Hours after the Philadelphia 76ers announced a three-year contract extension for Brett Brown, a story dropped that fundamentally re-cast the emotional dynamics of their franchise. President of 76ers basketball operations Bryan Colangelo or someone close to him has for the past year, the story alleged and argued, been secretly operating a handful of Twitter burner accounts, frequently exposing his publicly unexpressed thoughts about the organization’s inner workings. Among the consequences of this story are a heightened sense of a “which is the preferred son” dynamic between young dual superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and a more visible company neurosis about how much credit former general manager and Sixers fan cult figure Sam Hinkie deserves for the team’s ascent.
If we are to believe the claims made about Colangelo’s not-so-surreptitious behavior, we can also see that the executive, an NBA lifer whose thought processes may mirror those of many powerful people in the league, cares a lot more about the opinions of middle-volume bloggers than he would likely admit. The revealing of his accounts (the most infamous and most hilariously titled being “Eric jr”) suggests a mythos-related cognitive dissonance familiar to Kevin Durant, whose previous experience in these waters comes readily to mind. Both men seem to have an incapacity to accept their lack of control over what people, however big or small their podium, say about them. While the thought that someone out there may not appreciate them could drive them to do better work, it also motivates them to wear strange, modern little digital masks to dig into the endless trenches of red-faced online revisionism.
It’s entirely possible that Colangelo isn’t behind these accounts. The proof that he is requires much more assembly of conspiratorial yarn than it did with Durant, whose fingers slipped in a way that eliminated any reasonable margin of doubt about his social media habits, and forced him to confess (Colangelo has denied his association with these accounts). The Sixers are now lauching a formal investigation into Colangelo’s Twitter usage, and will presumably deal with the matter when they’ve collected more information. The accusations, in any event, launch the culture of the league into a wormhole in which there is an ever-shrinking gap between who runs the NBA and who bitches about it on the tiniest of internet soapboxes. As fan communities with minimal audiences scramble to reinforce or deny the stories about Colangelo’s accounts, grouping together to decode clues with diminishing returns, NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski—a man whose defection from Yahoo! to ESPN re-shaped the landscape of NBA media—is playing a similar game of speculation, claiming that, regardless of logistical or technical conclusions, the words of Eric jr affirm what he has long heard through whisper networks.
It seems hardly coincidental that this story whisks us away just as the stage of the NBA Finals has been set as a fourth consecutive showdown between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Aside from the stunning longevity of LeBron James, both teams have become less intriguing, not more, since their rivalry peaked two years ago, and now the competitive advantage is so far in the Warriors’ favor that it’s fair to wonder if the ratings boon their dynamic has seen the past few seasons is headed for jeopardy. What someone is doing on Twitter, in other words, has a strong chance to be more interesting to both fans and people high up in the sport. Facing the dead end of the Cavs vs. Warriors, the aggressively humming narrative engine of the contemporary NBA has been redirected toward Eric Jr vs. The Blog Boys.
This is a preview of what’s soon to come, during the most attended-to portion of basketball’s calendar: the post-results, pro-speculation zone of the draft and free agency period. This is when the damning outcomes of the regular season and playoffs can be spun into something else, and the internet’s increasingly intense relationship with pro basketball has shown that something else to be progressively weirder; more eccentric, more deeply paranoid and absurd, more rawly human. As privacy becomes harder to protect, the windows through which to lose it larger and more ubiquitous, everyone in the league becomes a more active participant in their own peanut gallery. It’s as if Bryan Colangelo and all the Eric jrs out there, whether he pretends to be one amidst their millions or not, are chasing more similar ghosts than one might suspect; as if the romance between the NBA and Twitter breeds a great leveling force that throws fans and executives onto the same corrective, gleefully expressive plane.