The Knicks are in Miami tonight to play the Heat. What better time to hear from Scott Raab, the Esquire writer and author of “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.”
“The Whore of Akron” is a funny, personal, and moving story, a must-read. Scott and I chatted recently about writing, the book, and LeBron James.
BB: You’ve been writing for decades yet “The Whore of Akron” is your first book. Before we get to that, I’d like to talk about your career. Loved the piece you wrote on your blog a few months ago where you talked about what it takes to be a writer. About endurance being a talent.
SR: I talk to people half your age who start whining that they don’t have time to write and I say, ‘Don’t worry about it — you’re obviously not a writer.’ They don’t like hearing that. They actually think they’re entitled to some kind of pity, self- and otherwise. It’s the weirdest thing in the world to me, not because I think I have any big answers but if you really find yourself saying, ‘I don’t have time to write,’ and you’re not feeding four mouths…It’s not like I knew Ray Carver, but from what I know about him the reason he wrote short stories is, first he wasn’t ever sober, but he also had two screaming youngsters and so he’d write in his car. Either you find a way or you find something else that seems more doable. But endurance is a talent.
BB: This blog, Bronx Banter, helped me fight a sense of entitlement. I set it up in such a way that I was forced to show up every day.
SR: And anyone who doesn’t think that’s a huge part of it is deluding themselves.
BB: Showing up every day.
SR: Yes. Putting one foot in front of the other. It took me decades to learn this. And that’s fine. If you don’t learn that, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, because without this talent, of endurance, what difference does it make? Nobody finds you at the soda fountain; it almost never happens. And the journalists it does happen to, like Stephen Glass, Ruth Shalit, Jayson Blair — these are people who, after early success, couldn’t follow through. They didn’t have the chops. They made shit up and committed career suicide.
BB: Is there a difference between talent and intelligence?
SR: Certainly intelligence is a tool, a crucial tool. You have to take in large amounts of material, including human material, and construct some sort of narrative. That requires focus and intelligence. But if you are missing endurance, again, it doesn’t matter how intelligent you might be. In the wake of the LeBron book, I’ve dealt with so-called journalists who have told me, ‘I don’t have time to transcribe a tape so I’m going to send you questions via e-mail.’ They say, “You have until Friday,” and so I say, “Then you have until Friday to transcribe a fucking tape.” I’ve also heard, “I don’t have trustworthy recording equipment.” Then you’re not a real journalist, so don’t waste my fucking time.
BB: When did you start writing pieces for magazines?
SR: I started at GQ in ’92 and got my first contract in ’93. David Granger was a GQ feature editor then. Granger was my big break because he was the one editor in New York who was willing to assign long stories to writers who hadn’t already published long pieces in magazines in New York. So Granger was exactly the right guy at exactly the right time for me. I was still selling columns for $40 to a weekly—when they wanted them—and I was almost 41 when I signed that first contract with GQ. I was never a newspaper guy, I was a creative writing guy.
BB: And you had written fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, right?
SR: I’d published fiction. I had a literary agent. But I wasn’t prolific and wasn’t some young Phillip Roth or William Faulkner. I was a solid fiction writer with problems. Lifestyle problems. And it turns out I needed the structure that a relationship with an editor provides.
BB: And early on with Granger was he doing macro editing with you or micro stuff like line edits?
SR: Alex, if you need line-editing help you don’t ever get a contract. I mean, seriously. If the relationship with the editor is based on line editing—
BB: –You’re screwed.
SR: You don’t even get there. Why would a guy like Granger waste his time with that stuff? I hate to sound grandiose, but at that level it’s about relationship, and envisioning stories, about building trust that you’ll deliver the goods and you won’t fuck the editor in terms of expense account bullshit. It’s business, basically. But it’s also has a strong therapeutic connection in terms of the mentor-mentee relationship for me. Not because I was wet behind the ears but because I didn’t understand what the whole process was.
BB: If part of what you have know to be writing for a major magazine is how to maintain expense accounts and the business end of things, how were you able to do that when you were so fucked up on booze and drugs at the time?
SR: I’m trying to put this the right way…
BB: Is it a matter of being what they call a functioning alcoholic?
SR: Look at your dad. People can do enormous harm to themselves, those who depend on them, and their careers and still function at a really high level. I was a high-hopes-but-low-expectations guy. When you grew up the way I grew up, when you come out of Cleveland State, there weren’t high expectations. I got into Iowa when I was in my thirties and I knew it was really important. I didn’t into the program at Stamford and I didn’t get into the program at Irvine so when I got into Iowa I went in with a strong sense of affirmation and ambition. It never occurred to me that I’d be a magazine writer. I just wanted to compete against the kids that went to school with me. They weren’t from Cleveland State. They’d gone to Sarah Lawrence or Yale.
BB: You were older than a lot of your classmates but did you have an inferiority complex?
SR: You could say that but I don’t think I’m the most accurate judge of that. I know I was very nervous but it wasn’t skittish nervous it was more like I knew what a tremendous opportunity I had. I don’t think I ever operate out of the sense of mastery or security but I don’t know anybody else who does either. I don’t think of it as an inferiority complex. I don’t think that I ever looked at writing for Granger as anything less than a total miracle. That doesn’t imply an inferiority complex; I think it implies a firm grasp of what was going on. All of a sudden you meet a guy who wants you to write in your own voice and wants you to do the kinds of stories that don’t feel safe to most magazine editors and it was like, “Wow, this is the greatest thing in the world.” People ask me if I still write fiction. Of course not. I work really hard at trying to be good at writing what I’m writing. If fiction were that important to me I’d find time to do it. I think fiction is harder and I don’t mean that what I’m doing is easy; to me, it’s not. But writing fiction you have to supply almost everything and the payoff is not so good both in terms of numbers of readers and money. I’ve always looked at meeting Granger and what followed as being beyond my wildest dreams. So things like fudging expense accounts to make a few hundred dollars more seemed absurd to me. No matter how far gone I might have been in terms of my lifestyle, I wasn’t that stupid and greedy.
BB: So when did the idea for this book—
SR: Yeah, I thought we were going to talk about the book.
BB: I know you started working on it during LeBron’s final year with the Cavaliers.
SR: I started after they lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. For many years at Esquire I wrote a column, didn’t even have my name on it, where I answered questions, general questions. A guy wrote in and asked, “Is it illegal to flip off a cop or just stupid?” Turned out this guy worked for the Cavs. I wasn’t thinking about doing a book when I got the e-mail; I was thinking maybe this guy could get me tickets. I reached out to him—I was going to do his question anyway because it was good for the column—but it was clear after a couple of games in the Orlando series that it wasn’t going to end well for the Cavs. And that was the Cavs team that I really thought could and would go all the way. I got really bummed out. But I figured that they’re going into the next season with Lebron in his walk year, the coach and the general manager in their walk years, with an owner who doesn’t mind paying the luxury tax — it was all or nothing and I thought it would make a fascinating book. They ended up winning 61 games that year. They’d won 66 the year before. They lost in the second round to the Celtics and then Lebron declared free agency.
BB: So you didn’t know that the book would extend into the following season?
SR: No, no, I was looking to write the happy book.
BB: And was part of that happy book your experiences as a Clevelander and Jew?
SR: Not at all. That wasn’t even part of it after Lebron’s decision to go to Miami. Honestly. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I sit down and start writing. I don’t plan things out. I don’t go in blind, of course. But with the Cavs, after the Decision, after the book deal, I thought that the book would be full of interviews, a collection of a lot of Cleveland voices, and that’d be the spine of the book. I wasn’t thinking of that in a hard and fast way but I had whole lists of people to talk to.
BB: Like the wonderful scene of you in the black barbershop.
SR: Well, I needed a black guy to talk with about LeBron and race. And I asked some prominent black guys. I didn’t know Jimmy Israel very well but we were Facebook friends. I knew I couldn’t avoid the subject of race. That didn’t feel honest to me. But the other black writers I asked didn’t know me; some of them didn’t bother to reply and the ones who did said no. I realized, from talking to the guys who did turn me down, that what I was asking of them was essentially unfair. They didn’t know me. I offered them editorial control but the title of the book was already “The Whore of Akron.” As one guy put it to me, “You’re basically asking me to participate in a witch hunt.” That was a legitimate objection. Jimmy’s a Cleveland guy, a great writer, and he taught me a lot.
BB: So in the course of Lebron’s first season in Miami, you’re down there, writing about what’s going on for Esquire, you’re tweeting about what’s going on, were you also writing the book?
SR: I started going to Miami in September of 2010 and started writing the book a few months later, in January 2011. It was not clear to me at that point where the book would be going. I had a deadline and I needed to start getting stuff down but I hadn’t figured anything out at that point.
BB: When did you figure out the structure of the book, where you go back-and-forth between what’s doing with Lebron and the memoir stuff develop?
SR: It was organic. It’s not as conscious as it might seem. In addition to working on the book I also had a big 9/11 piece for Esquire closing in the summer. So I had to de-stress about the book. I don’t often use inspirational slogans but I did use one while I was writing the book. It came from Bob Wickman, the fat closer the Indians had for a couple of years. He said, “You gotta trust your stuff.”
BB: That’s like in “Tender Mercies” the Robert Duvall character says, “Sing it like you feel it.”
SR: That’s right. By the time July rolled around I took a place in the city and moved in for a month. I would go to the HarperCollins office in the morning and revise the manuscript starting at the beginning using the notes I got from my editors, David Hirshey and Barry Harbaugh. Then I would go back to the place I was staying at and work on the ending. Part of me looks at what I do as a plumber. A tradesman with a craft. And at some point in the process an editor realizes that you know what you’re doing. Structurally. So their notes were extensive and important but there weren’t structural issues. There were tonal and practical ones. There were points where I would start pontificating, especially about racial aspects of the story, and there were whole swaths of material that just had to go. I never had a problem with that. I’m really coachable as long as I trust the editor.
BB: One of the first reactions I had when I was reading was to a couple of jokes about Art Modell. Where you had these rim-shot putdown jokes. And I wondered if that was going to be what the book was, more and more outrageous gags.
SR: That’s a legitimate concern.
BB: I didn’t know if you would end up humping one note but then it didn’t go that way. You talk about tone. Did you have sensitivity that on some level you were coming across as being outrageous and not to overdo that at the risk of maybe losing some of the readers?
SR: I’m not sure. I know I lost a few people. Mostly, it’s been well-received but there are certainly people who thought—whether it was the Modell stuff or the Lebron stuff—that it was overdone. I wasn’t hyper-conscious of it. I’m not that conscious of readers. I’m conscious of editors; I want to please them. But it’s an internal process. It’s just a subject—Cleveland sports—about which I feel the kind of passion that I don’t really feel about almost anything. I don’t mean my family. But my relationship to those teams defines me in the same way that being a Jew defines me or being a man defines me. It’s at a profound level. I remember doing a piece on David Cone in the late ‘90s, fun guy, smart guy, and he told me—not that he was the first guy to say it—that “You’ve got to learn to take a few miles an hour off the fastball.” If you try to throw harder in a pressure situation it backfires. You want to change speeds. So I’m conscious of that, not in particular relation to the book but in general.
BB: You reminded me of Mel Brooks in the book. I mean that in the best way.
SR: Even if you meant it in the worst way I’d be honored by that comparison.
BB: I was never offended by your outrage. I accepted it, like I do with Mel Brooks. This is what it is, it’s over-the-top. This is the shtick. And for all of the outrageousness there is also a sense of restraint in this book. And it made me wonder if you would have been able to do that, 15 or 20 years ago.
SR: I couldn’t have done it. It goes back to David Hirshey, my senior editor at HarperCollins. Nobody was excited about the prospect of the Happy LeBron Book unless I could deliver the impossible, which was access to Lebron. Once that season ended with the loss to the Celtics, I said to my wife, “That was a fun year at sports fantasy camp, I spent a few grand, but I had a great time. There ain’t going to be any book, and I’m okay with that.”
I was more upset that Lebron left. So I was blogging the countdown to free agency for Esquire.com and Deadspin was also running it simultaneously. Then Hirshey got in touch with my agent, David Black. I’d never met Hirshey but he was willing to give a book deal to a guy who’d never written a book, wasn’t going to get access to the subject of the book, and was writing these venomous blog posts about LeBron. How many book editors would do that? I was at the right place at the right time. Again.
BB: Well, if you’re not going to get access you’re the perfect guy to do a story because you don’t give a shit. Was there any time during the process that you were afraid that LeBron, or one of his people was going to walk up to you and punch you in the face?
SR: That was one of my mother’s concerns. But that’s really movie-script stuff. Can you imagine what the results would have been? Obviously, it could have, and still could, potentially happen, I suppose. But: please do. I truly don’t give a shit. It has nothing to do with courage. I grew up reading National Lampoon magazine and they were brutal. And Hunter Thompson was filing for Rolling Stone and he was brutal. I didn’t think of either as role models, I just thought of them as great reads. A lot of my attitude toward LeBron or the media relations at the NBA or the Heat was like, “Fuck you, I don’t give a shit.”
BB: So you didn’t feel any shame or have any reservations about calling the guy out as a scumbag?
SR: I understand that if you’re working for a newspaper and you’re on a beat and you’re tweeting something like that a guy you’re going to get fired. I get that. I had to dial it back because I wasn’t thinking about the reflection on Esquire. It’s not as I didn’t make my share of mistakes, but they didn’t involve plagiarism or putting off the record stuff on the record. Professional breaches by today’s standards, yes. Ethical breaches? No. And we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction or climate change or the corner grocery selling tainted meat. It’s a fucking basketball player. There were some people who thought I was stalking him because their understanding of reporting is that dim. I don’t cheer in the press box. I don’t get in a beat guy’s way. Ever. I’m very aware of protocol. And also very aware that if a magazine or book writer comes off like if he’s a big shot, he’s an asshole. I consciously try to avoid those kinds of behaviors.
BB: Is there ever point where your persona as the outraged Cleveland sports fan becomes a put-on?
SR: No. Isn’t that weird? A lot of the stuff that got taken out of the book was removed because it was violent. You know, stuff like seeing LeBron at media day and wanting to fracture his skull with one of the folding chairs. I’m the guy who wrote the book; I’m not just the guy in the book. There is a difference. But it’s only germane when you’re talking to another writer; it has nothing to do with putting on that costume of the outraged Cleveland fan. I am a totally outraged Cleveland fan.
BB: And yet you do put it in perspective.
SR: When you get a certain age, you realize that when you are feeling that inflamed by something outside of you, there’s something inside you going on. The other part is I had a lot of people call me a hater. That’s a very popular word now. How could I not be a monster if I was wishing a career-ending injury on a fine young athlete? There are a lot of answers to that. But I took the question seriously and tried to figure it out in the book.
I talked to Dwayne Wade on Media Day for a fashion spread in Esquire. And afterward I saw LeBron at the podium with Wade and Chris Bosh and responded viscerally to that, and then went to a family bar mitzvah and wondered, “Why am I so furious, why does it get to this level with me?” Part of what I realized—and it didn’t crystallize until I was doing the writing—was that at a fairly young age I shut down in terms of family. I didn’t like my people, I didn’t trust my people. I was angry and I felt abandoned. Nobody was paying attention to my pain, and on and on and on. Cleveland was a great city then. I wasn’t a sinkhole of despair, it wasn’t a joke. The Browns, in particular, were very good. They weren’t quite the Yankees, but from the late ‘40s through the mid ‘60s, they were a paragon of consistency and excellence. The city and those teams replaced my family in my heart.
BB: You also tap into something that goes on with every fan. When I watch the Yanks play the Red Sox, and I’m heated, I want each hitter to line a ball of Josh Beckett’s leg and send him to the hospital, even though I know that’s completely irrational.
SR: If you want to call yourself a fan by my standards, of course you felt that, even if you never wrote it. I don’t think it’s unique to Philly, Cleveland or New York. I’ve been in stadiums elsewhere where the home fans cheer their own player getting hurt because they just don’t want to see him fucking up on the field anymore.
BB: As far as realizing that at a point if you are getting that enraged over a sporting event do you feel, well, this is just the way I am or do you say, I don’t need to be this way anymore?
SR: There is a real chasm between intellect and emotion. Thinking or realizing something isn’t the same as actuating it. But the fans I understand the least are the people who don’t have a team to get worked up about. I get it, but I don’t get it. Why do they bother? It’s the other side of the insanity of being over-committed. I’d prefer the self-destruction to not caring much about a team.
BB: I like the quote you used from Viktor Frankl. That sums up why you do root for a team. Because something can happen. And you having a hope for it happening means you are alive — not necessarily the victory.
SR: I would like the victory, Alex. It’s like at the end of “The Unforgiven” when Clint Eastwood tells Little Bill, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Apparently not.
BB: Talk to me about “Dayenu” for a second because I’ve been singing the song in my head for days now.
SR: It’s one of those things where the repetition and melody of it can transport you. You sing praise to God that if he had merely freed you from Pharaoh’s bondage that would have been enough. If the Cleveland Indians of 1954 had set the record that stood until the Yankees of 1998—they won 111 out of 154 games and then lost 4 straight to the Giants in the World Series—and won the Series, it would have been awful enough. The Drive. The Shot. The Fumble. The Browns moving. Each would have been bad enough alone. Each of the Cleveland franchises have built teams that were good enough, at least in paper, to win a championship. Any of those happening would have been heartbreak enough. Which is the inversion of the Dayenu thing.
BB: The other thing that occurred to me as the book went on is that it wasn’t just a tirade against LeBron, it wasn’t flip, but a very moral book in a lot of ways.
SR: I totally agree with you, but it came as a big surprise to me. And I’m not trying to be coy. I didn’t know where it was going. I think it’s an odd book. It’s like a Swiss Army Knife kind of book.
BB: It sounded like you even had pity for LeBron.
SR: I do have pity for the guy and it’s not disingenuous. There’s a certain point between fathers and sons when things are nice. I had that with my dad before my parents split up. You think all is right with the world because you’re in the presence of this all-powerful, all-knowing guy. I was old enough to feel that with my father. LeBron had none of that. Nothing. And that’s something to really feel pity for. Because you can miss the shit out of that and it can hurt a lot, but LeBron never even got that. Everyone remembers when LeBron said they weren’t only going to win seven or eight rings but in the same clip he also talked about how easy it was going to be, so easy that Pat Riley could come back and play point guard. Dwayne Wade is sitting next to him, looking sideways at him and Wade was not smiling. Have you ever heard any athlete in any sport or anyone in any profession talk about easy it was to get to the top? It’s insane. Most of us, even poor black guys without dads, have at least had someone in our life saying, “You are going to have to work for every fucking thing you get. I don’t care how good you are. You’re going to have to be a whole lot more than just good.” Maybe James gets it now. But that piece really seems to be missing in him.
BB: Did you have an awareness of being critical of yourself if you were going to be critical of James?
SR: It’s not conscious. I’m not paragon of 12-step sobriety, but part of trying to live a more honest life is self-examination and not just throwing stones at other people.
BB: Cause then you would come across as a hater. If you were only ragging on him.
SR: Of course.
BB: Another thing I liked is that you didn’t over-examine some of the game action, which came as a relief. That stuff can be deadly to read.
SR: And to write, Alex.
BB: By the end of the book, the fact that your boy gets sick is more important so as a reader, the book shifts to you as much as it is about James.
SR: I care deeply about what I do, about putting one word after another, and I think it’s a miracle that the book turned out as well as it did, or that I had such a good time with it. With a magazine piece, I usually want to keep tinkering with it, change the lede over and over, but I didn’t have the time here. So it’s a fucking miracle. I’m not a big fan of my stuff. I rarely go back and read my stuff, because I see places where I needed to do better work. I haven’t had time to go back and read the book, but I knew that when I was writing it that it was going to be good. I was happy with it because there was no way that I could have spent six more months on it and made it better. I only would have made it worse. Despite the weirdness of dealing with interviews and publicists and trying to sell copies, the feeling is still great and I’ve never felt anything like it.
BB: Probably because you don’t hate yourself.
SR: No, I don’t. And it’s funny how it all came together. If LeBron declares free agency the way every other star declares free agency there’s no book deal. It’s a strange series of events — amazing, really.
BB: He stays in Cleveland you don’t write the book that you wrote, you don’t write a loving tribute to Cleveland sports fans or write about yourself. So in a way, LeBron is the gift that keeps giving.
SR: That’s absolutely true. Irony can be cheapened in all kinds of ways but in this way it was kind of pure.
BB: I have to ask because this interview will appear on a Yankee-related site. You wrote an Esquire story on Alex Rodriguez that is famous for causing a rift between Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. How is Lebron different from A Rod?
SR: Alex is a much more self-aware, savvy guy compared to LeBron. As brilliant as Alex was at an early age, he was not anointed the Chosen One by Sports Illustrated when he was sixteen. He didn’t have Michael Jordan flying him to camp when he was a teenager. If you look at Alex’s post-season numbers career-wise they are in line with his regular season numbers. I think it’s perfectly fair, especially as a Yankees fan, to point the finger at him. He’s fair game. But I’ve never seen an athlete of Alex or LeBron’s caliber do what LeBron did last year in the Finals. James single-handedly cost the Heat the title last year. Before the games, there was LeBron giving the pre-game speech to his team after tweeting about how he couldn’t sleep. It’s so different from anything A-Rod has ever done. And LeBron’s performance was bizarre. In an elimination game, he was throwing passes to Mario Chalmers and Juan Howard. He’s the most unstoppable force in the game, but the Mavericks were totally inside his head. Being the Clevelander I am, I kept expecting LeBron to realize that he’s playing with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh—who played very well—and I was sure the Heat were going to wake up and smack the Mavericks down. I was amazed that even with Nowitzki shooting horribly in Game 6, the Mavericks looked nothing other than supremely confident. The Heat never looked like anything but scared rabbits.
BB: Well, as a true Clevelander, even if it didn’t happen last year don’t you think that whether it is this year or next year, eventually LeBron will get his act together and he’ll win that championship?
SR: That’s one of those head or heart questions. Eventually, sure, he’s young enough. But he’s also got a lot of miles on him. And I don’t think he truly cares and I know he doesn’t work as hard as he says he does. Kobe Bryant does. I remember sitting with Shaq once and he told me about how obsessive Kobe was about working. And Shaq admits that he himself was never that way. Kobe is willing to work relentlessly. That certainly was true of Michael, too. I think Alex Rodriguez is fanatical too. He’s driven. But I don’t think that helps him come playoff time. But LeBron is better at talking about this stuff than actually doing it.
BB: LeBron is having a great year so far. Do you think he’s turned the corner, learned something since last year? Or is that something that can only be answered come June?
SR: What corner? He’s a two-time league MVP, and he should’ve won it again last season. He’s the best pure basketball player I’ve ever seen, an other-worldly talent, and he has become a complete head case in the post-season. He always had an issue with managing pressure when he was on the Cavs, and he’s fallen apart as a crunch-time player if the other team doesn’t just fold up and surrender. And everyone in the NBA knows it now. We won’t find out until June if LeBron has found a heart.