LeBron James: His Generation's Bill Gates?
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.
They are not just going to a new city, they are building their own new enterprise in it—creating the nucleus of a startup of their own but within an already-existing franchise. And, just like those young techies, often require a gray-haired CEO to keep them on an even keel. With Pat Riley, they'll be working with a seasoned pro who can help them realize their vision. Surely there are risks to their enterprise, like any startup. One of them might suffer a career-ending injury, they might not win a title fast enough... But those are the risks that entrepreneurs are willing to take.
So why Miami? Why would the "Three Kings" choose this particular location over, say, the Big Apple or L.A.? The reasons, I believe, lie deeper than its low taxes, abundant sun, and great nightlife. Experts and average people alike tend to think that companies pick places that offer the best cost profiles and that people go to the cities that give them the highest salaries and biggest bang for the buck.
But real entrepreneurs—those who want to build something new—sometimes pick "frontier locations," places where they can mold the environment to help them reach their desired goals, like the tech pioneers of Silicon Valley in the late '60s and '70s, or Hollywood's early moguls. Perhaps this is what Miami had to offer the Three Kings. The place is diverse enough, open-minded enough, free-wheeling enough, and hungry enough that they can make their own rules. The media spotlight is less glaring than in New York. And Miami is incredibly diverse, all the way to the very top of its social order—it is home to extremely wealthy Latinos, Middle-Easterners, Russians, and African Americans who have made money their own way. Wade has been there; he has insider information, he knows the place very, very well. Not just its clubs and restaurants, but its deeper resources, the way it works.
Most people attempt to optimize their interests within the constraints imposed by their existing environment—what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed the typical "adaptive response." But at critical junctures, certain kinds of entrepreneurs step outside the bounds of what is given and undertake to shape and actively construct an new environment of their own—what Schumpeter called the "creative response."
Miami offered the best place where these three savvy, talented, and surpassingly entrepreneurial young men could create their own kind of space—a more open-ended space, where they could realize their ambitions and dreams. The more I think about what they have pulled off, the more amazed I am. They are true Wild West cowboys; Horatio Alger made flesh. They have shown us how very good they are at America's most important game, one that goes beyond sports and even money-making to the very heart of the American dream: of writing your own ticket and forging your own path, of doing it—and having it—one's own way.