In late April, right before the NBA playoffs began, I interviewed Esquire’s Scott Raab about The Whore of Akron, his passionate, eloquent, achingly human memoir on being a Cleveland sports fan and his evolving hatred for basketball superstar LeBron James, who publicly rejected Raab’s beloved Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010.
Since the Heat were in the playoffs, and The Whore of Akron had just been released in paperback, the timing of this interview seemed perfect. Then life got in the way. My wife and I moved, necessitating an endless amount of catch-up. I parted ways with the original destination for this piece. On and on.
As barriers arose, the Heat made their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs. In late June, they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the NBA championship. Kings James finally had his crown plus the Finals MVP award. Little else has changed in the Midwest. Cleveland still hasn’t fielded a championship team since 1964. LeBron is still, to use Raab’s language, a “megalomaniacal shitheel.” The vitriol endures the 24/7 news cycle.
Also, The Whore of Akron embodies the paradox of sports that Chuck Klosterman perfectly described in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: The best part about loving sports is hating them. If you follow the Mets, despising the Yankees is a requirement. Rooting for the Patriots means forever cursing Mario Manningham’s nimble feet and David Tyree’s Velcro grip. And, if you love the Cavaliers, you want LeBron James — an otherworldly talent who has added to the continuing Greek tragedy that is Cleveland’s sports scene — to suffer. Forever.
“You ask what are my feelings toward LeBron winning his first title? Dismay. Disgust. I do want to give him proper credit for stepping up and getting it done,” Raab said after the deciding game. “I think any sports fan looks at an athlete doing what he did, especially in the Finals, and I give him full credit for that — though it pains me to do so. But the feelings are not unlike seeing the Baltimore Ravens winning a Super Bowl not so many seasons after they were stolen from Cleveland. It makes me want to puke. As far his legacy, I’m not the right guy to ask. His legacy, as far as I’m concerned, will always be as a backstabbing shitheel who made the wrong decision. I fully believe the Cavaliers would have won at least one title with him, and that would have created the sort of legacy he’ll never earn no matter how many titles he wins.”
In this interview, conducted April 25th over the phone and condensed for clarity and space, Raab talks about book writing (and promotion), LeBron James (naturally), the limits of traditional sports reporting, and why Cleveland sports fans should not make losing part of their identity.
The interview picks up after Raab and I exchange pleasantries.
Scott Raab: I don’t even think [HarperCollins] bothered to tweet that there’s a paperback out, and the playoffs start Monday.
Pete Croatto: That seems like a gross oversight on their part.
SR: Well I was forewarned — and it had nothing to do with HarperCollins in particular — by people who have published multiple books, some of whom have done real well with certain books, that the way publishing works traditionally is they put out a lot of books, and if lightning should strike a book then they’ll put money into the book. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why HarperCollins, when they published a hardback and it was reviewed by everyone from The Christian Science Monitor and Parade magazine to Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal, [how] I never managed to get on a single TV show, for example. It’s a basketball star and it’s an odd book, I get that part, but it’s also the most polarizing athlete, certainly one of the most polarizing humans, in the country.
PC: Is part of that because the book is so emotionally raw that maybe HarperCollins doesn’t want to go all in on it?
SR: I don’t know the answer and I don’t know if I’ll be able to find out the answer because one of the things that came up first was title suggestions. I had been using “The Whore of Akron” as a hashtag for a long time. Naturally, I assumed that a big publisher [would] rely on places like Costco and Wal-Mart to sell a lot of books [so] I didn’t even suggest The Whore of Akron as a title. My editors, to their eternal credit, by the way — I love the title, I’m proud of the title, I wouldn’t change it for the world — but their editors convinced the sales people to go with the title The Whore of Akron knowing that Costco and Wal-Mart were not going to have stacks of a book with that word in big block caps on the cover piled up in the aisles so they could get angry letters from shoppers going, “I was there with my eight year old.”
I thought by being committed to the title it meant that they would also be committed to putting out more money and a little more effort on behalf of getting publicity and that kind of thing, but it didn’t happen that way…That also leaves open the question that you asked, as I understand it, which is that the content itself is peculiar and angry and is kind of vulgar and weird and all that stuff. Whether it ever got to that level where the content affected people’s willingness, I don’t know. I’m not sure how many people were aware the book even exists, which is what I’m saying, let alone put off by the content.
PC: I feel that saying it’s a great book — which it is — and that you got it published, is cold comfort.
SR: I’m fine with it…It got a lot of nice reviews, a lot of people really liked the book, a lot of people reached out to me — not just Clevelanders — because in some ways it’s a barely disguised 12-step memoir or something like that. I don’t know how many copies it sold. If it had tanked completely, there’s no way HarperCollins would have even bothered to publish a paperback.
PC: In some way is just having the book out, and even writing that book, as a Cleveland fan, as a man who’s had his fair share of obstacles, a form of catharsis? Is that the best thing?
SR: On some level I think that’s true and yet I still watch the Miami Heat obsessively. I still root for LeBron James to fail with the same kind of passion. I still focus on Cleveland teams the same way. My weight — I’m way down from where I peaked in the book — but I’m still a 300-pound guy. There is nothing about the catharsis that was waving a magic wand and changing my life. I have a wonderful life. I slept over at Bill Murray’s house last weekend as part of my Esquire job. I have one of the only great jobs in print journalism left. So, I don’t want to start making it sound like, “Yeah, I wrote the book and it was cathartic and I’m still the same…” I think the book is kind of funny. I don’t know that the book is full of self-pity. I certainly hope not.
PC: No, it’s not. But when you’re watching Game 6 of the Finals and you’re seeing Dirk Nowitzki making his move and you’re coming to terms with LeBron’s immaturity, there’s a sense of letting go, of there being relief.
SR: Yes, yes and I thought there would be more of that. I thought I would feel more of that. I thought when this season rolled around that either I’d be much more indifferent to or much less passionate about LeBron and about LeBron’s team and all that. I knew I was going to run into difficulty getting ESPN to pay any attention, because despite the fact that I do have connections there with people who I respect and of whom I’m very fond, I’m very hard on ESPN in the book.
PC: Yes, you are.
SR: They essentially boycotted the book. Where Sports Illustrated reviewed it and has mentioned it three or four times, ESPN has basically ignored the book completely and has engendered a great deal of bitterness on my part. The fact that they have the Heat Index, where they have 18 writers or 37 writers covering every aspect of LeBron’s existence, but a book like this comes out and never gets a mention on ESPN or ESPN: The Magazine. So that helped fuel my animus. My rage was kept fresh by the Worldwide Leader.
PC: At one point Will Leitch, the founding editor of Deadspin, was banned by ESPN and he considered that a badge of honor.
SR: I’m going to be 60 this summer. I’ve got a 12-year-old son. I can’t complain that I’m not able to make my mortgage. There’s none of that, but I was hoping, given the fact that I think it’s a good book and LeBron is really that polarizing a figure, that the book was going to do great commercially. I’m not sure Will necessarily has the same set of factors at play. But you know what? It’s one those cases, as much as I hate the phrase it is, what it is — it is, what it is.
PC: You’re still watching the Heat? I find that amazing.
SR: Yes. I have League Pass and I probably watch more Heat games than Cavalier games, especially once Kyrie Irving got hurt.
PC: Do you watch the whole Heat game? Do you go back and forth? I’m fascinated by this.
SR: [Laughs] I don’t watch it the way I watched it last year, where it really was the whole game. I check in to see how they’re looking. There are times against weaker teams, or a team that shoots poorly, where the Heat can get out into transition and I can’t take a whole game of that because they’re just too overpowering an offense when they can operate in the open court.
PC: Do you know if James has read the book, if he’s aware of the book?
SR: I’m certain he’s aware. I dropped a copy off at his house. I dropped a copy off at his business office in Cleveland. I autographed both copies: one for LeBron and one for Maverick Carter [James’s friend and manager]. I put a bounty on the Miami beat writers, offered $100 bucks to anyone who would ask him about the book — of course, no one would. But I’m quite sure he’s aware of the book.
PC: Walking into the lion’s den like that, how did you feel?
SR: I’m good with that. If I could get a conversation with LeBron it wouldn’t start with me calling him a whore…It’s not a persona that I hate LeBron, if you want to use the word “hate,” that’s the truth. I’m a professional at this point. I’ve been writing for national magazines for 25 years. My mother would worry. My mother genuinely would say, “Have you heard from LeBron’s people.” I don’t know what she means by “his people” but, no, I haven’t heard from anyone. She worries, “They’re going to hurt you.” No, but that that would be good for the book if it did [happen]. I don’t think you or anyone else in this kind of conversation would feel a tremendous amount of trepidation or anything. This is kind of fun. I had a great time doing the book, and when we went to Bath, Ohio, to drop the book off at his house, the only thing I was nervous about was what if we actually rang the bell and were the least bit of intrusive that we would wind up being charged with something by an officer of the law. I didn’t want to get in that kind of situation.
PC: Writing this book, getting as personal as you did, was it a nerve-wracking experience?
SR: I didn’t know where the book was going to go. For a long time I thought I would be collecting a lot of interviews with a lot of Cleveland fans and including a lot of that in the book. There are still one or two examples of that. What happened in the writing of it, once the Finals ended and I had a deadline to meet, I also had a lot of people — because the Heat had lost and I had been tweeting and blogging occasionally for Esquire — not just calling me names but going, “How could you be this full of hate for a young athlete? How could you wish injury?” Or, “Get a life.” Or, “Kill yourself, you miserable fat fuck.” Not that I take any of that too much to heart, but the question really began to intrigue me about what made me this kind of fan. What made me so attached? Because I wasn’t sure of the answer; it was just always part of my life to be this champion of Cleveland or die-hard Cleveland fan. I write a lot of first-person stuff anyway, even when people complain about those Q&As — and people do complain — they go, “If I wanted to read about you, Scott Raab, I’d buy Scott Raab Magazine. I’m more interested in what so-and-so has to say.”
PC: Yeah, but I disagree with that, and that’s why I like your interviews. So many in magazines and television are so canned. A robot might as well be asking the questions. There’s nothing wrong with someone putting themselves on the page.
SR: Obviously, I agree and God bless you. If I had to do those kinds of interviews, Esquire wouldn’t even bother to run them…I know that when I’m going on a Q&A, I still get really nervous. I still prepare for it. I interviewed Sarah Silverman on Monday. I love her and I really love her stuff. I read 105 pages from a clip file and I read her book [The Bedwetter] — we had the same editor at HarperCollins. I saw the movie, Take This Waltz. In other words, I did a lot of homework. I was very nervous. There’s a shower scene, nothing lascivious but just women taking a shower together and she’s one of the women. [I started by saying] “I saw the movie, so I brought a picture of myself naked so we would be even.” Now, that was just an icebreaker, but it’s definitely going to be part of the Q&A. I think that kind of stuff is fun, and if I think it’s fun…The same with the book, by the way. I had to talk with my wife at length about some of the stuff just to make sure that she was okay with it. I felt however grandiose this sounds, if that was the direction I was going to go in, there wasn’t going to be much I was going to withhold about my life.
PC: Was she comfortable with that?
SR: I don’t think she was comfortable with it. I don’t think she is comfortable with it. We go to parties or to dinners in our neighborhood, which is a small suburb in New Jersey, and I think both Lisa and I are real self-conscious about it. But she wasn’t uncomfortable enough with it to go, “I don’t want you to do that.”
PC: She’s a journalist, correct?
SR: She’s a journalist and she also understands that the book turned out to be really important to me personally. And maybe that speaks to the catharsis question. She saw not that I did a lot of traveling and was away from home far more than I wanted to be, but that I had to step back into being a fan, that I had kind of cut myself off just to save myself the wear and tear. I became a Cleveland fan who would Google and get clips of like the Browns final home game on YouTube and I would sit there crying. She understood that this was something that wasn’t a commercial exercise for me, but it was as much a part of me as anything in my life — with the possible exception of her and my son.
PC: Are you ever going to stop being the passionate fan that you are? Do you see yourself mellowing with age?
SR: It’s hard to imagine just because it has not happened. I think if I had stayed in Cleveland I don’t know what would have become of me professionally because a writer really can’t make a living in Cleveland. I don’t know what would have happened to me as a fan, because the suffering that they’ve gone through has been so embittering. Because I haven’t gone through it as a Clevelander living in Cleveland, I don’t want to exaggerate my own suffering. I know the Browns are drafting Thursday night. I just haven’t seen any way in which I’ve mellowed, including there are a couple of memorial plaques at one of the Little League fields where my son plays. And I made a joke about how it’s odd that people chose to be buried there. Not that there are actually people buried, just the memorial plaques look like headstones. And what I was thinking was, “That’s how my mind worked.” I’d want to be laid to rest somewhere my son could visit my remains, but I would also like to be interred somewhere near one of the ballparks in Cleveland.
SR: Well, yeah, because I don’t know what else would define me more precisely than my love for those teams. It’s just the truth.
PC: How do you deal with the overall ineptitude of the Cleveland teams? It’s almost an epic suffering.
SR: On one level, I just intellectualize it…There’s a play called Our Greatest Year, written by a couple of younger guys [Robert Attenweiler and Scott Henkle], about 2007, a year when the Indians were up three games to one on the Red Sox [in the American League Championship Series] and the Cavs were in the Finals against the Spurs and the Browns were in the playoff hunt until the final game of the season. For these guys, that was our greatest year. And it’s a very funny, very well-crafted Cleveland play. There’s a point raised by one of the characters in the play about how attached the main character is to losing, and how you come to define fandom in that way as a Clevelander, and that maybe if one of those teams ever did win a championship it would be sad and it would take something away from our sense of ourselves that’s unique because we suffer uniquely, this unique fan base.
I think that’s bullshit, but I can go there. I can have that discussion. One of the reasons that I feel comfortable going there and having the discussion is because the other really is painful. When I see on YouTube the Miracle of Richfield, which was simply the Cavs beating the Bullets in a seventh game of a playoff series in 1975-76. When I see those fans pouring out of the stands and tearing down a basket at an NBA game, and I think how many of those fans are dead now, and how many of them like me are thinking about when is Medicare going to kick in. I start crying. I don’t start crying in the metaphorical sense or the intellectual sense: I start crying.
The same with the Browns final home game, where a bunch of the players after time runs out, they run down [voice starts to crack] to the bleachers. [silence] Sorry, Pete, I have to gather myself here. [silence] I really think the takeaway here is that I haven’t mellowed. [silence] I don’t know what else to say on the subject, except I much rather have the intellectual conversation than live full-time in the emotion of it. [silence] If one of those teams were to actually win a championship [voice breaks] I think it would be an unmitigated joy. [silence] I can’t imagine any Cleveland fan going, “You know, I really liked it better when we could uniquely identify ourselves by our suffering.” I can’t. That thought is, if not really even perverse, it’s just ridiculous.
PC: I don’t think anyone wants to be branded as a perpetual loser.
SR: I think one of the things that people don’t understand — and I don’t think I did a particular solid job in the book, because it would have killed the narrative — but you cannot separate the team’s collective failures — individually or as one global failure. It just can’t be separated from what’s happened to the city.