[20 October 2008]
In case you haven’t heard, LeBron James did not take the summer off. Talk of what he might do (sign with the Nets in 2010) and what he wouldn’t do (speak out on the violence in Darfur) dominated the news—amplified, in both cases, by LeBron’s wide-ranging celebrity. It’s not just that he’s a better player than Carmelo Anthony, it’s that he’s friends with Jay-Z.
I encountered another side of LeBron’s megawatt star when, a few weeks ago, my wife marooned me at a Connecticut Borders. At brick-and-mortar book stores like Borders, LeBron fills the sports shelves like few others. With the exception of Michael Jordan, and maybe John Wooden or Pistol Pete, I counted more books on LeBron than on any other basketball entity. Of course, comparing someone to Jordan is about as useful as comparing someone to Shakespeare—their legacies will never be matched, even if they’re equaled—but the number of LeBron books does confirm his brand power, as well as his outshining the Kobe Bryants and Dwyane Wades of the basketball firmament.
Obviously, one must be careful about reading too much into the world of mass-market sports books. At that same Borders, I saw ex-manager Buddy Bell’s name on a book titled Smart Baseball, which, as a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, felt as jarring to me as seeing Karl Rove’s on It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, But How You Campaign. In other words, sports books seldom reach the heights of rarefied literature or responsible reporting from which one can theorize or reflect.
But that doesn’t stop people from trying. No less a literary figure than David Foster Wallace, who moonlighted as a dazzling sports writer and all-around tennis junkie before his tragic suicide, has explicated the genre of athlete autobiography. Wallace uses Tracy Austin’s Beyond Center Court to explain “the seduction and the disappointment that seem to be built into the mass-market sports memoir.” I expect many of us can identify with Wallace’s self-loathing for “naively expect[ing] geniuses-in-motion to be geniuses-in-reflection”—if not now, then soon, when we’ve finished Michael Phelps’s forthcoming book.
One solution to Wallace’s problem is reading books about athletes instead of books by athletes. The best athletes attract a range of such books, starting with those aimed at children (and even those can be frankly bizarre). Probably the most popular form is what I’d call the “beat book,” where a beat reporter follows an athlete or team for a period of time and then writes up the results.
Beat books enjoy a complex taxonomy, from franchise histories to year-in-the-lives to ad hoc puffery. For basketball, the classics are Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules and David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, though Halberstam isn’t technically a member of sports’ Beat Generation. Typically, beat books allow a local reporter to cash in on a local phenomenon; Smith, who covered the Bulls for the Chicago Tribune, lucked into a team that was both good and dysfunctional. Much like sports memoirs, though, beat books ultimately depend on their stars, and this pattern extends beyond sports. David Mendell based Obama: From Promise to Power on his years of political reporting for the Tribune, but it is Obama’s popularity that drives the book. Or, as Mendell quotes a younger Obama: “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play at this level. I’ve got game.”
As Wallace points out, sports memoirs should self-mythologize. They should reveal what was expected, what was sacrificed, what was felt. Beat books, in contrast, should self-destruct. They should show what was censored by the athletes and in the game recaps. In short, sports memoirs and beat books appeal to different sensibilities. One is “Live Earth,” the other “Behind the Music”—in both cases we get musicians, sometimes even the same musicians, but we expect and appreciate very different things.
While beat books can also disappoint, I think we often turn to them when frustrated by sports memoirs. Given LeBron’s fame, and the number of beat books on him, I decided to read the ones I discovered at that Borders: LeBron James: The Rise of a Star, by David Lee Morgan (a reporter for the Akron-Beacon Journal); LeBron James: A Biography, by Lew Freedman (Chicago Tribune); The Franchise, by Terry Pluto (Cleveland Plain-Dealer) and Brian Windhorst (Akron Beacon-Journal); and King James, by Ryan Jones (former editor at SLAM magazine). If LeBron is the star, then these are the standard. They represent the current state of the beat book—and indicate it may be in serious trouble.
The biggest shock in these four books is how they skirt around any dirt or drama. Jones, for example, raises the valid and interesting question of whether LeBron’s high school teammates felt any jealousy toward him. Instead of exploring this question, Jones dismisses it, pointing out that LeBron’s presence earns his teammates “the chance to wear nicer uniforms.” This seems especially glib next to a book like Smith’s, which unearthed many examples of Jordan’s pettiness. (My favorite: while most Bulls players couldn’t get even one ticket to Game 3 of the 1991 Finals, Jordan nabbed two dozen—and proceeded to parcel them out in front of his teammates.) Throughout his book, Jones is an apologist who brings up possible attacks only to bat them away.
Jones and the other beat writers who tackle LeBron stick to this method when discussing LeBron’s actual screw-ups, such as the vintage jerseys he received while still an amateur. Now, I’m not suggesting that beat books should function as the NBA equivalent to Gossip Girl. The problem is not that they don’t find anything, but that they don’t even bother to look. From the perspective of skepticism, it’s hard to separate the beat books on LeBron from those aimed at children. Forget “King” James—we might as well make him Saint.
If beat books used to rely on careful probing and a bit of disbelief—and if this was even part of their appeal—then why have things changed? It’s certainly not because of a shrinking audience. You can make a lot of generalizations based on the growth of websites like Deadspin and TheBigLead, but I’ll stick to one: readers have an ever-increasing appetite for this kind of exposé. The recent scandal surrounding Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen (who turned up in party photos hoisting a beer) proves this is true of young stars, and may be even more true of proven professionals.
I’d propose two possible causes for the shift in beat books: players and writers. No one would deny that today’s players are more protected and mediated than previous generations, but we often overlook how quickly this came about. Writing in 1992, Smith noted that, while he disclosed his intentions at the beginning of the season, many Bulls players “forgot” he was writing a book. It’s hard to picture LeBron forgetting this—heck, it’s hard to picture NBA journeyman Wally Szczerbiak forgetting this—but even this understates the cautious packaging of today’s athlete. Let’s turn to Pluto and Windhorst’s book on LeBron for a better example (and let’s also remember that they never analyze or question it). In high school, they report, LeBron regularly studied video of Jordan and other stars, not taking jump shots or showing on pick-and-rolls, but giving press conferences.
LeBron’s practice also hints at a change in writers. With ESPN News broadcasting press conferences and Deadspin broadcasting everything else, perhaps beat writers feel pressure to reinvent good old-fashioned books. Perhaps the increase in media outlets, along with the decline in athlete access, has made it impossible to write a book like The Jordan Rules. Perhaps what we’re dealing with is the death of the beat book.
I know that’s a formulaic conclusion, just like I know that, for many, the genre didn’t have much life to begin with. Beat books rarely garner respect or serious analysis. (Thus, Pluto insists in his acknowledgments that “this was not a quick book written just because the Cavs made the NBA Finals. It was a two-year project.”) I don’t want to attack the genre itself, any more than I want to pick on these particular journalists. But given the four on LeBron, it seems beat books have lost their purpose and their calling.
Of course, the caveat about a small sample size applies—except that it doesn’t. Jack McCallum’s Seven Seconds or Less may reveal plenty about Shawn Marion, but Shawn Marion is an overrated player shopped all summer by the Miami Heat. McCallum also got more access than any Suns beat writer, but the point is that, for reasons extending beyond basketball, LeBron is the face of the NBA. He’s the most hands-on athlete today—remember, he created his own sports marketing agency—but he also receives the most attention, blog posts, and books. If someone can’t write a book that dares to be critical of LeBron, can he write a legitimate beat book at all?
Which reminds me, regarding LeBron and the Nets and 2010: maybe LeBron should form an opinion on the state of the beat book before making his decision. After all, there are a lot more writers in New York than in Cleveland.