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Jay-Z, Markowitz, the cult of celebrity, and the oligarch behind the curtain

Last week and this one I'll try to compensate slightly for the failure of any metro columnists to show up and glean insights from the rich spectacle of the Barclays Center groundbreaking March 11.

It was a brilliant move, Jay-Z front and center, relying on the unsurprising shallowness of a star-struck press.

Consider that the New Jersey Nets, the team destined for the Atlantic Yards arena, is contending for the NBA record for losses.

And that the majority owner of the team--and owner of nearly half of the arena--should soon be Russia's richest oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, a most peculiar beneficiary of significant government subsidies, tax breaks, and the extraordinary power of eminent domain.

Solution: heap attention on the celebrity who owns a tiny piece of the team.

Was Jay-Z used? Well, maybe, but you can't hustle a hustler who became a world-class celebrity.

If Jay-Z can open the new Barclays Center, it all will be worth it--even enduring a discomfiting introduction from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a man whose celebrity is confined to Kings County.

And Jay-Z's a huge basketball fan, so why not get in on the ground floor?

The video (via NY Post)

First, Bob Diamond of Barclays Capital introduced Jay-Z and drew applause; however, Jay-Z stood aside to let Markowitz do his thing.

The Markowitz intro

"This one I waited for. Our next speaker is a Brooklyn native, who we hope will be a Brooklyn resident once again very soon," said Markowitz, with his tummler's brio. "He recently gave this city its new unofficial anthem: Empire State of Mind."

Big applause.

The contrast between Markowitz--short, pudgy, older, white, excited--and Jay--none of those--was palpable. Markowitz was a mixture of fawning and teasing.

"And just last week, I had the extreme pleasure--again the extreme pleasure"--Markowitz said, laying it on thick--"of meeting his lovely and altruistic wife Beyoncé at the opening of her new cosmetology school which she and her beautiful mother Tina contributed here in Brooklyn at Phoenix House, that will help men and women struggling with substance abuse to find a rewarding career.... Bravo, Beyoncé."

(At right, a photo by Kathryn Kirk from the March 5 event. Now Beyoncé has a legitimate interest in Phoenix House, given that she met with women there when she was preparing for the role of Etta James, a former heroin addict, in the film Cadillac Records. But maybe it was a good idea that Jay-Z wasn't part of the entourage that day, since he was once on the wrong side of the Phoenix House pipeline.)

Shticking it up

Then Markowitz began to shtick it up, a PG-13 moment more appropriate for a Friar's Club roast than a live broadcast. "Now, I have to tell you Jay, I gotta tell you--I think she really liked me."

The crowd chuckled. Jay-Z looked bemused. He didn't crack a smile.

"In fact, there's proof," Markowitz said, brandishing a photo of him standing next to the singer.

Jay-Z maintained his poker face, perhaps calculating an extra clause in his opening day Barclays Center contract.

"But now let me show you the other picture," Markowitz said, amping it up. He pushed a photo of Beyoncé kissing him in Jay-Z's face and waved it around 180 degrees.

Jay-Z's eyes bugged out a bit.

"Yes, Jay," Markwitz said, in an aggressively teasing tone, chuckling to himself, and pointing the photo at Jay-Z. The latter looked on with poker-faced restraint, then took the photo and replaced it on the podium, finally smiling. "That's your wife giving me a kiss on my right cheek and I haven't touched it since then."

The crowd laughed.

"Now it's obvious she likes Brooklyn guys, we know that, and I really believe, I really believe, if I had met her before you, I could've been a contender," said the 60ish, pudgy, non-hip-hop BP.

"But seriously, I always say, Brooklyn is where legends are made and dreams come true," Markowitz said, finally reading his speech more rapidly. "And no one proves it more than this man, who, as he famously said, went from bricks to billboards, who is famous from Marcy to Madison Square and beyond, who is now bringing the epicenter of big-time back home to Barclays Center. I give you: dedicated philanthropist, innovative artist, and entrepreneur, Nets investor and cultural icon, Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z."

(Emphases added)

Bricks to billboards?

Well, Jay-Z isn't bringing anything by himself, but let's look at the first highlight. "Bricks" may sound like a reference to the streets but, at least according to the Urban Dictionary, the most common definition refers to drugs, and we all know how Jay-Z started out.

The line, from his song Dirt Off Your Shoulder, is:
From Bricks to Billboards, from grams to Grammys
The hip-hop world quickly picked it up. To quote DJ Emperor Searcy of Atlanta's Hot107.9:
Jay-Z’s past accidentally slapped him in the face today during the groundbreaking ceremony for Barclay Center, future home of the Brooklyn Nets.

Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, in his introduction of part-owner of the basketball team, unknowingly referred to Jay-Z’s drug dealing past when he introduced him as “the man, who as he famously said, went from bricks to billboards!”

Check out Jay-Z’s reaction!
And, if you'd check "Empire State of Mind," you'd learn that Jay's self-proclaimed "stash spot" was at 560 State Street, just blocks away from the groundbreaking.

Jay-Z's speech

Jay-Z spoke for little more than a minute. "Everyone spoke about, uh, community inclusion and job creation and, um, so, I'm not going to go over all that again," he said. After all, who's he to doubt the job creation fantasies of Gov. David Paterson?

"Um. But I stand here and represent hope for Brooklyn, New York City. I'm a son of Brooklyn, Marcy Projects [in Bed-Stuy]."

"I think about growing up in New York Ci--I mean Brooklyn, in Marcy Projects, and shooting jump shots and thinking I could make it to the NBA," he said. "Now I stand here as an owner of a team that's coming back to Brooklyn and the pride in that, in bringing that dream so much closer to people from Marcy, from Tompkins, from Fort Greene"--the crowd interrupted with applause.

"It brings me so much pride I'm going to get a little nervous about it, but I'm very happy, I'm very excited on this day," he said in closing. "We did it again, Brooklyn. Shout out to [Notorious] B.I.G."

The black Branch Rickey?

A couple of years back, in "Brooklyn (Go Hard)" Jay-Z promised, in typical hyperbole, "Now when I bring the Nets, I'm the black Branch Rickey."

The Rev. Al Sharpton commented at the groundbreaking in a similar vein: "I'm glad I lived to see the color line in ownership broken in Brooklyn, where we've gone from Jackie to Jay-Z, where we can not only play the game but we can own a piece of the game. So my mother saw Jackie and my daughters will see Jay-Z--we have come a long way."

As I noted, black ownership in the NBA goes back to majority owner Robert Johnson and minority owner Michael Jordan.

Jay-Z, Sharpton, and the rest were distracting everyone from the man who wasn't there, the oligarch behind the curtain.


  1. Marty Markowitz, if nothing else, is all about being classy and respectful

    Besides cringe worthy comments about another guy's wife and clueless remarks about that guy's past, he has forgotten his promise to treat those in the Atlantic Yards footprint fairly and with dignity—especially tenants. He has forgotten them completely. Much as he "forgot", on Ratner's groundtaking day, that his dream arena, if ever built, and its home team, will be owned by the oligarch behind the curtain.


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