Chris Hopson | Harvard University

A few days ago, the championship series of the premier professional basketball league in the United States ended.  The Golden State Warriors easily defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in a one-sided matchup. Despite the fact that the series wasn’t competitive, it still has real significance for the rest of the NBA.  Many basketball minds now turn to the question: which team or teams can step up to challenge the Warriors, and will they be led by LeBron James? Aside from the sports significance of this NBA Finals, though, I believe it also had symbolic significance.  The lopsided matchup between Golden State and Cleveland reflects the lopsided socio-economic landscape of the US, which has come under much scrutiny in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as president.

The Golden State Warriors play home games in Oakland, California, but represent the San Francisco Bay area more generally.  (Sometimes they wear jerseys that read “The Bay”). For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Oakland was a predominantly poor and largely black city.  It is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and an intellectual homeland of Black Nationalism. But in recent years, Oakland and the Bay Area more broadly have experienced a wave of gentrification that has coincided with a decrease in the black population, and an increase in housing prices.  Time Magazine reports that San Francisco is now the most expensive city in the country to be a renter, and Oakland is listed at number 4 in its own right!  The San Francisco Chronicle reported in April that the median home price in San Francisco reached $820,000 in March of 2018.  Driven by the tech boom, San Francisco is now one of the most expensive cities in the country.  It’s also one of the most liberal. Back in 2014, Forbes reported on an Economist study which found that San Francisco is the most liberal city in the US.  It’s hard to imagine that that’s changed in the past four years. The San Francisco Bay area thus represents the archetypal ‘coastal, liberal, elite’ city that many political analysts contrasted with ‘middle America’ in the aftermath of the 2016 election.  

Cleveland, and the area of northeast Ohio in general, is more representative of that ‘middle America’ that is said to have delivered Trump the presidency.  Cleveland’s population is still predominantly black, and though very few black voters voted for Donald Trump, this demographic fact shows that Cleveland hasn’t undergone the same level of gentrification as the Bay Area.  The website reported in December of 2017 that from 2012-2016, the median home value in Cleveland was $67,500.  That’s less than 1/12th the median home value in San Francisco. Like so many midwestern cities, Cleveland’s economy was once based on manufacturing.  Now that manufacturing has collapsed, Cleveland has become something of a hub for medical research and biotechnology, but its unemployment rate is still almost twice as high as San Francisco’s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And while Cleveland proper tends to vote blue, Ohio was one of the six states that swung from blue to red in the 2016 presidential election.  By contrast, California, and the Bay Area especially, remains a bastion of anti-Trump sentiment.

The stories of San Francisco and Cleveland thus represent a Trump-era tale of two cities.  One is an economically booming coastal hub fueled by technology and defined by 21st-century progressive politics.  The other is a town still trying to find its way in the post-manufacturing Rust Belt. Interestingly enough, the socio-economic disparity between places like San Francisco and places like Cleveland actually helps explain why the basketball matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers was so lopsided.  The Warriors had a plethora of players whose talent stands out relative to their peers. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green readily come to mind. The Cavaliers had just one: LeBron James. This is no accident. James was born in Akron, Ohio, a town outside of Cleveland. He’s a hometown hero, who accomplished a significant career goal when he led the Cavaliers to an NBA championship (at the expense of the Warriors, no less) in 2016, delivering the city of Cleveland its first professional sports title since 1964, and the Cavaliers their first NBA championship ever.  Why have the Cavaliers been such a bad team in all the seasons they’ve played without LeBron James on their roster? One reason, and perhaps the main one, is that elite NBA players almost never consider playing there. Simply put, megarich professional basketball players, when they have a choice, don’t choose to live in Cleveland. They typically choose to live somewhere like, oh I don’t know, San Francisco. Or Los Angeles. Or New York. Because of the social and economic landscape of the US, it’s a lot easier for teams like the Warriors to build a talented roster than it is for teams like the Cavaliers.  No wonder the 2018 NBA Finals ended up being so lopsided. I guess sport imitates life, and vice versa.

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