When LeBron James stood up the Cavs live on ESPN last season, Esquire writer Scott Raab took his 50-plus years of sad-sack Cleveland sports fandom and became a one-man hate machine. For those of you annoyed by Raab's anti-King James Twitter rantings last year, you'll be happy to know his new book is nothing like that. Oh, it's angry all right, but it's also touching, sad, and revelatory. We'll have more from Scott this week but for now, start with this chapter excerpted from The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search For the Soul of LeBron James. It's on sale today, so go buy it.
Hating is a full-time job. Home from Miami, I sit in the rocker with two TV trays in front of me, one for my laptop, the other for my dinner. When Cavs and Heat games conflict, I watch Miami on the television, with my laptop tuned into the Cleveland game on NBA.com's LeaguePass. The boy and I used to watch The Simpsons and The Office from 7-8 before he'd start his homework; now I'm watching a game or the pre-game show on NBA TV. Google Alerts for James and the Heat arrive hourly, around the clock. I'm phoning sources in Cleveland, in Akron, in Miami, Los Angeles, New York City—I am building a one-man bureau: the Hate Index.
Twitter is now my drug of choice, a wormhole to a digital zoo where two hundred million animals fling feces at the wall and each other in 140-character chunks. Here I find players, among them @KingJames, and fans and journalists and even a few NBA team owners, like @CavsDan, wandering in and out of a fractured gabfest that never ends.
On Nov. 2, the Heat clock the Timberwolves, the Cavs lose to the Hawks, the Republicans kick the crap out of the Democrats, and I'm hard at work on Twitter lambasting the #WhoreOfAkron, taunting an Orlando Sentinel writer—a very nice man—for making fun of New Jersey, and dreaming out loud of a threesome with the Pope and Peggy Noonan, too Twitter-drunk, despite LeBatard's warning, to even know I'm drunk.
* * *
I get on the bike every day. I pull on my sweatpants by leaning against the bedroom wall, dangling them low because I'm too fat to lift a leg more than a few inches. To get my socks and shoes on, I have to use my arms to pull my foot up and rest it on my knee, and then I have to get the shoe on quick or the force of my belly pressing on my thigh will push my foot right off.
I stay on the bike five minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20 minutes. I bought the bike in Iowa City, in the 1980s, as part of that decade's weight crusade. Now it's here in New Jersey, up on the third floor, in my office.
No more sandwiches. No more swiping the kid's pizza crust. No more this, no more that. I go to physical therapy three times a week. The back is feeling better. I've stopped taking the Vicodin, although I've saved a few. Insurance. For the road. Just in case.
When Lisa rubs and wraps my legs, I look down and see what has become of me—what I've done to myself. I'm not sure that I would rub and wrap her legs under these circumstances. I am sure that this is what love is—not a feeling, not an orgasm, not an anniversary gift: Love is doing what has to be done to keep body and soul together when your beloved is falling apart.
Home from school, my son hugs me, steps back, and formally proclaims, with a sardonic edge all too familiar, that he can now touch his fingertips together when encircling my girth.
"Thanks, Oedipus," I say. "Don't pluck out your eyes on my account."
This boy. This miracle. To become a father at the age of 47 is to know how close I came to missing out altogether, to never knowing how much I could love and how much I could be loved.
How much more redemption and grace could a sane man possibly seek than this?
* * *
I can't sleep. It's Monday, an off-night for the Cavs and for the Heat, and it's past midnight and I'm up on the third floor but all I can hear is the whispering inside the refrigerator down in the kitchen. The boy's turkey bologna is in there, conniving with the sliced American cheese. The mayo's in there, too. Lisa just went shopping yesterday, so there's plenty. The kid won't miss it. Nobody has to know. The bread isn't going to talk: I'll take a couple of slices from the middle of the loaf.
It's not a good plan. It's not even a plan; it's a craving. Give it up. There's fresh fruit down there. Yogurt. Granola. Salad fixings. All the things Lisa eats. You can't fall asleep on an empty stomach? Okay: Put some healthy food in there.
Feh. I want the sandwich. I want two or three of them. It is the alcoholic's credo: One is too many and one thousand is never enough.
I come up with a compromise: I'll take a Valium. It's past 2 a.m.; I'm not taking it to get high. I just want to get to sleep.
This is an excellent plan. The only problem with this plan is that I don't feel like taking the Valium and going straight to bed. I'll wait until the Valium kicks in, which shouldn't be long on an empty stomach.
It's an amusing thought, an empty stomach. Somewhere inside this massive sagging gut is the much smaller pouch of my actual stomach. Where's the Valium? Ah, it's still in the front pocket of my briefcase, in a little brown prescription bottle with the Vicodin.
Huh. Could be that this isn't such a good plan after all. Because with the little brown bottle in my hand, I no longer want just the Valium any more than I wanted just one sandwich. Let me rethink the plan.
* * *
It takes no more time to rethink the plan than it does to pour a glass of water in the kitchen and bolt the Valium and the Vicodin. The chatter inside the refrigerator has stopped. The dog looks at me. Smartest dog I've ever known. Fucker's smiling.
Who's the big puppy?
That get his tail going, all right. Besides, who the fuck is he going to tell. Smart as he is, he's still a dog.
"And you're still an addict," he says.
Actually, I say it for him.
I sit in the rocker, open the laptop, and sign on to Twitter. First thing I see is a tweet from @KingJames:
"I love my chef B so much(pause)! He made the meanest/best peach cobbler I've ever had in life. Wow!!"
James attaches a photo of the cobbler, which looks fabulous: two huge rough-cut hunks, gold-crusted and gleaming, with a couple of slabs of vanilla ice cream on top.
It's 2:30 a.m., and he has a game tomorrow night—tonight—against the Utah Jazz, and he's scarfing cobbler and tweeting about it like he's 10 years old.
Can I hate the sinner and love the sin? I do.
"Note to self: Cobbler hard to hate," I tweet.
A minute later, "ESPN ramps up Cobbler Index," followed immediately by a third tweet—"Broussard sez @KingJames having pineapple upside-down cake tom'w. Bucher doing recipe book. Wilbon to query chef. J Gray wiping Bron's ass."
By this time, the dog is laughing. By this time, I can taste the fucking cobbler. Oh, I could really use that sandwich. If only I could figure out how to get out of the chair. This slow rush of narcotic joy is a dear old friend who needs no invite to make himself at home. Mi casa es, motherfucker.
Reminds me: I'm overdue for my next colonoscopy, for those too-few seconds between the anesthesiologist unloosing the fentanyl and Versed cocktail and unconsciousness. Next time, I'll have peach cobbler after I wake up. Maybe they can find a way to get some cobbler into the IV tube?
The room spins and goes dark, but only for a second. When I lift my head off my chest, I see James's tweet, each letter of it throbbing.
What the hell does "(pause)" mean?
"You tell me," the dog says, tilting his head toward the recliner on the other side of the fireplace where my father sits reading the paper. He's in his 30s, back when he was my father, with a white t-shirt tight over his biceps and a short cigar stinking cheap.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, he sat on the front patio of our house behind a newspaper while I caught with my face the flying fists of Dickie Schwartz, the bully of the block. Sat there holding the paper in front of his face while I tried to keep my feet at the bottom of the driveway.
"I was trying to teach you an important lesson: In this world, you have to fight your own battles."
You taught me something more important than that: Expect to be abandoned by those you love when you need them most—just like Willie taught you.
Sandy raises the paper back in front of his face. The old Cleveland Press. The dog is gone. LeBron is sitting on the couch and he has a dish of cobbler for me.
"Is that what you're going to teach your boy?" LeBron asks. "You're killing yourself with a fork and spoon."
Jesus, this cobbler's beastly good.
He's dressed like Urkel. I saw you in this outfit—a cardigan over a plaid shirt, big black-framed glasses—at Madison Square Garden a year ago almost to the day.
"I scored 33."
So young. Young enough to be my son.
"I was a father when I was 18," he says.
When I was your age, I took my talents to Austin, Texas. Tended bar and drank around the clock. Smoked weed coated with angel dust and dropped bad acid. Managed a 24-unit apartment complex with the girl I left Cleveland with—a sweet young Catholic poet from Garfield Heights.
"Why would you write about my cock? What's wrong with you?"
I don't know, kid. I thought you were staying in Cleveland when I saw your dick. You fucked up—you quit. You lied. You left.
"What does any of that have to do with my cock?"
Nothing. Not a thing. It just seemed funny, my almost falling over the towel thing in the locker room, looking over, boom.
"You should've stayed in Texas, man. Maybe you'd have grown up."
I had to leave. I rented an apartment to a woman whose boyfriend was an outlaw biker. She worked at a massage parlor. Austin was full of massage parlors full of young women turning tricks. Rotten Rod—her boyfriend—was essentially a pimp.
That was his outlaw sobriquet. I just called him Rod. We smoked the PCP. We played chess. As you might guess, his game was a tad aggressive. But he was good. His own father—a biker, too—had taught him to play at an early age. He talked about his dad a lot. But it wasn't real friendship—he had no one else to talk to except Crazy John, and even before John got run over and killed on East Lamar, he was generally too fucked up to keep a conversation going. Not long after John passed, Rod suggested that I put my girl to work at the massage parlor, and I found myself at a loss. Could I say that I wasn't the kind of skunk who'd do that? He was trying to be helpful; he knew we didn't have much money. And I think he was looking for a partner.
"What'd you tell him?"
I told him she would never do it.
"What'd he say?"
He said, "If she loved you, she would." He said, "She wouldn't have to touch no Meskins or niggers." Something like that.
"What'd you say?"
I can't recall.
"You can't recall."
Man, this cobbler's tasty.
"You were scared."
Oh, you have no idea. I was selling weed by the pound, to outlaw bikers. Not a good plan. They always paid, until they didn't. "My girl got crabs and had a lousy week"; "I had to spring for another rebuilt carburetor"; "I've got a road trip coming up." I couldn't collect. I had no leverage, no muscle. I knew it. They knew it. I couldn't pay my guy. I had to leave town quick. Not like you. Nobody gave a damn where I was except for the folks I owed money.
"That girl from Garfield Heights?"
Gone. I can't even recall why. I remember her little sister died in a car accident back in Cleveland. Maybe she left then. Maybe things fell apart before that. I was too fucked up to notice.
"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. Not once. Those were the best years that team ever had, and you judge me for leaving like it's the worst crime ever commited."
I can't think of a parallel betrayal in the history of American sports.
"What's the worst thing you ever did?"
Summer of 1994. I got the woman I love pregnant. She was afraid to have the kid. I wanted the kid—I was 42 years old, I'd destroyed everything in my life, including my marriage. I still wanted that kid. All she wanted in return was the promise that I'd sober up. Just the promise.
I couldn't do it.
She had the abortion. I drove her to the hospital myself. Drove her there, drove her home, went back to my place, got fucked up, got out my shotgun and put it in my mouth.
I couldn't do that, either.
It's the cobbler, LeBron. It's the meanest/best cobbler I've ever had.
Excerpted from The Whore Of Akron: One Man's Search For The Soul Of LeBron James with permission by HarperCollins. Buy it on Amazon.