CLINE: LeBron's story redeems author's faith in preps

Todd Cline

Todd Cline

Not everyone is lucky enough to be pigeonholed. Buzz Bissinger knows that. Being known for one song, one movie or, in Bissinger's case, one book is a lot better than the alternative.

This is why the author of "Friday Night Lights" can laugh when questioned about a book he wrote nearly 20 years ago.

"When I carp about it to my wife, she asks me: Which would you rather have," Bissinger said, ""Friday Night Lights' or no "Friday Night Lights?'"

It's an easy answer for a man who has seen his non-fiction account of a season with the football team at Permian High in Odessa, Texas, made into a hit movie and popular TV series.

"I consider myself lucky," Bissinger said during a recent phone interview. "I thought the movie was terrific. Though it was fiction, I thought it was true to the spirit of the book. I don't watch the TV show regularly - I have a little "Friday Night Lights" overload - but when I see it it's terrific."

Researching the book left Bissinger with a bad taste for big-time high school sports. He found Odessa to be a win-at-all-costs town that placed football above everything else. And his account of the 1988 season left him persona non grata in the Texas town.

But his latest book - "Shooting Stars" (The Penguin Press) - finds him back in the high school arena, this time chronicling the pursuit of a national title by LeBron James and his high school teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio. It was a fun prjoect to work on, Bissinger said, and it left him with a better feeling for what high school sports can be.

"To me, "Shooting Stars' is an inspirational story, but it's not meant to be a definitive autobiography of LeBron," Bissinger said. "I saw the dark side of high school sports when I wrote "Friday Night Lights.' (But) in this case I really do believe sports saves these kids - not just LeBron, but the other kids in "Shooting Stars.'

"Sports can work right when you have the right role models in the right educational setting."

Bissinger and LeBron have the same literary agent, who recommended Bissinger to co-author the book. It was LeBron's idea to tell his high school story, which required Bissinger to spend a lot of time in Akron with the NBA superstar.

"You always worry," Bissinger said of working with someone so famous. "His public persona is great, but you never know. We played video games and stuff like that. And while it was clear that he was a star, he was easy to talk to. It's like anything - you've got to get to know someone."

One way they did that was by driving around the city. It gave LeBron a chance to point out places important to him and Bissinger a chance to interview his subject in an easy-going manner. Bissinger was surprised at how LeBron was treated as a regular guy at his old haunts, and by one other thing.

Bissinger rode around town with LeBron and LeBron's agent, Maverick Carter, who drove. He soon found these two high-powered, big money people lacked something.

"Neither carried wallets," Bissinger said. "I had to pay for (all) the gas. I was like, "Whoa, what's the deal?"

He laughs at picking up the tab for one of the world's richest athletes. It was part of a good experience, one that makes the former sports writer feel a little better about high school sports.

Fans of the book "Friday Night Lights" remember James "Boobie" Miles, the injured running back and tragic character of the book. Bissinger keeps in touch with Miles, who lives in the Dallas area, and offers him mentorship and sometimes even money.

He never made it like LeBron did. And just as Miles' first name is the same as LeBron's last, the two athletes Bissinger has written about are also on opposite ends of the sports spectrum. While that journey from one story to the other has redeemed some of Bissinger's faith in high school sports, he can't totally get past his experience in that Texas town so many years ago.

"I still like sports, but I don't know if I love sports," Bissinger said. "I won't ever feel the same about football as I originally did because of the experience of "Friday Night Lights.'"

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.