The Wrong Kind of Success Story
My rancor for Michael Jordan stems from him destroying a series of slow-footed, hapless New York Knick teams throughout the 1990s. Jordan worked with mathematical certainty even as John Starks hung on his hip with the zeal of an inconsolable toddler. Forever focused, Jordan would nail that aggravating baseline fade-away, drive to the hoop with the untouchable confidence of a guy who just spent the night with Scarlett Johansson, and sink free throws with aggravating unflappability. God, I hated that regal, composed son of a bitch. But I loved him, too. Jordan made watching basketball glorious torture.
LeBron James, Jordan’s stylistic and product-hawking heir, recently began his ninth NBA season. I can’t stand James, but it has little to do with his glossy game. There’s a price you have to pay to become a legend, but James projects the sickening air of entitlement. He expects his skills—which, I admit, are sublime—to pay for everything, forgetting that gritty intangibles defined legends like Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. To paraphrase George F. Will’s great line, if rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel then cheering for James is like pulling for the board of trustees’ spoiled progeny.
In The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James, Cleveland-bred Scott Raab, a writer-at-large for Esquire, displays an almost tangible hatred for the superstar. The scribe’s childhood alliances have not wavered. He still has the ticket stub from the 1964 NFL Championship Game, Cleveland’s last major sports championship. When he shows the artifact to the curious, Raab, a gruff, hard-living guy who at one time made his income as a pot dealer, tends to sob. He’s another unfortunate witness to a city’s tragic sports history, one summarized in shorthand: The Catch. Rocky Colavito. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. Danny Ferry. Jose Mesa.
The Decision. In summer 2010, James became a free agent, and every team salivated. He had spent seven wonderful seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, taking the perennial sad sack to its first Finals. He was just twenty-five, supremely talented, and a source of civic pride. Raised in nearby Akron, Cleveland loved him. The fans literally begged him to stay; the team accommodated his every whim. (“I don't get a vote in anything,” Raab quotes former Cavs coach Mike Brown as saying.) Free agency has taught us that loyalty and tradition are easily negotiated obstacles. James was going to leave Cleveland—that was the sickening inevitability in this sad script. It was how James departed that was so reprehensible, holding a nationally televised special announcing his intention to sign with the Miami Heat, one last kick in the balls of a city that loved him. When fans burned his jersey, the fact that it shocked James, who said these people perhaps “were never LeBron fans anyway,” reveals everything. Calling James a “megalomaniacal shitheel,” Raab responds: “Those Cleveland fans knew for the first time what utter fools they had been to believe that LeBron James ever gave a damn about anything but LeBron James.”
Raab originally covers James in Cleveland, envisioning a book on the Cavaliers’ march toward glory. When The Decision destroys that possibility, an enraged Raab heads to Miami, where he behaves like a scorned lover throughout the 2010-11 season. Raab gains weight. He attacks James on Twitter: “You're a fucking loser and always will be.” The Heat revoke Raab’s “nonexistent” media credentials, which doesn’t stop the writer from buying good seats for their games. Despite the presence of James, who conveniently united with superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, plenty of good seats remain. That’s not surprising, considering Heat fans are promised free stuff for sitting through an entire game. “Lord,” Raab writes. “This is where LeBron James wants to play basketball, in front of sun-dried cretins who must be bribed to act like they care about the game and the team.”
The Whore of Akron initially reads like a lengthy rant from an angry old man who doesn’t understand how modern sports work. Plus, the guy can’t keep himself out of the narrative. But it works. Raab, an eloquent, sharp writer, teaches James a powerful lesson: “Hard is the only thing that makes it mean anything.” The author, pushing sixty, didn’t just fall into a successful career and a satisfying family life. Getting there meant emerging from a terrible life—awful parents, shitty jobs, a failed marriage, a brush with suicide, sobriety. In his professional arc, James has faced no adversity. Pampered since he was fourteen years old, he wasn’t cut from the varsity high school basketball team (Jordan) or forced to start over after failing at a big-time college (Bird). James should have stayed in Cleveland and learned to relish the pressure of being the man. Instead, he headed for a team with indifferent fans and a star (Wade) who accepts the challenges James so regularly shies away from. He could accept all the accolades with none of the scrutiny. “His game,” Raab writes, “has never hungered for a battle.”
Jordan loved challenges and thrived on competition, whether it was beating my beloved Knicks or winning a card game. James has spent his entire professional career basking in the sound of yes, wallowing in glory he has yet to earn. (How’s this for a lack of perspective: By age twenty-five, James had written a book and starred in a documentary about his high school days.) Raab’s bitingly honest, soulful book urges someone to tell the twenty-seven-year-old no, because James lacks the self-awareness to change his approach. He’s writing the wrong kind of success story.
Books mentioned in this column: