The Crackle Wonders: Buzz Bissinger

Justin September 17, 2009 1

Earlier this week, we linked to a clip of LeBron James on the Daily Show.  He was there to promote his new book, “Shooting Stars,” co-written with Buzz Bissinger. Well, today, we present the other half of that equation. Mr. Bissinger was kind enough to answer a few questions about LeBron’s upbringing, his future, and yes.. the author’s run-in with Will Leitch last year.

SCP: Was LeBron always the best player on his team growing up? Did any of his teammates go on to basketball success beyond AAU or high school?

BB: Two of the teammates featured in Shooting Stars went on to have record-setting careers at the University of Akron, Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis. Both are now playing professionally in Europe.

SCP: What kind of place was Akron to grow up? I know it’s the rubber capital of the world, and it’s Chrissie Hynde’s hometown, but that’s the sum total of my Akron knowledge.

Buzz BissingerBB: When LeBron grew up, it was very much a place struggling to redefine itself, in many ways a quintessential midwestern industrial city whose day had come and gone when the last major tire company had left in the early 1980s. Despite those struggles, it is also a place of enormous community because of its relatively small size for a city, 250,000. LeBron loves Akron, and he sincerely believes that he had been born someplace else, his life would have turned out very very differently, in all likelihood another African-American youth so sadly lost to the streets.

SCP: At what point did LeBron go from player to commodity to the people around him?  I suppose this is also a good time to bring up the hummer and the throwback jerseys that got him in trouble.

BB: Word began to go around his sophomore year that he was an exceptional talent. But the hysteria really kicked in when he was placed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior. From thereon in during his high school career it became an unprecedented media frenzy. At the time he enjoyed the attention but now, with some perspective from it, he realizes it was too much too soon since by his own admission he was arrogant and began to act like a jerk. So for that matter did his teammates, who are as pivotal characters in the book as LeBron. He also realizes, looking back on it, the degree to which he was exploited by ESPN, by other media outlets, even by his own school, St. Vincent St. Mary, by moving his games from their own tiny gym to the University of Akron that seated roughly 5,500.

The Hummer incident received enormous negative coverage at the time. LeBron himself admits that the car, which cost far more than the net worth of he and his mom because at the time they did not have any net worth, was ridiculously excessive. His mom took out a loan to buy the car for LeBron because she wanted to do something special for his 18th birthday. She got a loan from a car dealer and while the media had a field day, the reason she got the loan was obvious–her son, in a matter of months, was going to have a net worth well into the millions. It is not exceptional for parents of athletes under similar circumstances to get such loans. In addition the loan was thoroughly checked out by the sanctioning body of high school sports in Ohio, the Ohio High School Athletic Association, and nothing illegal was found. It was not arranged by some sneaker company or agent.

Soon after during LeBron’s senior year, it was disclosed that he had had accepted two throwback jerseys from a sporting goods store and allowed the store to take a picture of him and place it on one of their walls. He did not know the price of the jerseys–about $800–since they carried no price tag. The incident was reported in a very short story in the Plain Dealer of Cleveland. Clair Muscaro, the commissioner of the OHSAA, started an investigation. LeBron, once he learned he was being investigated, immediately returned the jerseys. He also wrote a letter of apology to Muscaro explaining the enormous pressure he had been under because of the national media frenzy surrounding him. Muscaro conducted a 24-hour investigation in which he neither spoke to LeBron or even to the actual person who gave him the jerseys. He then suspended LeBron from play for the rest of the season on the basis that he had violated his status as an amateur by accepting the jerseys. It seems clear that Muscaro was under enormous pressure to do something about LeBron because of numerous complaints he was receiving from high schools all over the state of Ohio, all of them unfounded. LeBron took the matter to court and the season-long suspension was reduced to two games. To this day he is convinced that the OHSAA and Muscaro conducted a witchunt against him and he is right.

SCP: LeBron James seems like a throwback to the days of guys like Bill Russell and Jim Brown. He spoke out in favor of Barack Obama. He also seems more in tune with the impact he can have on the every day lives of other people. But, he also has that Shaquille O’Neal style of being an entertainer down pat. How has someone so young managed to reach that balance so successfully?

BB: Part of it is simply in the genes. Although he grew up in impoverished circumstances, he also knew his mother, however much she struggled, loved him deeply. He realized at a very young age that complaining would only make things harder for her, so when it was time to get up and move, he just put his meager possessions into a backpack and as he says in the book, “was ready to roll.” He also was never one who went looking for trouble: he never hung out on the corner or anything like that.

He was also lucky in that he found exceptional people early in his life. First and foremost were the teammates he met when he was nine on the AAU team he played for, the Shooting Stars. They became like brothers to one another on and off the basketball court. They made a pact together to go to the same high school together to pursue the dream of winning a national championship before they were through and they stayed side-by-side with each other for nine years in pursuit of that dream. It is why I co-wrote Shooting Stars, because I found it be an exceptional story about brotherhood and togetherness and love that is ultimately inspiring to any reader old or young. Those teammates kept LeBron grounded. They gave him loyalty and stability that has carried over into his NBA career. He still today considers them brothers and they are still extremely close.

SCP: Will LeBron James be a Knick?

BB: Your guess is as good as mine. I asked him last week and he gave one of those classic LeBron smiles. I personally don’t think he knows at this point what he is going to do. This is my opinion, and my opinion only. I repeat, this is my opinion and my opinion only, but I believe if LeBron can win the ring this year with Shaq, he will say to himself that he has done everything he possibly can for the Akron-Cleveland area and will move to the Knicks, if they have a supporting cast around him. Akron will always be his home, because he loves Akron, but he wants to be the first billion-dollar athlete in history and if that is your goal, there is nothing like the bright lights of New York. I also believe, and once again this is my opinion and my opinion only, that he feel some pressure from the NBA hierarchy however subtle to go to the Knicks because they have been awful for years and must get better for the league to have continued success.

SCP: We are a sportsblog, so I really can’t complete this interview without touching on your personal experiences in this genre. But instead of rehashing the Costas Now episode, let’s talk about the year since. Do you think your message got through? Do you think there’s been a change in the way the blogs operate? And on the other side, do you personally feel you have a better understanding of what blogs are trying to accomplish on a day to day basis?

BB: I think my message got through to some degree. There was a story in the LA Times in which various blogs, because of what I said on Costas Now, were thinking  much more about  issues of fairness and responsibility. Since the incident, I have become familiar with some sports blogs that are quite good and  well-written. But I still maintain the basic thrust of what I said, that most blogs, in particular the comments, are vindictive, nasty and gutless since few ever give their real name. I also realize there was a helluva better way to say it than I put it on Costas Now. Will Leitch should not have been treated that way, even if I did make his career, and we have established a kind of friendship. The same is true with Drew Magary, the infamous Big Daddy Balls I referred to. When the whole flap exploded, I received hundreds of emails from bloggers. I made it a point to respond to those that were not obscene, and I found the responses almost to a fault to be kind and decent in return. That really did surprise me and gives me hope about sports blogs in the future, because they already are the future given the impending death of the print newspaper.

(that’s Buzz and Will sharing a hot dog. It’s a heartwarming picture.)

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