Effervescent and brooding, brutally critical and brilliantly insightful, writer and journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger has chronicled Philly’s judicial system for the Inquirer (winning a Pulitzer) and published books on subjects ranging from the sociopathic role of high-school football in small-town America to the “whackadoodle” leadership of Mayor Ed Rendell. This month, his latest tome — Shooting Stars, about LeBron James and his lifelong friends — hits the shelves. We met recently at Chestnut Grill for lunch and a full-metal dose of Buzz’s views on just about everything.
Sam Katz: So, the news of the day. Are you as disgusted as I am with the Fumo sentence?
Buzz Bissinger: It was a travesty. I’ve known Vince for years. Yeah, he’s smart and all that Mensa stuff. He’s the most malicious and self-destructive person I’ve ever met. Not just self-destructive — destructive.
SK: Everything with this guy was one for the guy asking for help, one for Fumo, and one for his favorite whatever. It was never just “Here’s what’s needed.”
BB: For every supposed good thing he did, there was a bad one directly linked to it. The jury found him guilty of 137 counts. The evidence was clear. He’s an extortionist. The judge rendered a disgraceful opinion. I envision Vince and his attorneys sitting around sipping champagne, thinking they’ve won a great victory, a sentence that belittles the severity of the verdict. The “corrupt and contented” city lives on.
SK: You also recently voiced the disappointment many of us are feeling in Mayor Nutter in a column for the Inquirer. What led you to it?
BB: I like Michael. I want him to succeed. But I saw a series of events that showed a startling naïveté about being mayor. In A Prayer for the City, I wrote that Rendell spent 80 percent of his time on his knees, sucking people off. Mayors think they have enormous power. But they’re surrounded by politicians who need their egos massaged. They want to feel included. Michael has failed miserably to do any of that. He didn’t handle the libraries well. The TV show about the Parking Authority should never have seen the light of day — it hurts our image. He’s asking people to pay 19 percent more in property taxes, and the BRT is a bomb waiting to go off. Asking for everyone’s resignation may make a good sound bite, but it isn’t real.
SK: No mayor is an island. Reaching out for help from others would be a major move on Michael’s part and could really help him.
BB: I thought he’d be a decisive leader, based on the campaign. He seems pensive and plodding and indecisive. Were we duped?
SK: Maybe not. His major promise was that he wouldn’t be John Street. So what was the reaction to your column?
BB: Mostly good. A lot of people said I wrote what needed to be said.
SK: What else is on your plate these days?
BB: I’m out with a new book, Shooting Stars. LeBron James and I have the same agent. They saw a parallel with Friday Night Lights, and wanted an “as told to” in LeBron’s voice. I was intrigued. It’s a real story, not just about LeBron, but about LeBron and four of his teammates from high school, growing up together, sustaining each other, sticking together. People will say it’s b.s., and all about image. But LeBron’s loyalty, his selflessness on the court, his discipline, his modesty, all stem from how he grew up and the tremendous role models he had in his life.
SK: How do you pick what to write about?
BB: I go with things that appeal to my gut. I let an idea sit for a couple of weeks, or even months. If it retains my interest after the wait, I may be on to something. Nine out of 10 times, it fades away. I want my books to sell. No writer, I don’t care who they are, wants to write something that no one reads.
SK: What was it like to have Friday Night Lights turn into a blockbuster movie?
BB: Unbelievable. I wanted it to happen, but after 10 years of pushing, I had given up. That’s when they decided to green-light it. I had no real involvement in the process. Hollywood pays the writers to go away. Writers are always complaining — “They ruined my book.” So don’t sell the rights. Don’t take the money. It’s hush money. You know what? It was good money. I took it all the way to the bank.
SK: You could live in Hollywood or New York. What makes you stay here?
BB: This is a magnificent city, with character. I live in what I believe is the most beautiful neighborhood in the country — Chestnut Hill. Look, I love New York, and grew up there. I miss it. But I can’t afford it. And for a writer, there’s a lot of noise. Gossip. Someone won an award or sold two million copies. That can make you more insecure. Writers do best where there isn’t a lot of noise.
SK: What do you make of the tribulations of the newspaper industry?
BB: I think the Inquirer has finally gone back to what it should have been — a local paper. I knew that its play to be a national wasn’t working when Rendell heard that the Inquirer had a Denver bureau. He went wild. Why do they have a Denver bureau? Meanwhile, they’ve done some great local reporting. Some columnists, like Karen Heller, have some spark. But, that said, I don’t see any kind of good future for newspapers. I don’t see an effective business model.
SK: What does a city with a proclivity for ethical lapses among its public officials do without a daily newspaper?
BB: It’s a disaster in waiting. Maybe the model changes, and they go online with Fumo- and BRT-type stories, both of which were done in extraordinary detail and effectiveness. But the computer doesn’t lend itself to reading long stories. Investigative stuff will be hard to carry. The city will suffer from the loss.
SK: What’s next?
BB: Before the LeBron project, I was working on a book about my twins. They were born three months premature, with three minutes between them. Gerry came through it unscathed. He’s thrived. Got a master’s. Is a full-time teacher. Has a great life. Zach had some trace brain damage because of those three minutes. He’s never going to live on his own, drive a car. He’s buoyant and happy, but I’ve never really had a conversation with him. It makes me sad, makes me cry. His mother and I are talking about what comes next. So I’m going back to that book. And I’m working on a screenplay on the life of Sugar Ray Leonard. I’ve spent time with him; there’s an interesting side no one knows. But like anything in Hollywood, who the hell knows how this one’ll turn out.