The big story in the NBA today is not the Finals. It is a fascinating article by Ben Detrick over at The Ringer. You should really read the whole thing—too often, we just look at a headline or the reaction. Detrick did a terrific job. The story is about 76ers president Bryan Colangelo, and the strong indications that he has been using five Twitter accounts to promote his agenda, settle scores, criticize his own players and leak private medical information. Surely, a sleepy sports-media town like Philadelphia will take this in stride, but around the league, people are talking about it.
Colangelo says he operates one account, @phila1234567, but has never tweeted. He denies any connection to the other accounts. He claims to be as baffled as the rest of us.
It’s a crazy story … which, really, is the main reason some people believe Colangelo. As premier NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN tweeted: “many league executives seem to believe this: It is hard to fathom a GM risking his job in such a reckless manner. Many are giving him the benefit of doubt on that level alone.” And 76ers star Joel Embiid tweeted, “I don’t believe the story. That would just be insane.”
I can’t tell you definitively if Colangelo did this. Maybe he was set up. This could be a big practical joke by Embiid, or the work of some crazed Sixers fan, or just another brilliant maneuver by Danny Ainge.
But if you think this story is too crazy to believe, and you wonder how an NBA general manager could do something so reckless … well, this is how.
As the great NBA broadcaster Hubie Brown would say, when breaking down a situation: “You’re Bryan Colangelo.”
It is April 2016. You have just been hired to replace Sam Hinkie as the 76ers head of basketball operations. You built the NBA’s most beloved and influential non-champion of this generation, the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns, but everybody credits coach Mike D’Antoni. You stole star Kyle Lowry for the Raptors, but then you got fired and people fawn over your successor, Masai Ujiri.
This annoys you.
Now you are taking over a team that went 10-72, and you can already tell: No matter how much you win, people will give Hinkie and his Process the credit. If you lose, they will blame you. To the stats community, Hinkie is a martyr, you’re the bad guy, and that’s that.
You know that pleading your case publicly will make you look small. But you can’t help it: You’re annoyed. Almost every NBA executive has some kind of Twitter account, either public or private, to follow the conversation in the league. You have one, too: @phila1234567. On a whim—it only takes a minute—you create another account, and you respond to somebody’s tweet.
Gosh, that feels good.
You know it won’t really change the conversation. But it feels good. It’s like therapy, but it’s free, it doesn’t take an hour, you don’t have to make an appointment, and there is no chance of anybody recognizing you as you walk into your therapist’s office.
You keep going. A tweet here, a tweet there—it’s an easy way to blow off steam. You get to say what you really think. It’s cathartic. Sometimes you fire one off, then walk around the 76ers’ office and wonder if anybody knows it’s you.
Nobody has a clue.
Sometimes, when you are alone in your office, or when there is nobody at the urinal next to yours, you chuckle to yourself.
Pretty soon, you are like a lot of people who use Twitter: you don’t even know why you’re logging in, but you can’t stop yourself. You do it instinctively. And when you’re in that Twitter world, it’s like Fortnite for you—the rest of the world doesn’t exist. You dive in, swim around, climb out, and nobody even knows you were there.
Once in a while, you look up at a TV In the 76ers’ offices and see some guy named Skip Bayless ripping LeBron James: LeBron isn’t clutch enough, he isn’t tough enough, he shoots too many jumpers. You think about how utterly stupid this is. Everybody in the NBA—you mean, that literally: EVERYBODY in the NBA—understands that LeBron is the best player in the league, a joy to watch, a nightmare to face.
You wonder if Bayless is an idiot, or if he just decided to troll everybody as a business decision, or … this sounds crazy, but maybe he is so deep into his argument now that he can’t stop himself. Maybe he just keeps saying more outlandish things and doesn’t realize it, but getting into arguments on TV gives him some kind of adrenaline rush, and every dumb comment just makes him more likely to make another.
Whatever. That’s Skip’s problem.
Your team is getting better. But, like most NBA GMs, you believe the narrative around your team does not quite mesh with reality. It’s not just the over-the-top love for Hinkie. It’s little stuff. Trade rumors that are off. News stories that strike you as half-true or incomplete. You could leak a bunch of stuff to chosen reporters, to get your story out there, and maybe you do that a little bit. But that comes with risk. Reporters talk—to each other, and to people around the league.
Thankfully, you have your anonymous Twitter account. Well, accounts, plural. You have several now—you have been tweeting so much that it would look weird to have them come from one account.
Nobody suspects anything, and who cares, anyway? You barely have any followers. Followers are not even the point. This is just a release for you.
You see Warriors star Kevin Durant get caught having a burner Twitter account to defend himself—Durant apparently tried to use his burner account, but he accidentally used his real one instead.
You think: See? I’m not the only one who does this.
And you also think: I won’t get caught. I can’t get caught. I don’t even have a real Twitter account.
You feel safer.
Right before the start of your second season, you see another crazy news story: Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Chris Foerster recorded a video of himself snorting cocaine in the office and sent it to a woman in Las Vegas. You can’t believe how reckless Foerster was. Buying cocaine, bringing it into the office, getting on a team plane while high—what was he thinking? Of course that was going to come out.
You pick up your phone, set the Safari browser to “Private”—you never know who might find your phone if you lose it—and tweet something about your team that you would never say publicly.
You keep working, keep scouting, and keep watching your team … win. Yes, win. It’s glorious. The 76ers are one of the best stories in the league; they lose to the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs, but there are brighter days ahead. You have one of the best young cores in the league with Embiid and Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, and your guy Markelle Fultz should be healthy and productive next year, and you are finalizing a contract extension for coach Brett Brown.
Life is good, and then one day one of your media-relations people asks if you have a minute, and he’s sorry, he knows this sounds crazy, you’re not even going to believe it, but some guy named Ben Detrick with the Ringer wants to know if you are connected to these five anonymous Twitter accounts, and that’s when you think, “Oh, s—.”