) to piece themselves back into a whole. It appears that they mainly shouted at each other across the gaps, connecting only through their anger. And young Scott was the angriest of the lot.
He was disrespectful, dishonest, disobedient, and violent. He was also a thief. And as he got older he became a bolder thief, although not a smarter or more careful one. He did and dealt drugs. He drank himself out of jobs, out of relationships, out of his mind.
He abused his first wife’s trust while manipulating her affections and, essentially, stealing from her to pay for his addictions and self-indulgences. He denied her---again, essentially robbing her---the family she wanted and thought he’d promised her.
He was a bad husband, a bad son, a worse brother, and no one you’d want to call a friend.
And he’s fat.
Raab’s weight disgusts him. He seems to regard it as the outward sign of his inner depravity and as a just punishment. It’s not just that it’s unhealthy---and at times in his life he has not simply been overweight but morbidly obese and it has caused him serious health problems---it’s self-destructive, even suicidal. Another of his moral failures. The urge to destroy himself.
Raab is bipolar. He’s been treated for it, is taking medication. But he doesn’t see mental illness---not his mental illness, at any rate---as a mitigating factor, let alone an excuse. He’s come close to suicide but that makes him an object of self-scorn. Suicide would be a form of “choking.” He’d be a quitter, like LeBron James, but at something that really matters.
The Whore of Akron is a harsh book.
An honest book, but a harsh one.
Although these days Raab is a successful and well-regarded journalist and writer---not to mention a justly proud of his work one---and he’s married again---to a kind but savvy woman who knows what he is, knows what he was, loves him anyway, and manages to keep him true to her and true to his own better self---and late in life he’s become a father of a son to whom he’s devoted and whose needs he’s determined he won’t let become second to his own the way his parents put their needs before their children’s, Raab is reluctant to give up or lighten up his image of himself as a bad man, the villain of his own life.
But then in the last chapter Raab has to divide his attention between watching LeBron James fail to win a championship for Miami and taking care of his son who has become desperately ill and suddenly he doesn’t have the time or the energy or the room for his hatred, either of himself or of James. He has to let himself be what he is, the worried father of a very sick little boy, and put most of his all into that. Which leaves him very little left over to put into watching James except his talent and instincts as a journalist.
It’s too much to say he forgives James or even develops sympathy for him. He takes pleasure in watching James pull his characteristic disappearing in plain sight trick and the Heat going down to the underdog Mavericks. Not a vengeful Cleveland fan’s pleasure. Raab barely alludes to the joy the Mavs provided to Cavs fans back home and how Dirk Nowitzki and his teammates became honorary Ohioans. It’s a basketball fan’s pleasure, the pure fun that comes from watching the unexpected happen in a beautiful fashion.
In the end, The Whore of Akron is a fan’s book.
Which makes it a satisfying book.
Scott Raab highlight reel:
The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James by Scott Raab, published by HarperCollins, is a three-point threat available in hardback and for kindle and for pre-order as a paperback from Amazon.