LeBron James, Hip-Hop, And Haters: 'The Whore Of Akron' As A Mirror

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat walks into the interview room to answer questions after the Heat were defeated 105-95 by the Dallas Mavericks in Game Six of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

A review of Scott Raab's "The Whore of Akron", a hater's book about hating LeBron James, and a look at what it tells us about the current generation of superstars.

The parallels between basketball and hip-hop are so well-worn by now that outlining the parallels seems beside the point. But sometimes you can't help. A few weeks ago, I was reading a new album review from a writer named Andrew Noz in the Washington City Paper, and something struck a chord.

After outlining plenty of legitimate criticism, this note comes toward the end:

Hip-hop is afflicted by straw-man arguments: The myth of the anonymous hater has made rappers like Wale feel impervious to critique. Each "broke hater" that comes out of the woodwork to say something negative puts more distance between him and any perceived culpability for his past failures.

Boom. Of all the completely fair-and-unfair criticisms he's faced over the course of his entire career, that paragraph explains LeBron James' biggest problem in a nutshell.

Likewise, nobody on earth has embraced the title of "hater" quite like Scott Raab, only instead of anonymity, he's become the most infamous and inflammatory LeBron James critic in America.

And it was all leading to Raab's new book, The Whore of Akron, which has been billed as an angry sportswriter's bible for LeBron haters, and in the abstract that feels accuarate. Here's the loudest critic of anyone cataloging his journey to disillusionment in the most sensational way possible--with a book reducing an NBA superhero a soulless whore. This makes Raab's "bible" as easy to dismiss as a L. Ron Hubbard novel. But in Raab's case, dismissing him is much harder if you take the time to actually read what he's written.

What he's given the world is less a bible for hate-as-religion than the sincere, thoughtful diary of one disciple. This may make him a God in his hometown of Cleveland (or not), but for me, the lesson has less to do with LeBron James or Scott Raab than icons and haters, in general. 

Just because parallels between basketball and hip-hop have been explored to no end since the '90s doesn't mean those parallels haven't changed over time. What used be a story about Allen Iverson and "Fight The Power" has become a story about Jay-Z and "Be The Power." Inherent to that shift is the understanding that there will always be haters along the way, jealous of that power and how someone like Jay-Z or his friend LeBron James chooses to wield it.

In other words, there's the idea that the same folks who were bitter that Allen Iverson would dare be himself are now bitter that LeBron James would dare do whatever he wants. That's not quite right, though. As the hip-hop generation's gone mainstream, icons like LeBron are more than just two-dimensional operators straining the system as we know it. He is the system now.

In 2010, a woman from Scott Raab's magazine (Esquire) profiled LeBron and included this:

"At an All-Star Weekend banquet that Jay-Z hosted with LeBron, one attendee recalls, "Jay-Z talked of a tomorrow when these two monuments to music and basketball will transform the rules of engagement for the iconic performer. He talked of making history."

Then a few paragraphs later, LeBron tells his profile writer about his WOW-moment. "When I realized I could walk into a room with people who know the business like they know they own kids and my opinion mattered to them. Wow. It's wow to have my opinion mean something, with how old I am -- I mean, sorry, how young I am!" As he continues, "I mean, me and Mav, we just came from ABC, Fox, where else? Oh yeah, Calvin Klein's house."

"I think my colleagues are afraid," he adds. "A lot of guys are afraid to do anything more than just play basketball." By his own admission, LeBron wants to reshape what it means to be a superstar. He looks down on those too afraid to share his vision for the future.

It's not just one man, then. This isn't Allen Iverson revolutionizing things by accident of personality; this is LeBron James, the man who uses power point to promote his birthday party.

If he's faced backlash, it's incomplete to say it's all a bunch petty personal attacks. No, the backlash is all a bunch of personal attacks against a guy who's stated plainly that he wants to personify a whole new attitude toward superstardom.

The "broke hater" will always be shortchanged, especially when the are more haters than ever and each one has a blog or Twitter account or worst of all, a sports radio show. Eventually all the voices coalesce into a cacophony of frustration and misdirected rage. But dismissing them all is just too easy.

For instance: As a group, the people of Occupy Wall Street may look like a bunch of thoughtless hypocrites raging against a faceless enemy on Twitter and in the streets of cities across the country. But personalities aside, the protests of a million imperfect individuals still raise some valid points about inequality in this country.

Scott Raab is one such individual, only his faceless enemy is LeBron James, not Wall Street, and there are those who would dismiss him as the loudest, most emotional critic of a movement characterized by misdirected rage the likes of which professional sports has never seen. Those who read The Whore Of Akron might see things differently.

Raab comes by his own shortcomings honestly, and next to the shrill and mostly superficial LeBron backlash that emerged in sports fans across the country, Raab takes things in a different direction. He shares deep, personal anecdotes about his own past and the accompanying pain, and uses his life as a mirror to expose LeBron's own shortcomings.

For instance, both Raab and LeBron came of age without a father, and with imperfect mothers as their only guide through life. And as Raab spends the entire book sporadically reflecting on the pain this loss caused him, he ultimately concludes that it's made him a great father, himself. Meanwhile, LeBron left his two sons to live with their mother when he left for Miami.

As Raab writes:

Fifty years later, I remember my father's smell, but I had just turned ten when my mother left Los Angeles for Cleveland with my brothers and me, and after that there were no moments.

I could lie beside my son all night, just listening to him breathe. I head up to the office, thinking about LeBron. If I grew up feeling fatherless, hurt, and angry, how much worse must it have been for him. He had no one to miss. No smell. Nothing.

Now he's living in Miami, and his six-year-old and three-year-old sons are in Ohio and go weeks at a time without seeing him. I wonder what he thinks echoes in eternity. Triple-doubles?

It's the sort of vicious, intensely personal critique that takes your breath away. We've left the realm of sportswriting now, entered into some unknown space where it's okay to call a famous athlete a bad father. It's a little dangerous, possibly unfair, definitely ugly; but it's honest.

There's depth to what Raab does in The Whore of Akron. In peeling back the surface layer on himself and his subject, he gives us an unsparing juxtaposition. He may indulge himself long enough to make conclusions, but he never pretends to be anything but extremely biased. This isn't supposed to be a LeBron biography; it's more a case of watching one man trying to understand the source of his toxic resentment.

He does it with good humor and great writing that makes for an engaging read. But beneath his self-deprecating jokes and flowery language, there's emotional honesty that pulsates throughout. And honestly, Scott Raab thinks LeBron is kinda full of shit.

"You have to do what's best for you, for your family," LeBron said on ESPN when he announced he'd leave Cleveland. But what about his actual family? You know, the ones who stayed in Ohio?

It's an uncomfortable question, but it's fair.

Just because it's a vindictive Cleveland fan who asks doesn't mean we should ignore it.

If this all seems like an elaborate justification for what's basically an immature impulse--hating the star athlete who left your favorite team--then that's fair, too. There are passages in The Whore of Akron that scream melodrama. Raab goes to great lengths to remind readers that he's been a Cleveland fan from day one. As he notes several times, he still has his ticket stub from the city's last championship--a Browns title game in 1964--like it's some boy scout's badge of honor.

Within the first 10 pages he attacks LeBron for wearing a Yankees hat to an Indians playoff game--a fair criticism, I guess, but one that looks phenomenally petty next to what follows. He talks of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the other Cavs star who left for Miami, like an innocent bystander caught in a hurricane of deceit. And he makes Cleveland sports fans sound like battered housewives. Literally.

"The proper analogy here inst the heartbroken ex," he writes, "It is the wife who has been beaten to the kitchen linoleum over the course of decades and who cowers there, condemned to a marriage of cosmic suffering." If you lapse into identifying completely with Raab's perspective, passages like that will snap you awake. This is his story, and he may not be all that that balanced to begin with. 

But at least he's willing to acknowledge the absurdity in all this. Toward the end, in an imagined conversation with LeBron, when LeBron asks him things like "How dare you judge me?", Raab ignores the question and explains how his inability to kick a drug and alcohol addiction begat an abortion. The writer's more self-aware than his book's title suggests.

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Ultimately it's an affectionate book about hate. The operative passage in the text comes here: "What another sees in you will reveal that person. What you see in another reveals your self. We are — each of us and all of us — mirrors." Raab needs LeBron. To define who he is, and more importantly, who he isn't. Over the course of 302 pages of personal attacks and personal anecdotes, the writer uses the player as a mirror to discover himself, and what he values most.

But the book itself is a mirror, too. There will be those who dismiss it without ever looking past the front cover, and those who see it and revel in the cauldron of hate waiting for them within. Both groups are missing the point, I think.

There's been no greater hater than Scott Raab, an overweight, 60-something writer with questionable health and a questionable track record of judgment. For God's sake, the guy carries around a 50-year-old ticket stub folded in his wallet. No imagined cartoon could better epitomize the character of a broke, irrelevant hater, bloated on self-importance.

But his book breathes a jarring depth and precision into its criticisms. And if there's any lesson to be taken from The Whore of Akron, it's that the psychology of so-called "haters" is a whole lot more complex than someone in the LeBron James entourage would care to admit. When the hip-hop critic wrote this at the beginning:

Hip-hop is afflicted by straw-man arguments: The myth of the anonymous hater has made rappers like Wale feel impervious to critique. Each "broke hater" that comes out of the woodwork to say something negative puts more distance between him and any perceived culpability for his past failures.

It reminded me of LeBron talking about his critics this year.

"At the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do..."

Here's an icon coming of age at a time when hip hop's takeover has already happened. He never had to fight the way Jay-Z did, but he's enjoying the throne just the same. And with that comes all these ignorant, angry haters throwing rocks. They're everywhere in 2011; they can't be cured, say the people on top, only ignored.

But Raab's book doesn't end with jealousy and anger so much as pity. Where LeBron's not so much a whore as someone who's too clumsy, or too lazy, to listen and grow. A star who's not impervious to critique, just determined to appear that way. Toward the end of that old Esquire profile, LeBron speaks in broader terms about his maturation as an icon.

"God has given me this opportunity," he says. "I can take advantage of it or I can shit it away."

If he really wanted to take advantage and grow, he might start by reading something like The Whore of Akron. But he won't, and that's okay. It's just... If we're witnessing the LeBronification of a generation of budding icons, then ignoring broke ass haters isn't just a reflection on him.

At some point it's a loss for all of us.

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