Two great teams met Sunday night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. One represented a small, down-at-the-heels, heavily African-American city with a decades-long history of losing teams. The other represented much the same.

Or maybe it represented something completely opposite. 

I'm from Milwaukee, a city that hasn't won a major sports championship in almost as long as Cleveland hadn't before last night. To be a fan  in a place like Milwaukee is to be constantly reminded that sports is above all a business: No sooner does a terrific young player come along to lift your team's fortunes than he gets shipped off to New York or L.A., or some other big city that can afford him. When you grow up watching sports in the Midwest, unless there is something wrong with your soul, you spend the rest of your life rooting for underdogs, or at least trying to persuade yourself the teams you like are underdogs. 

I live in the Bay Area now. For those of us here, it has been natural and comforting to think of the Golden State Warriors as underdogs, even as they've parlayed an NBA championship into a historically dominant season. Much of it has to do with their association with Oakland, an unglamorous city beset by crime, urban dysfunction and some of California's worst freeway interchanges. Some of it has to do with their makeup: Physically, they're almost always David in the David-and-Goliath story. Their superstar leader, Stephen Curry, is, at six-foot-three, usually the shortest player on the court, and their "Lineup of Death" kills other teams by besting size with quickness. 

Cleveland is even more of a hard-luck town than Oakland, but its team is led by LeBron James, a physical marvel who has led his teams to six straight Finals and has a lifetime sponsorship deal with Nike reported to be worth more than $1 billion. Largely thanks to him, the small-market Cavaliers have the league's highest payroll. Any team with James on it is hard to take seriously as an underdog. 

Or so I thought. But in the minutes after Game Seven ended with Cleveland's historically unprecedented triumph, I discovered, thanks to social media, that my Midwest sports fan friends had all been rooting for Cleveland.

"I've seen downtown Cleveland," one of them texted me by way of explanation.

"I just want this so badly for the Brewers."

Another wrote something unprintable about venture capitalist Joe Lacob, the Warriors' majority owner

Joe Lacob: Therein lies the disconnect. In the Bay Area, we see the Warriors as a symbol of Oakland. Nationally, though, they're a symbol of Silicon Valley riches. "Tech's team," as Farhad Manjoo memorably called them in The New York Times

"They are a juggernaut with a modern, disruptive style of play that is consuming everything in its path -- an ideal mascot for an industry whose defining mantra is to mercilessly eat the world," Manjoo wrote in a column asking whether the Warriors' popularity with tech industry employees will drive up prices and hurt longtime fans. 

Here's the funny thing, though: The reason techies love the Warriors so much is not because they admire a juggernaut but because they, too, identify as underdogs and outsiders. They see themselves in the era-defining success of the scrappy, unconventional Golden State team. In metaphoric terms, the Lineup of Death is a network of startups taking on lumbering established industries and vanquishing them with a combination of nimbleness and math. 

Even in 2016, when Apple, Google and Microsoft are the three biggest companies in the world and California is home to 53 tech billionaires, Silicon Valley manages to nurse an unlikely underdog complex. Tech's titans are weirdly obsessed with the idea that their industry is unappreciated, embattled, misunderstood. It's what motivated Peter Thiel to conduct a secret legal war against Gawker Media, forcing the company into bankruptcy. (Thiel believed Gawker's Valleywag blog was demonizing his Silicon Valley friends and turning the mob against them.) It's what inspired Marc Andreessen to accuse the film "The Martian" of being anti-tech, even though he hadn't seen it yet. It's what motivated investors like Tom Perkins and Paul Graham to say bizarre  things about inequality. It's the spirit that animates Travis Kalanick and Brian Chesky to take no prisoners in their fights against Big Taxi and Big Hotel, even as Uber and Airbnb have become the biggest forces in their respective industries. 

They're not entirely wrong. As my completely unscientific sampling of sports fans showed me, there is a certain amount of anti-tech resentment in Middle America. And  that's only going to grow over the next decade, as self-driving cars and other forms of automation and AI eliminate  perhaps tens of millions of jobs.

Chances are the Warriors won't continue to dominate the NBA for that long, but Silicon Valley's preeminence in the economy is only increasing. How will tech's elite attempt to persuade the rest of America that they are, in fact, the ones to root for? Will they keep trying to work the refs, complaining about the supposedly biased calls they get from blogs and regulators and Hollywood screenwriters?

Or will they, at some point, try listening to the fans for a change, even if it requires setting aside some cherished myths?  

Published on: Jun 20, 2016