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.