Too Much Too Soon
Writing about LeBron James, the super-talented basketball player, makes me feel old and crotchety, like I’m yelling at the neighbors to turn the music down. I hate how his every act seems governed by a team of publicists—from his celebratory hurling of talcum powder to the “snapshots” he’d take with his teammates during the pre-game introductions. This was before last month’s “The Decision,” an hour-long exercise in narcissism where James announced he was spurning the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Yes, athletes can go wherever they want. But to appear on ESPN and publicly humiliate Cleveland, a city whose sports history resembles a Greek tragedy in cleats, showed a shocking lack of awareness on James’s part, especially since he was born and raised in nearby Akron. Talk about not being able to go home again.
Though Cleveland loses a player with absurd physical gifts on a linebacker’s frame, James leaves having won zero NBA championships. The public has been snookered by James’s athletic ability and charisma, like AP track nerds transfixed by the popular kid’s swagger. He’s fortunate that Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, the league’s current decorated superstars who have won a combined nine NBA championships, have no personality. Bryant is a sullen, ruthless competitor; the stoic Duncan wins with bank shots, defense, and fundamentals—traits you can’t put in sexy packaging.
James has never had that problem. Millions were shocked by the amount of ego James displayed over “The Decision,” but that’s like being appalled over humid summers or high gas prices. He has long shown a remarkable ability to package and spin everything into a high media-friendly sheen—even his childhood. In fall 2009, James offered the world a book and a documentary about his storied high school days.
Even as a teenager, his every move was scrutinized. He became a national celebrity at age seventeen, thanks to appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which heralded him as being ready for the NBA “right now.” His team’s games were shown on national television, and St. Vincent-St. Mary moved the contests to a bigger arena to accommodate the demand for tickets. What gave James’s life some normalcy was his friends, three of whom (Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee) he had played alongside with years before high school. A fourth teammate, Romeo Travis, transferred to St. V’s in 2000, but found meshing into the group a challenge. The goal for all was the same: to win a national championship.
James’s time in high school may have been when he last resembled a human being, so Shooting Stars (now published in a paperback edition under the humble title, LeBron’s Dream Team: How Five Friends Made History) could have been a welcome opportunity for us to know him. However, the book reads as another victory for James’ marketing department. James provides information on a need-to-know basis—we learn nothing about his less-than-reliable mom, Gloria, or what it’s like to be that dominant so young—which doesn’t exactly contribute to a dynamite memoir. “I don’t think he really understood—and maybe this was my fault—what it really means to write a book,” co-author Buzz Bissinger told Bill Simmons on the latter's ESPN.com podcast. “You can’t do three two-hour interviews. You have to be into it.” Later, Bissinger added, “Was it [the book] the best thing I ever did? No. Was it the worst thing I ever did? Yes.” The book isn’t a total abomination because it inadvertently explains what led to James’s flashy façade. If you were viewed as either a villain or a commodity since before you could drive, wouldn't you shift into soulless corporate shill mode?
Consider the following passages:
-- On life at St. Vincent-St. Mary before the institution was closed to the media during the school day: “Before the ban, cameramen were filming me in the classroom. I was being followed around by sneaker representatives. I had trouble eating in the school cafeteria in peace, as did other students tired of cameras lurking there.”
-- On the team’s cross-country schedule: “I can virtually guarantee that when we traveled, there were plenty of promoters who enjoyed a nice payday off of us as high school kids, knowing that our presence would fill arenas.”
-- On attending St. Vincent-St. Mary, a largely white private school: “We brought a lot of good attention,” Cotton says. “But they wished we could have been white. They wished everything could be the same, but they could do it with white kids.” A large portion of Akron’s black community was furious with James and his teammates for passing over Bechtel, a largely black high school, as freshmen.
-- On becoming a celebrity: “I realized I had no privacy anymore . . . When I went to the movies with my friends, my very presence caused a scene. The attention, at least the positive attention, was intoxicating. I am not going to deny that. But part of me just hungered to be a regular high school kid. I knew I couldn’t be that anymore. Celebrity as an eighteen-year-old? Believe me, it wasn’t worth it.”
-- On being targeted by the Ohio High School Athletic Association after Gloria bought LeBron a Hummer for his eighteenth birthday (via a legitimate loan) and he accepted two throwback jerseys from a store (that LeBron quickly returned). Over the latter, the OHSAA initially suspended LeBron for the remainder of his final basketball season: “. . . I was learning that adults will create scapegoats to satisfy their unwarranted need for revenge, act in a way that isn’t fair or for the greater good but only suits their own vindictiveness in trying to destroy someone. I can never forget that lesson.”
You don’t feel a lot of triumph reading Shooting Stars, though it ends the way you expect, basketball-wise. The world awaiting the graduating James isn’t so much an oyster as it is a stage. Now, James has everything a man could ever want except a normal life. He’ll never know what it’s like to be approached without agenda or to walk through a mall blissfully unnoticed. I suppose he’s making the best of the circumstances brought on by his talents, but he’s not even attempting to pretend to be like everyone else. “The Decision” was shameless, as was using his childhood as a multi-pronged media attack. It’s impossible to determine if Shooting Stars is a genuine attempt to bond with the public or a savvy stroke in James painting himself as an everyman. Either way, the book shows the sad side of LeBron James’s worldwide fame—he’s totally and utterly trapped by his own persona.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.