Steve Jobs and Al Davis: Men in Black

Al Davis and Steve Jobs

Al Davis and Steve Jobs

That man in black. The outlaw. He goes against the grain. Turns the law on it’s head. He demands the fancy of the damsel, gets the respect of the foreigner, and the admiration of the youth. When he blows into town, you know that change is a’coming.

No small coincidence that the story plays out in what was once the Wild West.

Steve Jobs, a Bay Area native, and Al Davis, an East Coast transplant, both died last week within a few days of each other. Both represented and embodied two of the most influential organizations based in the Bay Area, resonating out to their respective industries.

And both wore black.

Growing up in the 1980’s, the coolest new thing at school and at home were video games and computers. I remember when the Apple IIe showed up in our computer lab in junior high, there was a sign-up sheet to use it, de-glamorizing all of the P.E.T. computers running BASIC. When I got a chance to “work” on it, did I know what to do? No way. But I just knew that it was newer and cooler.

In 1984, I had just moved to the Bay Area from Chicago and the Raiders had just moved away to L.A. Being in junior high and trying to affiliate with something that would ground you in your personality and social groups, I explored allegiances and listened to the kids of disgruntled Raider fans. It was then that I heard the name Al Davis for the first time. I recall wondering “Who is Al Davis?  Is he the quarterback, the coach?” Never conceiving, as a pre-adolescent boy, that a sports team could be defined and personified by the OWNER. This was the person who everyone was mad at? He was no one to be vilified or deified… He didn’t even PLAY the game!

This man in black. Defied the NFL. Even dared to alienate his team’s hometown fanbase, abandoning their love and seeking his riches down south. (Home of some other visionary, polarizing magnates like William Mulholland and Walt Disney)

Those orange shorts.

1984 was the year that Raiders had just won the Super Bowl. In Los Angeles. Much to the dismay of my Raider-kin friends. It was also the year that famous Apple Super Bowl 1984 ad was released and the world was about to see something we affectionately know now as…. the Mac Classic.

I’m not sure if I was taken more by the blonde in orange booty-shorts or by the coolest thing that a computer could actually do: Make it easy for me to use.

The early to mid-1990’s played themselves out like this: the Mac became a great little tool for having at home while Bill Gates commoditized the user experience and brought us the rival DOS/Windows system. Going to market with an economical and “open” development environment, Microsoft and Windows began to dominate the PC market as well as mainstream business uses. The Apple products got pushed aside as educational luxuries, relegated to the computer labs of our universities and grade schools.

Steve Jobs had been forced out of Apple, and it was now being run by guys’ guys. Corporate veterans who thought running a company was a textbook position. Jobs had gone on to found NeXT computers, so that he could do things his own way. Of course this way became so attractive to Apple, they bought NeXT for $430M. Critical was the NeXTSTEP operating system which would eventually become Mac OS X (think iTunes’ DNA). Thus, the return to Apple for Jobs in 1996 where he was re-hired as CEO.

Likewise, the San Francisco 49ers had supplanted the Raiders as the Bay Area love team. The good boys in gold. Bringing home championships. The Raiders languished in LA with a laughably large LA Coliseum to fill with easily distracted Los Angeles fans. Still adamant about his team’s “Commitment to Excellence,” Al Davis never gave up on the team he had wholly personified. Knowing he had to make a move that would reinvigorate his franchise and mobilize the fan base, in true Hollywood dramatic fashion, he packed up the Raiders and moved them back to Oakland in 1995.

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In many ways, they became known as Al Davis’ Raiders rather than Oakland’s or Los Angeles.’ And this move back to the Bay Area cemented firmly in the minds of men that this team belonged to one person and one person only. The mystique around the team transcended the location of the team, the skull and bones logo, and even the storied history of the 60’s and 70’s. It was real cool to be a Raider. Mirroring the gangsta rap, anti-establishment, hip-hop culture of the late 90’s, Raider gear eclipsed America’s team’s, the Dallas Cowboys, in all time merchandise revenue. Long gone was the blonde-haired blue-eyed man-boy. It was good to be bad. It was good to be the man in black. And this all trickled down from Al Davis. Now fans became fans of him and his middle-finger to the world.

In 1996, it was the second coming of Jobs at Apple. It was here that we saw Apple turn around from lovable loser to the gargantuan-ness it is today. Jobs’ brilliance never-ceased to amaze. He was probably the person who made the term “Keynote Speech” a mainstream phrase and the event, a sought-after ticket. He entertained at every turn and filled you with a hope of a better tomorrow today. He followed his what-if’s with check-this-out. He wore a black mock turtle neck for 15 years straight. I think he never wanted to take away from his soon-to-be-released product on the screen behind him.

In fifteen years, Apple went from a whimsical alternative to Microsoft to a market shifter in several vertical industries and reshaped the way in which we consume information, music and each other. There’s a lot of Steve Jobs in every piece of tech you interact with today. Apple branded or not.

Al Davis’ passing was as profound as Jobs’ in that his loss was greatly felt by not only Raider-lovers but football fans worldwide. The halo effect he had on today’s modern-day football game, arguably the most important and valuable entertainment commodity in this country, should never be underestimated. He was the first to hire a black head coach, a hispanic head coach, the youngest head coach and the first woman executive in all of football. He was instrumental in the merger of the AFL and NFL, thereby subverting the loss of teams like the New York Jets, New England Patriots, the Chiefs, the Chargers and the Dolphins.

Both Steve Jobs and Al Davis were entities that were greater than their material selves. That transcendence is the envy of CEO’s, coaches, bull-fighters and parents around the world: to be bigger than you are. These two were bigger than life and have left an indelible mark on the world we consume today. They have fed our love for entertainment and drama and showmanship and inspiration. They were both creators of something that was on one side or another of a love/hate conversation. Either way you have an opinion. And it takes quite a person to make millions of people in the world love your product or hate your product. But they will always respect your passion.

Extremely speaking, if you’re a football geek and don’t care about technology, or tech geek who doesn’t care much about watching the gridiron, one day you will pull out your iPhone and check a football score. And right there will be the shadow of two men in black.

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