In the Denver airport Thursday night, traffic literally stopped as hurried passengers froze in front of TV screens to watch LeBron James' press conference. Who would have thought that so much would turn on, as Andy Borowitz put it, "the spectacle of an incredibly wealthy man getting a new job"?
This wasn't Apple or Google picking a new city for their headquarters. This wasn't the Yankees or the Celtics or the Cowboys seeking out a new place to build a stadium. It was just one person—admittedly a very talented one, but still just a single individual. "Here is James," writes the venerable New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden, "a 25-year-old African-American man with a high school diploma, commanding a global stage."
During the run-up to the big decision, the Wall Street Journal compiled a patently hilarious "Lifestyle Location Index," comparing New York, Miami, Chicago, L.A., and Cleveland, the finalists in the LeBron locational derby, on taxes, luxury hotels, fancy restaurants, exclusive golf courses, high-end car dealerships, and nightlife (one can only hope they were doing this tongue in cheek). The Journal quoted Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous's Robin Leach, too: "New York gives him the high-powered world of Wall Street and super-sized apartments and Miami gives him the beach and his pals. Cleveland, that's another story."
Let me admit it: I was rooting for LeBron to stay in Cleveland. What a story that would be, I thought. The kid from Akron stays at home and helps restore pride to a much-battered region. And that from a lifelong Knicks fan, who as a young working-class kid sat glued to a black-and-white TV to watch Willis and Clyde and Earl-the-Pearl and Bradley and DeBusscherre.
For Maureen Dowd, the spectacle was way beyond tacky: "ESPN's 28 minutes of contrived suspense over James's narcissistic announcement that he was going, aptly, to My-Am-Me," she quipped, "played like 'The Bachelor,' without the rose for the winner." So is that what all this was about, when all is said and done—a "shameful display of selfishness," a young man's "cowardly betrayal" of his humble origins, as James' erstwhile and utterly petulant former employer Dan Gilbert put it?
Far from it. The more I think about it, the more the reaction from white, privileged America seems to me to smack of racism and classism. Does anyone criticize Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or the Google or Facebook guys when they abandon their old companies and home towns to launch new startups? Yes, the LeBron James show was self-aggrandizing and over-the-top, but when all was said and done, it wasn't all about LeBron James either.
It is also about Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Together these three young men are rewriting the old categories of class, race, and location. They do not see themselves as employees who are beholden to wealthy owners or to the cities they played in. Yes, they are talented athletes, but they are also demonstrating that they can control, even plot, their own destinies. Dowd derisively dubbed the three a "hoops cartel." In their 20s, they are less established moguls rigging a market and more like the young techies of Silicon Valley. The three have banded together in a stunning display of the leverage of talent over ownership.