The book is about LeBron James and the success and friendship he enjoyed in high school. It's called "Shooting Stars," (excerpted here) and was written by LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger. A press release says it's "a story of friendship, perseverance, humility, the transcendent power of teamwork, and the realization of almost-impossible dreams."
It may or may not be that, but it's certainly a bold assertion of James' right to gloss up his own early life, and to charge you $26.95 to have him tell you stories that have for the most part already been told elsewhere.
An essential part of the LeBron James story is that he was so famous so early -- therefore the exploits of his high school days were in the sports media in real time. Those searching for further biographical detail of the first years of this 24-year-old would be well served by a trip to the library, where there are already books by Brian Windhorst and Terry Pluto, Ryan Jones, David Lee Morgan Jr. and others, as well as a metric ton of magazine articles and blog posts. Not to mention, there's a documentary due out shortly.
I'm all for athletes being expressive, and a book is surely one of the best media. But even with LeBron James as the author, any book about James as high-schooler has a certain obligation to go beyond, in some fashion -- insight, information, perspective, voice -- the earlier versions of the tale.
LeBron James, ultimate insider in the LeBron James story, would seem to be in ideally positioned to deliver. Who better to illuminate the dark crevices of young basketball stardom? What better tour guide to the bizarro world "elite" amateur basketball.
There are fascinating elements of the James story that have not been told. He was an amateur high-school player worth millions, and for years he was on rails to be an NBA superstar. What was the role of William Wesley (whom James called, in a GQ article, a "great role model"?) How did James navigate that forest of those who congregated to influence him, give him things and skirt the rules? Can he tell us more about the fascinating character of his mother? Did he know Sonny Vaccaro, Phil Knight or any of the various other stars in the constellation of youth basketball? What kinds of overtures did he get from colleges? Did anyone ever offer to help him cheat on his SATs? How did agents, financial advisers and the like approach him? How did he build the most important financial relationship of his life, with Nike? How did he choose his first agent, Aaron Goodwin? How is it LeBron's close friend Maverick Carter got a job at Nike while James was in school?
But James and Bissinger essentially passed. If you're looking for a dose of reality, look elsewhere.
Instead we get some touching but shallow insight into how much he likes his friends. Some pretty basic denials of wrongdoing in the little controversies that were in the paper (the expensive Humvee he drove with no visible means of support, the retro jerseys he accepted as a gift) and a little story about getting in trouble for once smoking marijuana.
It's safe to the point of glossy. Barack Obama, running for the highest office in the land, took more chances.
In the absence of offering a better understanding of how things really worked for James in the high school years, the thing "Shooting Stars" has going for it is that it's straight from the mouth of James.
But ... is it?
Naturally, someone with the time constraints of an NBA superstar in his prime can't spend a thousand hours in front of a word processor. Bissinger and a team of others mentioned in the acknowledgments fill a lot of that gap.
However, the core offering is insight straight from James, however it was collected. The book is written from LeBron's first person point of view ("I rode my bike all over Akron when I was young ..."). But time and again, it simply does not sound like the LeBron James we have come to know on TV and quoted in articles.
Does James really express himself like this?
"...he knew that my life had been a crazy quilt of moves there and moves here growing up until we finally landed in the forlorn red brick of Elizabeth Park."
Maybe so. But in that case, why has he so carefully hidden his inner poet from us?
Elsewhere, he writes: "More and more, we were making fewer and fewer mistakes."
It's tough to believe that forlorn red brick of a sentence came from the same writer as the first example.
For the reader, the shifting voice creates a little tension: With each line, I start to wonder: Who wrote this? I mean, I know LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger wrote this, but what influence did each have over this or that sentence? Assuming there are sentences that James did not write, how fully did he vet them -- a job that would take dozens if not hundreds of hours?
And the parts of the tale that are not straight from James -- given that the story is already well told elsewhere -- what's the point?