A few months ago, a pair of YouTube videos made it viral in Cleveland, where I live. These “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism” videos spoof earnest attempts to attract visitors. Featuring a shot of a steel mill and a shot of the sky, for example, they trumpet Cleveland as “the place where there used to be industry” and where you can “see the sun almost three times a year.” The clip that cuts deepest is a shot of a giant “We Are All Witnesses” billboard featuring LeBron James, arms outstretched, head back, claiming dominion. The voice-over quips, “Our economy is based on LeBron James.”
When James’s team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, plays a home game, millions of much-needed dollars are pumped into the city. James has lived in this area all of his 25 years. He grew up in nearby Akron, and since childhood, he tells us in his memoir, Shooting Stars, he has loved the area, for it meant “people taking care of things, people taking care of each other, people who found you and protected you.” He promised himself, “I was going to let the world know where Akron was.”
He succeeded, and Shooting Stars is the story of how he did so. The Shooting Stars were a basketball team James played on in middle school. His teammates were his best friends, and together they all enrolled in St. Vincent-St. Mary. As the starting squad for this Catholic high school’s team, they named themselves the Fab Five (after the 1991 University of Michigan team).
James is generally known as a good guy in the often morally murky world of professional athletics. He has never been arrested or suspected of drug use, and is known as a team player who unselfishly passes the ball. Shooting Stars, which could be seen as another self-indulgent plea for attention and money by an über-celebrity, is consonant with the Jamesian ethos of taking care of your own, staying close to your roots, and putting Akron (and Cleveland) on the map.
The book has two authors, though, and on the cover an ampersand connects LeBron James with Buzz Bissinger, best known for writing one of the most acclaimed sports books in recent years, Friday Night Lights. Bissinger is also a contributing writer for Vanity Fair.
The prospect of a Friday Night Lights (or Hoop Dreams) story about James’s schoolyard friends — Little Dru, Willie, Sian, and Romeo, all African American, all from modest backgrounds — none of whom have come close to James in terms of success, is bound to make any fan of narrative sportswriting excited. But Shooting Stars is no Hoop Dreams, nor does it rival the most memorable sports autobiographies, such as Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest. For all its interest, it is plagued by the fact that Bissinger and James have made a terrible decision: to tell the story in the first person — and Bissinger does not fade into the background enough to make this work.
Here are the first lines of the Prologue: “I am a sophomore at St. Vincent-St. Mary, a coed Catholic high school on North Maple Street overlooking the small cluster of downtown Akron. It has fine academics, and it’s about three miles from where I live, with my mother on the sixth floor of a brooding apartment building rising up like a slab of stone on the crest of a small hill.” Brooding buildings and crests of hills? A manufactured present tense? We know from the start this book is not written by LeBron James.
To his credit, Bissinger did serious research. (One has to infer this, because he does not speak directly anywhere in the book, not even in the acknowledgements.) He (or someone else) has meticulously gathered the backgrounds of the players and their families, interviewed them about their feelings during the years they shared on the court with James, and read the most local newspapers for game statistics. But these facts are then rendered into James’s voice, creating an impossible narration, as when James tells us about how many days Willie missed of first grade: “[I]t was Willie, as the oldest at six or seven, who changed his niece and nephew and youngest brother’s diapers. He warmed up their bottles, and he fed them and made sure they burped and put them to sleep…He took his responsibilities with seriousness and purpose despite being so young. But he was missing school, close to forty days at Bethune Elementary one year.” (In fact, James did not meet Willie until years later).
Much of the book is devoted to play-by-play. We get game recaps from when the boys were ten. We learn that, in a freshman playoff, Little Dru’s “third three-point attempt came with 5:24 left in the second quarter.” These painstaking re-creations of distant games are both absurd and touching. In the first half, the book lives up to its title, keeping its focus on James’s teammates and the people around them. We meet Illya McGee, Willie’s big brother, who was a student at the University of Akron when Wilile’s life in Chicago became untenable; Illya took his brother in and raised him until Willie graduated high school. And Keith Damrot, the Shooting Stars’ first high school coach, who landed at St. Vincent’s after he lost a college coaching post for using a racial epithet. After the Fab Five brought national attention to St. Vincent’s in James’s first year, Damrot left the school for a new college job.
These and other stories are, unfortunately, filtered through James’s voice (or faux voice), compounding the very problem the book seeks to redress — that James gets, and always has gotten, all the attention. One itches for quotes from McGee, Damrot, or Little Dru, the feisty, talented (yet too-short) brains of the squad.
By the second half of the book, James’s own success takes over: he gets on the cover of Sports Illustrated, buys a Hummer, is suspended because of a scandal involving free shirts: “This was a one-man posse’s attempt to humiliate me, subject me to ridicule, rip open rumors that I was corrupt, and ruin a dream.” James’s anger here contrasts with his refusal to delve into personal issues. Of “the crazy quilt of moves there and moves here growing up” as a young child, and the nights when he did not know whether his mother would return, James notes: “Whoever wants to keep track of something like that? All it does is cause you pain and memories you would rather forget.”
Whether or not he stays a Cavalier, James has kept his promises to his friends in Akron, but he has not stopped being the figure through which they are seen. If only we could turn this book inside out; if only Bissinger allowed the Shooting Stars to speak for themselves.
Anne Trubek is associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College. Her website is annetrubek.com.