Chris Grantland Reviews The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search For the Soul Of LeBron James by Scott Raab

We never got the championship we were promised.  But we got The Whore of Akron.  An honest to god real god damn work of literature.  Layers of literary and cultural references for analysis and deconstruction.  Unimpeachable evidence that will outlive us all of about what happened, why it mattered so much and how it felt.  Written passionately, painstakingly by one of the best living writers on the planet.  Who just happens to be a Clevelander.  Author and protagonist, Scott Raab.

And even if being born and living your whole life 30 minutes from Cleveland, working in Cleveland for 7 years, having your image Christ-like shorn across a city block in Cleveland and being the pride of the city for that whole stretch wasn’t enough to, this book will make you feel like a Clevelander.  In the book Raab crams Muni Gate D tight with memories of Cleveland to Texas to Cleveland to Iowa and finally New Jersey without ever losing his Cleveland connection:   Getting high in the cemeteries with the dead Rockafellers.   Pondering why someone with nothing left to lose never capped Art Modell.  Stealing the deposit bag from that shoe store and catching a plane to London with the money.  Leaving Texas to avoid outlaw biker gangs and drug dealers.  Classes at Cleveland State.  The decision between sobriety, fatherhood and suicidal ideation.  The real decision.

The book is an autobiography about that survival and evolution of a man.  A memoir in tight readable perfectly prepared prose.  And Lebron James is part foil, part antagonist, part cautionary figure, and part vehicle as an emblem of historical undeserving disrespect.  This is the book that Scott Raab, a former 12 year old attendant to the last sports championship in Cleveland, was born to write.

Raab in The Whore Of Akron is the personification of us, of a skyline made of nearly perfect but always flawed desires, of a river of unnatural abilities and heroes destined to crush instead of lift.   Of a Miracle at Richfield short circuited by the broken foot of Jim Chones and of another championship run doomed by Michael Jordan’s excellence and Danny Ferry’s defects.  Written in form uniquely accessible enough to make a snotty nosed kid from California who has never actually found himself in a gutter contemplate a poetic vomit encrusted Bukowski-like hangover headache.

The Whore of Akron is Mellville, and we are Ahab, beaten but still standing, full of sometimes maddening sometimes irrational desires remaining unsatisfied since 1964.   This is our Moby Dick, this is our ride on Dan Gilbert’s Pequod (Raab interviews Gilbert from pre 09-10 season “He’s young but he’s from here, and he knows that’s a part of what makes him so special”).    Despite the well accounted for details of the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons, The Whore of Akron is truly about actual basketball maybe only slightly more than Fear and Loathing was about off-road motorcycle races or Get In The Van was about punk rock.  The brilliance of Lebron James on the court is repeatedly conceeded.  But the humanity…

This book shows us the worst of your humanity, Whore of Akron.  You in the light – someone who was never emotionally invested in the most important things.  The Anti-Larry Bird, the fraud, the quitter, the failure of a man too weak to recognize or admit his own Game 5.  10 minutes away from Lenny Wilkens Cavaliers, cheering for Jordan, waving the Yankee cap at desperate Jacobs Field Clevelanders who had not seen a championship since 1948, on the Dallas Cowboys sidelines against the Cleveland Browns.  You are not one of us.  You will never be one of us.  You have always existed with those vacant eyes and heart we only finally saw clearly when you were staring into space at the end of Game 6, a vacuous fear that the world then saw on ESPN in The Decision, and again in Miami in the NBA Finals with a dish to Mario Chalmers despite your clear lane to the basket.

It’s not Bukowski you read in this book, this isn’t Waits crooning about exchanging Christmas cards the whore with the heart of gold.  It’s the hardcore honest truth of Phillip Roth.  It’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Raab following Raab’s own rules for writing, in his own honest voice and style he was emboldened by Roth to create, explore and invent.  And you, the outsider, the soulless one, are the conscious manifestation of that raw liver who knew the whole time what was happening, that sucked us into believing that it was something more.  This whore has no heart of gold.  Just a mysterious phantom elbow injury.

No matter how reluctant, every reader will want, at some point, to identify with the polarizing Raab in this book.  We’re flawed, and unlike the Chosen One, we not only see our flaws, we see them magnified and examined.  We’re wearing Crocs into a “black” barbershop in Cleveland, we’re asking for a seat belt extender on the plane, we scrutinize how we look, what we’ve consumed and been addicted to, what we think, who we are, and what it means.

The Whore Of Akron literally engages in a self-examination, at one point reaching a digression where an imaginary (perhaps a hallucinated manifestation of peach cobbler desire) vision of Lebron James appears to the protagonist, questioning his motivation for the content of the book:

“How dare you judge me?”

You spit on Millions of people.

“I don’t answer to them.  I do what’s right for Lebron.”

Is that what you’d tell a West Akron kid who cried when you left the Cavs?

“I spit on nobody.  I played my ass off for seven years.  Those kids never once heard of me with drugs or guns or any of that stuff.  No once.  Those were the best years that team ever had, and you judge me for leaving like it’s the worse crime ever committed.”

I can’t think of a parallel betrayal in the history of American sports.

“What’s the worst thing you ever did?”

Raab has an answer.  He owns his very real regrets, his failings and his limitations, his own moments of cowardice.  But what echoes in Raab’s eternity is the love of and for a wife and a son that extended those limitations.  You read this book, you feel the strain of separation of trips to Miami and Cleveland that it took to write it.  There’s a redemption story, a transformational story, a moral play.  And a promise kept with utmost sincerity and true loyalty.

It is upon this mantle, inside a plastic zip lock bag and by his side though his entire trip, the ticket perfectly preserved.  Gate D, Section 7, Row Z, Seat 9.  December 27, 1964 and civic, local patriotic pride.  Raab’s version of Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave speech”; the high water mark, when Cleveland hearts swelled, where the wave broke and never came back:

“I was twelve years old.  Old enough to stand fast; amid men warmed by whiskey and their fiery love for the Browns, and drink in the sight of 80,000 of our number rising as the clock ticked toward infinity, fixing that victory forever as a fact of history, past insult or dispute.  That flag still flies in my soul.  The roar still echoes in my ears.  The vision – of Cleveland triumphant, of Cleveland fans in communal thrall to a joy beyond all words, of a Cleveland team lifting the town’s immortal heart to heaven – still fills my eyes.”

I’m watching More Than a Game while I write this and it all seems like such a transparent fraud in comparison with the purity of that day in Cleveland Municipal Stadium in December 1964.   I think to myself about the juxtaposition of the evolution of Raab’s voice from shoe salesman into the writer that he became versus Lebron James’s Nike career.  James marketing of his childhood in this movie, through to the Post-Decision “What Should I Do?” shoe commercial where James used Nike to verbally retaliate against his detractors.  It was and is all so much branding, marketing, dishonesty and shoes.

This book makes Windhorst’s Lebron books and Bissinger’s Lebron book dogshit by comparison.  The Whore Of Akron isn’t selling shoes,  it isn’t a piece of “branding”, it isn’t working on an assignment from the Plain Dealer, and it isn’t going to be recanted as its author as bullshit.  Lebron James was not what we wanted him to be, not what he was branded to be, not what a city needed him to be. The Whore Of Akron, in all its literary prowess and honesty, with all the attention it will draw in perpetuity is exactly the biography the solipsistic Lebron James deserves – one which isn’t about him.  

Ultimately there is no closure on history.  If you were watching it when it happened, nothing will make you forget Red Right 88.  Nothing will make you forget The Shot and nothing will make you forget The Decision.   And even those most deafening galvanizing cheers of “AKRON HATES YOU” – cheers so loud you felt your chest burning  –  will never substitute for what Raab reports from 1964.

As of today, the NBA labor lockout has begun to wipe out the 2011-2012 NBA season.   Games scheduled for tonight did not take place.   This book marks that time, when basketball stopped, and when the lingering feelings of Lebron James’s failure and an honest reexamination of him took place, through this impassioned memoir of a heart so closely connected to the town James left behind.

No call to forgive or forget will ever compel you to give up your love, your hope or pride, but it is no sacrifice to surrender to a perspective that allows you to hold on to your passions and grow, to push those passions into their time and place.  This is The Whore Of Akron and it puts an irreversible indelible stamp exactly where it was needed and where it will not be forgotten.

 

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