An interview with Scott Raab, a rabid Cleveland fan and author of The Whore of Akron, about The Decision and its aftermath
"It is my birthright, my legacy, my destiny," Scott Raab declares on the opening page of The Whore of Akron, his scathing and passionate account of one man's betrayal of an entire city. That man happens to be one of the most famous athletes on the planet, LeBron James, and Raab, a writer for Esquire and an old-school Clevelander, makes it his mission to find out why the native son felt compelled to pack his bags for South Beach. Raab pursues this mission with a religious zeal, confronting his own demons and the nature of sports fanaticism in the process. I spoke to Raab on the phone and our discussion touched on the origins of his book, the blowback from "The Decision," and LeBron's chances this season.
So where did your interest in LeBron James and Cleveland sports begin?
Well, having been born and raised in Cleveland I've always had an irrationally passionate attachment to the teams. When the Cavs got LeBron it was kind of amazing in the sense of, as a fan, wanting something so badly to happen—and of course in Cleveland, if you're of a certain age you automatically figure it isn't going to happen—and it did. It wasn't that I was thinking about a book. I think what happened specifically is that after the Cavaliers lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago I began to despair. Given the length of the drought for all three of the pro teams in Cleveland I felt, my God, they just lost to Orlando, they didn't even make it to the finals with the best player in the NBA—maybe I'm never going to live to see it happen.
At the same time, by coincidence during that series, one of the guys who works for the Cavs in communications had sent a question to Esquire—which for a long time, like 10 or 11 years, had a front-of-the-book column I wrote—and I got in touch with him. Partly I was thinking, this is really cool, they're in the playoffs, and maybe he can get me tickets if the Cavs make the Finals! When it became clear they weren't going to make it to the Finals I really felt a lot of despair. I thought, you know, I know the guy—Joe Gabriel is his name, who works for the Cavs—and I'm a legitimate journalist, even though I'm not well known in Cleveland, who never paid attention to anything I wrote, and I'm going to embed myself in the organization to the extent that I can—it's LeBron's last year as a Cav, theatrically, even though we all know he's going to sign with Cleveland, because why would he not? I started out in June 2009, going to Cleveland, trying to get into the good graces of the front office, and hoping to write the book where out Moses leads us into the Promised Land.
When "The Decision" happened, your story shifted—all of a sudden, the hometown hero has left for the Miami. As a reporter, what is going through your head at that moment? At that point, are you just chasing the story?
When things fell apart for the Cavs and they lost in the playoffs to Boston, and then the free agency countdown began—even the most cynical national beat writers, nobody thought LeBron was really going to leave Cleveland. At that point, I started blogging about it for Esquire.com, and it was running on Deadspin simultaneously. I was vicious—when President Obama was talking about how LeBron would look good in a Bulls uniform, I had a blog post basically saying, "Fuck you, Mr. President." I told my wife, you know, I spent a year, and a few thousand dollars, but it was sports journalism fantasy camp. It was great. It didn't turn out well for me as a fan; it couldn't have turned out any worse. But I did get to hang in the locker room, know the beat writers, see LeBron's dick, and I got to blog. What happened, in terms of the nuts and bolts—this is the irony, I guess, I try to use that word carefully—is when LeBron chose to declare his free agency in a manner unlike any other athlete since the advent of free agency, he pissed off millions of people. They liked the story, the idea of the loyal guy. Whatever narrative we impose on these young men, as fans, we don't like it being stripped away. What he did with "The Decision" was reveal himself as a total phony—but he also made it possible for an editor at Harper Collins to go, "Hey, we'll do a book with a guy who's never written one before, with no access to the subject, and it won't even be a sports book!" [laughs]. Yes, the story changes 180 degrees from what I had set out hoping to write, but the truth of the matter is, I'm not sure if there would have been a book deal if the Cavs had won.
Interview continues below.
"The Decision" has been dissected to death, but it still fascinates me. It was such a bold move. Was he not aware it would piss people off?
I genuinely think that he and Maverick Carter, his friend and manager of many years—another young guy from Akron—were not aware. I can't imagine they had any clue at all as to what the reaction was going to be outside of Cleveland.
I always thought maybe he is just sealed off by his crew of people.
Yes, and that was confirmed among the beat writers I got to know who cover the Heat. LeBron was genuinely flummoxed by the fact that he was getting booed early in the season in places that never had a shot at him in free agency. He didn't know why they were that pissed off. He was surprised by the level of outrage in Cleveland, but he could write that part of it off as bitter fans.
Much was said at the time about him controlling the narrative, the players sticking it to the owners.
That was post-facto nonsense. People were writing about this new paradigm of controlling the narrative, especially young black athletes seizing control of their destinies. But that was never something, as far as I'm aware, that came out of LeBron's mouth or Maverick Carter's mouth. Nor do I think it is part of their consciousness. They're very concerned about two phrases: One is "global icon," the other is "urban mogul." These things have a lot more to do with maximizing income than with creating paradigmatic models. It sounds great when you're writing a column. I like to joke about "The Akron chapter of Mensa," LeBron and his boys, but really I think they're really focused on making lots of money rather than breaking though in some socio-political way.
You mentioned earlier that you are an irrationally passionate fan, and much of the book is about you as a fan, the nature of fandom, and what it means to be a fan from a city like Cleveland. I grew up in New York when the Knicks were a good, scrappy team and the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. Reading your book, I was thinking of the different ways a city is loyal to its sports teams. In New York, if a player screws up, the press has no problem throwing him under the bus. He will end up on the cover of the Post. It seems in Cleveland they cradled LeBron a little bit.
A little bit? Excessively, almost pathologically.
Do you think that was part of the problem?
Well, there are two sides of it. One, there is the absurdity of placing the hopes and dreams of an entire region where unlike the New York fan-base you have two entire generations of fans who've never known a championship in any of those sports. From that, everything else flows. You have a media without competition. There's one newspaper in Cleveland, one newspaper in Akron. There's no competition to get the back page headline, like there is with the Daily News and Post alone. You have the media in Cleveland much more complicit because they have no reason not to be. They're not fighting each other for the inside story. It's much easier to go along and not rock the boat and not wind up getting blamed for being the turd in the punch bowl when everyone has been dying for a glass of that punch for 50 years. This happened to me—LeBron wore a Yankees cap to Jacobs Field in 2007 for the opening game of a playoff series between the Indians and the Yankees. And while it's a one-way rivalry— especially right now—for an Indians fan, the Yankees are always the fucking Yankees. To see LeBron do this, at best, seemed tone deaf and stupid beyond words, but the words I chose at the time were "worthless scum." The blowback I got was entirely from Cleveland fans furious with me.
That seems like a generational divide. Do you get the sense that young fans feel the same way about LeBron as you do?
I mean, the people who are younger than me have been born into a city that's already lost everything it had in terms of its sense of its self as a vital industrial cog in America. It was one thing to see the city spiral downhill over decades, which was my experience. The younger kids were born into a city that was already a standing punch line. They're aware of being from a city that isn't one of the ten biggest cities in the country; in fact, it's barely in the top 50 right now in terms of the city proper. In addition to that, what's left that gives Cleveland any real profile as a city of national stature is the three teams. To a large degree, without those three teams, is Cleveland even really a major American city anymore? Yeah, there's the Cleveland Clinic, and oh my God, the Cleveland Orchestra is wonderful, and on and on and on, but the list isn't endless. LeBron represented a huge sea change. For seven years, Cleveland was on the map, the center of the basketball universe. What do we have now? I hope Kyrie Irving's foot is okay.
One argument I wanted to discuss with you is the idea that LeBron never asked to be put in the position he was in—as the hometown hero, the native son. From the outside, it did seem like he pumped up that image in the media.
Oh yeah, of course. He would have been foolish not to. It may have been partly sincere; it may have been totally sincere. Who can say? LeBron is going to turn 27 at the end of this month. How wise was I at that age? You have to grant the accident of birth—you're born in a certain place to certain people and that is thrust upon you, you don't choose it. In terms of being drafted by the Cavs and saying and doing all the right things, saying I understand the history and the hunger, I'm not going to go chasing championships, my only goal is to bring a championship to these fans, I know what they've been through, all this stuff we heard for seven years as fans—yeah, at some point you're accountable for breaking promises or making people feel snookered. As I said before, it's not just people in Cleveland. There's a reason people in Portland are booing him every time he touches the ball. It's because they like the story.
It's not just fans all over, but also other players.
Now you've touched on a subject area I think has very little to do with "The Decision" as a betrayal of Cleveland, and everything to do with "The Decision" and his performance last year in the Finals. Here you have a guy who is the sole example—and I've been a sports fan for many years—of a guy of any caliber who is so openly disrespected by so many of his peers.
It's one of the amazing things about players being on Twitter. Paul Pierce can call out LeBron James and the whole world knows about it instantly. I'm sure there are more.
There are plenty more. Dallas last year, during the Finals: you saw a team where Jason Terry, for example, early in the Finals, was telling reporters, "Yeah, he guarded me okay this game, let's see if he can do it three or four in a row." They knew they could get inside his head. LeBron's got issues; you don't have to be a hater. He cost his team a championship and everyone in the league knows it. They're not standing up because they care about Cleveland or they hate LeBron. They have no respect for LeBron.
The NBA season returns on Christmas Day. What are your thoughts going into the shortened season, post-lockout? Can LeBron push through the pressure?
I genuinely don't know. It's certainly true that he's young enough and talented enough to learn to master the situation in the moment. In theory, one would like to think that. Not I would like to think that—I hope he plays 15 years and never wins an NBA championship. I don't know because it's somewhat uncharted. I'd very much like to think he cannot overcome it. Isn't that nice? [laughs]
The hate is still there, but I think in your case it comes out of a place of love.
I think that's absolutely right. On both ends by the way—love before and there's a certain degree of attachment, even now.