Back in August, when the reality of the Barclays Center's launch was just setting in, The New York Times ran a report on Jay-Z's impact as part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets. The major revelation wasn't that he was a big player in the organization, but that he did so while holding a relatively small stake in the franchise: just 1/15th of 1 percent, or an initial investment of $1 million.
While that's a meaningful amount to pretty much anyone in the world, it's a small cut of an NBA team. Given that Jay has already designed the team's new uniforms, earned them newfound respect among players, and basically turned them into a relevant part of the larger culture, this all came as a surprise.
That surprise has turned into widespread chatter about Jay-Z's role with the team, and he's obviously heard about it. So, during the last of eight sold-out shows to kick off the opening of the Barclays Center, he fought back against the critics. Ben Golliver watched the YouTube live-stream of the concert, and he wrote about Jay-Z's comments for Eye on Basketball:
Jay-Z first disputed the reported percentage -- telling his audience that he didn't know where the media got their numbers -- before asserting that "some" in the media have presented his role in the ownership group in a way that was intended as a purposeful slight.
"That's their way of diminishing our accomplishments," he said. "Don't let anyone diminish your accomplishments."
The real story, he explained, goes like this: "[I'm] a young black African male who was raised in a single-parent home in low-income housing and I stand before you as an owner of the Brooklyn Nets." The Barclays Center crowd erupted in cheers.
"Don't let anyone diminish your accomplishments," Jay-Z repeated. "You don't have to be inspired by me, be inspired by Barack Obama if you choose to. Latinos in here, be the first Latino president. Ladies in here, be the first female president."
Jay-Z then encouraged the crowd to raise their middle fingers into the air before breaking into his hit song, "99 Problems."
Last Tuesday, NetsDaily.com noted that Jay had made similar comments at an earlier show, which suggests that it was a part of his stage banter during all eight of the concerts. It's likely that Jay-Z planned these remarks as a way of fighting back against the perception that he has little real power with the Nets. Some of his sentiment could be misplaced: the original New York Times report depicts him as someone who does a lot for the franchise, and the racial suggestion is certainly not true of everyone who's opined on this story. Nevertheless, there is something to his point, even if the reported percentage is correct.
What Jay-Z has done for the Nets is remarkable, and certainly not worthy of derision. In a few years, he's taken a team with a meaningful local profile and turned it into one of the NBA's most talked about franchises. And while he had no real impact on getting the Nets to move to Brooklyn — that was the work of Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov, primarily — Jay-Z's role with the Nets has been to make the transition as seamless as possible. Whether by designing distinctive uniforms or lending both mainstream and street appeal to the team, Jay-Z has done whatever necessary to make sure that the Nets' move registers as a shift in culture, not just of location. That's meaningful work, even if you think it's amounted to little more than window dressing for a process of gentrification.
The issue here is not what Jay-Z has accomplished by becoming an owner, but what he's achieved as an owner. There are people with full 100 percent stakes in teams who haven't done so much to increase their teams' presence in the market. The Nets and Jay-Z are a special case, certainly, but they're also an example of what can be done with a certain level of commitment to a clear set of goals. It's a useful example for other owners to follow, no matter how much money they've put into their investments.
Jay-Z's ownership stake ultimately matters only if we judge his accomplishments by his ability to profit directly from them. (Jay-Z's relationship with the Nets will almost certainly help him financially in the long run, no matter how much money he makes now.) That is the mark of a person with questionable values, or at least someone who took this "Mr. Show" sketch seriously. No matter how much of the Nets Jay-Z actually owns, he has been an effective owner. Deciding as much depends on looking at what he's done in the role, not his monetary claim to the job.