"LeBron James: The Making of an MVP" starts out at something of a seriousness deficit. It's difficult to believe that a glossy, magazine-style 156-page softcover with 90 photographs eating up a hefty chunk of real estate will provide what advance materials claim is the "definitive biography" of basketball's most transcendent star. To their credit, co-authors Terry Pluto and Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (who also collaborated on 2007's "The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers") do their level best to bridge the gap.
Pluto (writer of the ABA bible "Loose Balls" and a columnist twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) and Windhorst (the P-D's Cavs beat writer and one of the league's most respected reporters) draw off interviews with James' high school friends, teachers, coaches, and NBA and USA Basketball front-office personnel — as well as more than a decade of reporting on James stretching back to his freshman year at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School — to make sure that a sharply drawn portrait of LeBron-as-person underpins the chronology of his ascent. (Feel free to judge for yourself how successful they are; seven of the 22 chapters are available online.)
Each chapter explores what the authors believe to be a key piece of James' athletic and personal evolution into the kind of ubiquitous entity that can become the NBA's Most Valuable Player. Some, like the sections on James' three-year high-school football career and his efforts to improve his free-throw shooting, are relatively mundane. Others provide big-picture insight into James' carefully constructed public image; multiple chapters are devoted to the growth of James' media savvy, his lucrative side gig as a sought-after pitchman and how influenced he was by Michael Jordan's smooth, smiling omnipresence.
More personally illuminating are the book's early chapters, which chart James' turbulent early life as the son of a struggling, teenaged single mother. Chapter 2, titled "Fitting In," details LeBron's youthful search for order amid chaos and the time he spent living with the Walkers, a loving and respected family that provided a stabilizing influence and made him feel accepted, which Pluto and Windhorst say still pays dividends, on the court as well as off.
"It's not uncommon for children from single-parent homes to gravitate to larger families, especially if they are made to feel accepted. LeBron did; it was natural for him to blend in," they write. "You can see it in his professional life as he works to make new Cleveland Cavaliers teammates feel comfortable — and enjoys mentoring rookies. He seems to remember what it was like to feel like an outsider and to need support from others."
Throughout the tale of James' growth from grade schooler to global icon, Pluto and Windhorst accentuate the King's positives. They cite the "part of LeBron James's(notes) personality that makes him want to please, to be a good person, to make his family, friends and hometown proud." They relate the "story seldom told" of his classroom success (he made the honor roll at St. V as a senior, graduating with a B average) and his solid scholastic citizenship ("... he was only in trouble a few times for 'yelling in the hallway,' according to Headmaster David Rathz").
At times, the praise borders on overprotective. In the "Media Savvy" chapter, Pluto and Windhorst deflect the well-publicized criticism of James following his deafening silence after the Cavs' 2009 Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Orlando Magic, calling the behavior "unusual for LeBron" and claiming that the "real story is how few times he has made major media mistakes, which is remarkable when you consider that he has been in the public eye since the age of 15."
Later in the chapter, they take ESPN the Magazine Senior Writer Tom Friend to task for writing what they call "the first negative story on LeBron," a Mag piece published during James' senior year of high school that shed light on some of his mother Gloria's personal problems. (Which story they're referencing remains unclear; Friend wrote three stories about LeBron in late 2002, none particularly flattering to Gloria James.)
"People in the local media knew that Gloria James had had a lot of struggles in her life, but saw no reason to write about it," Pluto and Windhorst write. "Why embarrass LeBron because of some poor decisions made by his mother?"
On one hand, that's a fair point. On the other, calling out Friend nearly eight years after the fact and making sure to note that "the local media" — read: hometown journalists like Pluto and Windhorst — stayed above the fray comes off as holier-than-thou. It smacks of petty score-settling, and it adds little to the book.
While the numerous interviews, detailed statistics and in-depth breakdowns of James' on- and off-court life speak to the quality of the authors' reporting, some elements of the book definitely feel rushed or unnecessary. Some of the "LeBron File" info-boxes included throughout the book provide cool tidbits (like the fact that only James, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and Kevin Garnett(notes) have led their teams in total points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in a season), others read like filler designed solely to break up text-heavy pages. How exactly does knowing that "Before games, LeBron often eats fruit in the locker room, but sometimes he likes to eat chicken fingers" contribute to our understanding of what made him an MVP?
Several literary devices, turns of phrase and stories appear more than once (most notably, former Cavs coach Paul Silas chasing journeyman forward Ira Newble(notes) around the locker room following a loss to the Atlanta Hawks). There are at least a half-dozen copy-editing mistakes in the later chapters, including a photo credit simply labeled "Name Goes Here" that you just know has someone at the publisher's office bashing his or her head against a desk. Likewise egregious: The first name of DeSagana Diop(notes) and last name of J.R. Bremer, James' former Cavs teammates, are misspelled in Ch. 9.
Individually, these are minor points, but if you put enough of them together, a book starts to feel sloppy, and poor presentation unfortunately starts to draw attention away from quality reporting. All told, "LeBron James: The Making of an MVP" definitely serves a purpose as a quick and visually appealing summation of James' career to date. But if in 10 or 15 years, we look back on it as the definitive James biography, the basketball-covering community will have a hell of a lot of explaining to do.