July 8, 2010 is a date that will live in sports infamy. On that night LeBron James announced to the world via his platform on ESPN that he would be “taking his talents to South Beach,” and in the process, made us question everything we thought we knew about the man. Reactions to the self-styled “King’s” Decision were varied but always passionate. Heat fans celebrated like they’d won a ring. The King’s former subjects set fire to LeBron’s jersey while police guarded his five-story “Witness” banner in downtown Cleveland. Dan Gilbert made comic sans relevant again and Scott Raab started writing.
A native son of Cleveland and writer at large for Esquire, Raab took to Twitter with fury and a lust for blood. He introduced the world to the #WhoreOfAkron hashtag and immediately changed course in his current project. Raab had been working on what he planned was a book about what should have been seminal season for the Cavaliers, where they would finally capture a championship the city of Cleveland hadn’t seen since 1964.
Instead, Lebron decided his best chance to win laid elsewhere and, in so doing, ushered in one of the most interesting and entertaining seasons the NBA has ever had. All of that was before the Dallas Mavericks captured the title amidst one of most compelling Finals series in recent memory.
The most surprising thing about The Whore of Akron is that it’s not just simple hate screed, though you will certainly find plenty of vitriol in its pages. Instead, the book is as much about Raab as it is about LeBron. For Raab, as it is for many of us, sports fanhood transcends simply “rooting for the laundry,’’ as Raab (paraphrasing Seinfeld) puts it. There’s something deeper, and for Raab entwined with his fanhood is his love of Cleveland, a “patriotic’’ impulse, and his Jewish heritage. It’s in exploring that latter that Raab takes The Whore of Akron to a spiritual level. In it, Raab explains what he calls the Dayenu Principle: that inevitability of suffering.
For Raab, the full meaning of Dayenu (translated literally: “It would have been enough for us”) is two-fold. One, its an exaltation to God for the many blessings He has bestowed upon his chosen people. For Raab, as a fan of Cleveland sports’ teams, it indicates that suffering is inescapable. After watching The Drive, The Catch, The Shot, and now The Decision, who can argue with the native Clevelander?
Before this past season, Mavs fans have suffered some form of the Dayenu Principle:, though not to the same degree. Around here, we called it MavVirus, but the essence is the same. No matter the heights the Mavs ascended in the past decade, somehow, they would fall short of the ultimate goal and we, the fans, would be left to suffer. Dayenu. However just suffering may be inevitable, deliverance is just as possible and the Mavs experienced “The Ultimate Validation” this past June.
Though it’s undetermined whether or not Raab ultimately finds the soul of his Whore, many salient facets of LeBron’s personality emerge. When LeBron arrived on South Beach and the Heat held their preseason championship celebration, LeBron cited how “easy” it would be to win a championship with the team they had assembled. Raab noticed this sense in James earlier when in an interview with Zydrunas Ilgauskas about what had caused the Cavs to collapse against the Celtics in the playoffs in LeBron’s final season. In that interview, captured in the book, Big Z indicates that LeBron’s Cavs held the belief that they could just show up and they would roll over the opposition.
Further, Raab explains the strange circumstances that are floated in the public to explain LeBron’s history of playoff underachievement. In recent seasons, Lebron has had an unexplainable elbow injury, a teammate allegedly slept with his mother, and an opponent allegedly slept with his girlfriend. All of these strange events came to light just about the time one of LeBron’s teams was failing in the playoffs.
It’s an interesting pattern that seemingly implicates LeBron’s inner circle (read: Maverick Carter) in trying to explain away the behavior of someone who seems to struggle with playoff pressure. These were again on display this past June where the best player in the world again inexplicably disappeared as his team lost to the Mavericks in six games while he and Wade mocked Dirk’s ‘fake’ sickness.
Both James and Raab are ‘Sons of the Soil’ of the greater Cleveland area and understand the collective suffering that area has endured. However, where Raab clings to the Browns, Indians, and Cavs, LeBron is noted for supporting the Cowboys, Yankees and now plays for the Heat.
In the book, Raab chronicles his difficulties with his own mother and contrasts them with the infamous antics of Gloria James. Finally, though Raab might burn at this, both he and James have achieved new heights in their respective fields after leaving Cleveland. The difference being that Raab still retains his roots while LeBron has since claimed Akron and not Cleveland as his that place where his “Loyalty” tattoo ascribes his allegiance.
DallasBasketball.com sits down with Mr. Raab and picks his brain on LeBron, The Whore of Akron, what it means to be a sports fan, and the Mavericks’ role in this story. Some highlights from our conversation:
Why is it the ‘sneering jagoffs’ – as you’ve called them - who advise you to get over it (re LeBron) don’t understand that hissing at the villain is part of the fun?
Raab: “Good question, Chuck, I’m not sure. I really don’t know, we could even take it a step further and talk about people who cherry-pick that line [from the book] about wishing a career-ending injury, you know that kind of thing.
"Maybe I’m some isolated incidence of a lunatic who doesn’t know the line between fan and fanatic, but the truth is I’ve been to sporting events all over where I’ve heard such things. More often football games than not, but I’ve heard Eagles fans cheer when a home-town player was carried off the field. I guess for some of us, For me at least, if you call yourself a fan, and you’ve never at least internally wished that a guy who was killing your team would sprain an ankle and not come back, then you know I’m not sure that I really consider you a fan by my definition. If I had “Carrie’’-like powers, and I could make that happen, then we’d be having a different discussion. But we’re not talking about that. It’s part of the play that’s going on in front of us.”
Scott, your work is sometimes labeled ‘Gonzo Journalism’. … is that freeing, or is it sometimes confining to be so defined?
Raab: “I’ve been doing this a long time, I’m 59, and the truth is I did come up up as a guy in my 20’s not particularly focused on anything but literature - and really we’re talking about poetry – Kafka and things like that. But when I ran into journalism it was the National Lampoon of the early 1970’s. It was Hunter S. Thompson, who I guess was the paragon of Gonzo Journalism and I didn’t think about it any more than I do today.
"The times where it seems to come into play are [like] last November, for example, where I lost my credential, ostensibly for tweeting. I did sort of blunder into some profanity on Twitter, and I would take that back if I could. The statement that was issued at the time by the league and the Heat had to do with my lack of professionalism.
"I think it’s important to make a distinction between that and ethics. Professional standards change and clearly I didn’t come up as a newspaper guy. So I think it’s fair for them to say “This guy lacks professionalism” because what professionalism has come to mean – mostly beat reporters covering teams a certain way: knowing far more than they will ever write about and certainly never tweeting F-bombs at the people they’re writing about. I get it. It wasn’t good, my bad.
"The ethical stuff is separate and I only bring that up because I’m proud of the fact that for all the years I’ve been a magazine journalist at the national level nobody – Even A-Rod when he dissed Jeter in a column I wrote in 2000 – nobody ever claimed that I misquoted them, took something out of context, took something that was supposed to be off the record and put it on the record, plagiarized another writer’s work – those are ethical lapses that don’t change according to fashion, style or taste.
"I think it’s important in the context of pleading guilty to Gonzo Journalism to point out that I do have a 25-year, million-word paper trail as a national magazine writer and however someone wants to define the style, it’s not up to me, but I don’t sit around going “lemme Gonzo this baby up a little bit!”
The title of the book is incendiary, and meant to be … The Whore of Akron … But the subtitle -- One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James – seems like it also includes you as much as it does him. Is this true? And did you find his soul?
Raab: “That’s right it’s meant to be. But the why is kind of unanswerable because I’m kind of uncomfortable, and I hope no one is comfortable talking about their process. Really the process is the same for all of us. You sit down and try to tell a good story, and that changed for me.
"It changed to some degree seeing the Heat lose in the Finals, and not just seeing them lose, seeing LeBron fail so miserably in game after game after game after game. Four of them that he choked away. Some of it changed because people did ask questions, sometimes very angrily about how I could be such a hater and how I could wish for a guy to blow out a knee. To some degree I didn’t know the answers. I didn’t know the things that made me the fan that I am or what the difference was.
"I always had a sense about Cleveland that it was a town that had suffered, like any Rust Belt town – Pittsburgh, Detroit – except there was no Steelers, or Red Wings or Pistons. There was never a team for me and for two generations of Clevelanders watching the city spiral downhill and kind of become a national punch line. At the same time seeing how Clevelanders have now come to internalize the worst of that image, and the teams have come to reinforce all those negatives.
"I don’t know that I understood my own story and fandom and so part of the book and part of the writing of it, I would up wrestling with that. The schedule was tight, and the editors and I had to work our butts off just to get a book done. It wasn’t sitting back and saying, “How shall I tell this story?” it’s really what just came out.''
I never bought the “Bitter Ex-Girlfriend” role that Cleveland was cast as last year because I never thought it fully encapsulated the feel of the town. Your thoughts?
Raab: “I think it does capture part of it but not the important part. ‘Bitter Ex-Girlfriend’ kind of applies to the injury part. In other words, I see him [LeBron] take the court for the first time in a Miami uniform. It’s kinda like, seeing your ex with someone else. And that part of it I gotta own up to, but the deeper stuff, the feelings evoked by the Decision, that hour-long ESPN special. Not just calling it “The Decision,’ which in and of itself was for Cleveland fans a bitter pill – all by itself – because it evokes that whole misery montage that ESPN and the other networks like to run that includes ‘The Catch,’ ‘The Shot,’’ ‘The Drive,’’ and “The Fumble’’ … And now he’s calling it ‘The Decision’’? Ouch.
"Here’s a guy who always said he understood our hunger and wasn’t gonna go chasing championships because he knew he had to bring one home to Cleveland, all that stuff. Part of it was just patriotism and people don’t like to talk about that much because it means love of country and sometimes it’s been devalued by the larger cultural and political discourse but there is a love of place that I think is part of the definition of patriotism and I think a lot of Clevelanders – and certainly a lot of expat Clevelanders – feel that. It may be imaginary or idealized, but there’s a place that still exists -- and it’s Cleveland -- and it’s a place that’s really known hard times on and off the field.
"That sense of loss – a native son that we very much brought into the narrative of the ‘home town hero’ who felt our pain and was going to restore us to the promised land. That transcends that ‘Girlfriend’ stuff.”
In a book ostensibly about hate, there is a whole lot of love that permeates the pages of The Whore of Akron - love for your son, love for your city, etcetera. What is it that ultimately ended up driving this quest for you: the love or the hate?
Raab: “That’s a great question – I’m not sure that its an either/or. I think it’s a both/and. I can’t tell you how deep this kind of thing runs in me. Certainly the love I have for my wife, the love I have for my son is the foundation of every effort I made. I hope every writer means it as much as I do when they say ‘I could not have done the book without…’’
"But I’m not sure that I could have come to terms at all with myself as a human being without having the wife that I do. Without her I wouldn’t be a dad. I think a lot of what drove the book forward was trying to find out also, and I didn’t realize it at the beginning. Years ago, under circumstances that are far more common now – I used to call it a broken home, when people got divorced – that I kind of substituted the teams [I rooted for] for my family of birth.
"When things got really bleak for me as an 11 or 12 year-old and some years after that, those teams became far more meaningful and important than my brothers, my mom. Nothing else really came to matter and I think I invested a lot of that love in those teams.”
How much did you find yourself rooting for the Mavs in the Finals? Was it more pro-Mavs or Anyone-but-Lebron?
Raab: “Once they stepped up in Game – what game was it where Wade hit the three-pointer and put them up by 15 with about seven minutes left in the third?”
You mean where he and LeBron did all that preening in front of the Mavs bench?
Raab: “Yeeeaaaaahhh that one. At that point, I had written off the series. I saw the talent disparity there and I saw the level of performance throughout the playoffs by the Heat. Basically I didn’t give the Mavs a chance. Part of it is that Cleveland thing going ‘Oh well of course he [LeBron] is gonna win an NBA title. Of course I’m gonna follow this whole season and in the end he’s going to win the ring.”
Ah, The Dayenu Principle …
Raab: [laughs] “But seeing them come back the way they came back. A veteran team. And guys that knew LeBron. Never have I seen a player so openly disrespected by his peers. It was Jason Terry who basically called him out to the press going “Let’s see him guard me for four or five games.’’
"It was in Game 6, the only one I attended, and I wasn’t at all sure that that was going to be an elimination game. I had extended my reservations to make sure that I would be there for Game 7. Of course I still wasn’t quite convinced. But sitting in a section full of Mavs fans and that the arena was at least a quarter-full of Mavs fans and they were louder than Heat fans. Despite seeing Nowitzki’s poor shooting in the first half, the Mavs never looked like a team that had any doubt they were going to win that day. It was awesome, it felt great.
"You know I rooted as hard for them as I have any team. The poignant thing is realizing it’s kinda pathetic. The Onion did something really good after that game making a mockery of how devoted and thrilled Cleveland fans were after the Mavs victory. For me the poignant moment was realizing at the end, watching the whole celebration and them setting up the stage….no Cleveland team won. There would be no parade down Euclid Avenue.
"Nonetheless my only regret about the lockout is that I couldn’t be at the Q when the Mavs visit. Because I assure you, they will get a standing ovation in the shootaround. “
In the past year, and especially in the Finals because it was convenient, I have often thought of Dirk as the Anti-LeBron. He stayed with his team after extremely public failures, doesn’t seem much interested in establishing himself as a “global brand,” and he proved that a team built around one star can prevail in the NBA – the model LeBron abandoned for the SuperFriends. Your thoughts?
Raab: “I think that comparison holds. The dangerous part – and I just finished writing something – things have gotten so weird, and this has nothing to do with the question, which I think is an astute question and a valid comparison.
"As I’ve been trying to write a little bit about the lockout, and thinking about some of the statements about David Stern as the plantation overseer. There was a lawyer on the players side, (Jeffery) Kessler, who made the comparison and talked about that. Now thinking about all the people who’ve come at me saying that LeBron wasn’t my runaway slave. One of the things that scares me about the discourse was a guy like Jason Whitlock who also thinks it’s total bulls---, but as a man of color, he has a much easier time saying that’s complete nonsense.
"Those comparisons between Dirk and LeBron are completely valid. The scary thing is that people refuse to see, and I’m talking about people on the left, people who call themselves progressives…who see [this process] as playing out these political themes in commentary about the NBA, “well the owners are white and the players are black. Therefore everything must be seen through the prism of race.” I think that’s every bit as dishonest, perhaps more dishonest, than saying “Oh I don’t see color and it’s not a factor at all.”
"So I think the comparison is perfectly valid but this other thing has been on my mind and that’s why I mention it. There’s no part of me that looks at my feeling of LeBron [as race-driven]. I have so many better reasons to hate him… But the thing about Dirk is that he had the same option on that same day, July 1st 2010, to entertain offers from other teams, and he didn’t have a parade. If anyone had a reason to go, “You know, this is never gonna happen here and I’ve got one last shot [to win a ring].’ There would have been no shortage of suitors, but he knew he had an owner, Mark Cuban, who would do whatever it took to get the right players around him and he trusted the town, he trusted his team.
"I’ve always felt that if LeBron could win one title, one title, it would have cemented his legacy forever and not just among Clevelanders. People all around the league and all around the world of no particular affinity for the Cavs thought the world of LeBron because they liked that narrative of the hometown guy who was loyal to the team. They liked him, and they felt betrayed by The Decision, not because they were Cavs fans but because they felt he had revealed himself as just another mercenary. Dirk certainly… he’s cemented his legacy, and forever. It’s not cause he’s a German guy, he’s a true-blue Mav and he brought that team its first NBA championship...
"Some people say “all I want is for my team to be competitive.’’ And I say “No, That’s not right.’’ You don’t know until your team wins one. It’s not like anything else. Yankees fans who say “flags fly forever’’ are right, you never lose that. It reinforces all the good things about being a fan. That’s one of the reasons we love sports – there is no gray there. It’s black and white. You (the Mavs) won a title. That’s it and no one can say s--- about it.’’
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