7:43 am Jul. 9, 20101
In the minutes leading up to nine o'clock last night, as New Yorkers prepared to hear their would-be basketball messiah LeBron James announce his decision on ESPN, fans and non-fans alike gathered to watch at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club, just off Madison Square Park. No cover and an open bar promised a lively crowd, and who knows, maybe Jay, a minority owner of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets and a certified Friend of LeBron, knew something we didn’t.
The 40/40 Club looks like a movie set of a trendy bar-nightclub: lots of smooth, gray granite surfaces, dim lighting, squarish, Ikea-luxe Italian leather chairs. To watch James’ announcement, patrons could turn their attention to any of 17 flatscreen televisions, or crane their necks toward three massive overhead-projector screens. Showing the place off, the club’s sales manager, Matthew Wallwork, pointed out the multiple “V.I.P. lounges” on the club’s more exclusive second level.
“This is the Remy lounge,” he said, “named after Remy Martin. And this is the cognac lounge. We have a number of high-end cognacs, which guests usually drink by the shot. And here’s the cool vertical chess set we had made.” He pointed at a wood-and-glass structure standing against a wall.
As it turned out, most of the crowd at 40/40 didn't care so much about LeBron James, despite the fact that both the Knicks and the Nets were supposedly among the teams in contention to land him. Just after eight o’clock, a flock of at least 20 high-heeled, short-skirted women paraded upstairs. They emerged, briefly, for James’ announcement, while a bouncer in a strikingly turquoise shirt kept them company, occasionally speaking into a wrist-mounted microphone. Couples nuzzled each other on egg-shaped chairs suspended from the ceiling, and others flocked to a CNN camera hooked up for a live feed for Larry King.
“Club attire” dominated—lots of shirts with epaulets. But a few basketball fans wore their allegiances proudly. Oliver Baptiste, a tall man with a shaved head and a goatee, was clad in bright-blue Knicks warmup gear, and engaged in spirited hoops repartee with any interested parties. Across the bar, Brian Larkin sported a “WITNESS”-branded LeBron James tee. “I like the Knicks, I like Jay-Z,” he said.
But Jay-Z owns the Nets, right? “I’m supportive of the whole tribe,” he explained.
The club’s wait staff strode purposefully around in black and red “Roc Nation” shirts, proving that H.O.V.A.’s self-promoting talents are at least on par with his pal LeBron’s.
As nine o’clock and the commencement of James' hourlong ESPN special neared, the crowd grew rowdier, lubricated and anxious to hear from the Chosen One. Eric Fisher, a very large man who played pro ball in Luxembourg for something called Musel Pikes, drew on his own experience to make a prediction. “It’s about playing with your boys,” he said, suggesting that James could and ought to leave Cleveland to do so in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“Any sport or war, it’s about brotherhood," he said. "It’s about loyalty to your friends, not your city.”
“New Yorkers, yeah!” a friend interrupted. “And New York drinks. Bottoms up!” the friend yelled, holding his Heineken up before drinking it.
And then the hour of reckoning was upon us. James, sporting a truly prodigious neckbeard, filled the giant screens above the bar as fans shushed those less interested. “JERSEY!” screamed one hopeful, if deluded fan, and a “Go New York, Go New York, Go!” chant carbon-dated to the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals broke out, lasting a chorus or three. A number of patrons continued their conversations; one man at the bar was far more interested in his hot wings than in LeBron. At James’ first mention of “South Beach,” though, an “Ohhhhhhh” shot through the club.
He had chosen the Miami Heat. And this after New York had abased itself, having sent a delegation of Important People to court him in Cleveland, to tell him how rich he could become here, and how much the city needed him, all just as if New York were any other place desperate for a diversion, and as if the James Dolan-ruled Knicks were a perfectly attractive option for a player with all the choices in the world.
Somehow tellingly, the inevitable cascade of boos lasted mere seconds, and then the crowd carried on its evening. ESPN’s audio cut out mid-sentence and gave way to hip hop.
Baptiste cared, though. “Fuck Pat Riley. Fuck Pat Riley,” he chanted. (Riley, a former coach of the Knicks, is the slick-haired front-office man in Miami responsible for procuring James.) He eventually moved on to dredging up the Knicks’ long-ago glory days. “Where you at, Bill Bradley?” he screamed in anguish.
At 9:30 or so, guests began to trickle out. Others danced, and some caught up on news. “Wait, he said Miami?” came from the bar.
“The party could’ve kept popping,” Larkin said. “LeBron killed the buzz.”
The buzz, though, was never there. Maybe that was because Twitter had successfully outed James’ South Beach destination early in the day, ensuring a resigned, deflated crowd.
Upstairs at the 40/40 Club, the walls are lined with jerseys of famous players from all teams, all sports, inked with personalized 40/40 autographs. It speaks to the way a lot of fans approach the N.B.A. these days: they follow the star players wherever they're assembled, in the same way that James cited a desire to win as his reason for joining Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami. It's not about cities and franchises as much as it is about the sum of a collection of all-star jerseys. Meaning that the Knicks, once again, won't add up to all that much.