With the Heat, It's Not About a Salary
We've been told repeatedly, in fact, that it's not. It's about winning. But it's also about power. And power, in the NBA and elsewhere, isn't always about money.
When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen went to Boston, some worried that this act was both mercenary and the ultimate desecration of team.
But Paul Pierce, Boston to the core, kept this trio grounded, and soon Garnett and Allen fully embraced all the best that kelly green had to offer. Their 2008 championship is part of the proud Celtics tradition.
In Miami, there can be no such peacemaking, nor should James, Wade, and Bosh want there to be. The Celtics have a richer history than just about any sports franchise this side of the Yankees; the Heat, barely two decades old and deadly low on mythos (sorry, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway), are ripe for colonization.
The Heat cleared their roster, and with their resident superstar -- an unrestricted free agent, as it were -- leading the charge, turned their team over to three of the NBA's top 10 players.
Sure, there's a coach, and there's a reactionary jump to attribute this all to the nefarious Pat Riley. And yet since the signing of the mini-max contracts in 2006, these three players made a power grab. They put their current teams on notice, refusing guaranteed money in a future that could go horribly wrong, and then joined together on a team that had space for them to make it their own. That's taking matter into their own hands. That's power.
I'm not the first person to make this point. Bomani Jones and J.A. Adande, among others, have been banging the drum valiantly; Jesse Jackson was clumsily referencing William Rhoden's New York Times column, itself an updated version of his 2006 book Forty Million Dollar Slaves. The title, incidentally, was based on a Larry Johnson quote that, at the time, was treated like Jackson's remarks: as an accusation of racism.
Except slavery doesn't always involve black and white, and is as much about economics, labor, and perversions of class as it is skin color or ethnic background.
Simply put, while slavery in this country is inseparable from race, and African Americans will use it as a point of reference, slavery isn't always about race. Even slavery in America wasn't, on a structural level, about skin color. It was about the institutions that, using skin color as a flimsy excuse, were built up over time.
The famed German G.W.F. Hegel wrote extensively about the phenomenon of slavery -- it was central to his biggest book, one that would inspire Karl Marx down the road -- but didn't once mention race in there. Hegel knew about race, and had some pretty stupid things to say about it elsewhere.
But in defining slavery, which was for him a question of power and struggle, there was no need to bring it up. The Holocaust is as much about patterns of genocide as the Jews' long history of suffering.
Was this an oversight? Perhaps. Or maybe, for Hegel, slavery transcended race, and was ultimately a question of power and control. Just because Dan Gilbert isn't a racist, it doesn't mean he's not fuming over the way that James and friends turned the NBA's power dynamic upside down.
The tricky part is that race remains a pernicious presence in sports, and slavery difficult to separate from race in America. That's why the reference remains so immediate, raw, and yes, colloquial. It's also one of the more confusing aspects of Rhoden's argument. But by the time we get to the 21st century, old-fashioned prejudice and more general forms of oppression are equally relevant to pro sports.
This is the slavery at play here; you can switch out the skin color, and still you have an owner outraged that an employee has not only exercised his right to choose, but done so after an unprecedented contract situation, and chosen a new kind of player-driven coalition over the comforts of team, home, and status quo.
Slavery isn't just about race; that's the easy way out of this controversy. Aside from Gilbert, the closest thing we've seen is the nonsense about whose legacy is at stake and why. It's power through symbolism and interpretation.
Okay, fine, sports is built on longstanding formulas and dictum. The way we talk about basketball is as hidebound as the rules of the game. Except rules change -- and so James may be taking it upon himself to defy the usual models of what constitutes greatness, or "alpha dawg-ness", as it's called. That James is at once being lambasted for his egotism and his lack of ambition is, to say the least, puzzling.
The Heat -- if it even makes sense to call them that anymore -- aren't in it for the money. That James, Wade, and Bosh didn't all sign the absolute max deal available is a symbolic gesture that says "we can't simply be bought", just as the mini-max was.
To that extent, I like to think that we would see the same scenario play out even with a draconian cap. Perhaps that projects too much radicalism onto these three; somewhere, there's a dollar figure rubicon they won't cross, as well as one that separates smart business from a Curt Flood-like reckoning.
Really, only players of this magnitude -- big enough to escape the gravitational pull of guaranteed riches and self-style themselves as baby moguls -- could flip the script like this. So rest assured, NBA owners, we will only ever see so many super teams.
But don't be surprised if we see more, cap or no cap. Larry Johnson would be proud. And hell, with all the attention this team will get, James and Wade really don't need that extra money. Even Chris Bosh should be just fine -- financially secure enough to continue controling his own destiny as much as a pro athlete can in this day and age.