'Friday Night Lights' author takes a shot at NBA star LeBron James
In literary terms, Buzz Bissinger is the guy who gets the bucket, not the guy who gives the assist.
So it was a bit of a surprise to learn that the man who wrote "Friday Night Lights" (1990), one of the most popular and influential sports books of all time and the basis for the movie and TV series of the same name, had co-written a book with NBA superstar LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Bissinger, frankly, didn't need the gig.
The 54-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had plenty of other projects on his plate, including a memoir he was writing about his twin sons, now adults, one of whom suffered severe brain injury at birth. He's written with depth and insight about baseball, horse racing, big-city politics and a variety of other topics. He's a dogged reporter trapped in a bestselling author's body.
But when he got a call from his agent, who is also James' literary agent, about the possibility of collaborating with James on a book, Bissinger decided to check it out.
"I remember going to his (James') house and meeting him for the first time," Bissinger said in an interview from his home in Philadelphia. "I was nervous. I almost never get nervous.
"The first thing is I noticed was — he's huge. I came up to his belly-button," the author added with a laugh. But it wasn't James' physical size that made Bissinger most apprehensive; it was the potential size of his ego. Meeting James put that worry to rest.
"With a superstar, you don't know what you're going to get. But there aren't any airs about him. He's unassuming. It was clear he really wanted to do this. We ate dinner, I watched him with his kids, and I left with a good vibe about him. He's easy to be with. This is a guy who's really grounded."
Bissinger still might have said no, however, if James had wanted a self-congratulatory book to fatten his own ego. That's not what "Shooting Stars," recently published by Penguin, was ever intended to be.
Instead, it's a story about James and his high school teammates in Akron, chronicling how a group of young men from sketchy backgrounds and challenging family situations managed to lift each other up. Only James became a household name — but "Shooting Stars" is more about friendship than it is about fame, more about loyalty and hope than it is about the millions James has earned in a few short years as an NBA standout. Without his pals, without the timely intervention of some caring adults, James notes in the book, there was "the real danger that, like so many African-American boys, I would just get lost in the very hardness of life." A documentary covering the same crucial years in James' adolescence, titled "More Than a Game," is scheduled for October release.
"The book is not LeBron-centric," Bissinger said. "The other characters are as important as he is. LeBron has an extreme sense of loyalty. This was a kid who came from a very, very hard background. But he was never hardened by what he saw. He kept a curiosity about the world.
"The tone of the book isn't rock-'em, sock-'em. There's a soft quality to it. That was my idea — not to make it too furiously melodramatic."
"Shooting Stars" is told in James' voice, but Bissinger's shaping hand is apparent. To get a sense of the man whose life he channeled, Bissinger met with James multiple times over a 15-month period, visited Akron and other places important to James, interviewed the friends and mentors who made a difference in James' formative years.
"This," Bissinger declared, "is a very mature guy. He's not only a remarkable athlete, he's a rare human being with an incredibly intuitive head on his shoulders."