Shea Serrano has a routine for the NBA playoffs, one that’s pretty common among the basketball-obsessed these days. For big games, the author and journalist will plant himself alone in front of a television to watch the action with thousands of friends and strangers.
“To me, it’s becoming more fun than watching in real life with a bunch of people,” said Serrano, one of NBA Twitter’s most prominent voices and a writer for the Ringer website. “I know for me, I mostly like to be by myself. But this is a way for me to be by myself but also not really all alone.”
On social media, there’s nothing like NBA Twitter. It’s a sports bar that doesn’t close, a barbershop with unlimited seating, a family cookout where the NBA stars show up to hang.
“More people might watch the NFL on TV, but when it comes to consuming a sport through the Internet, I don’t think anything’s close to the NBA,” said Rob Perez, more commonly known by his Twitter handle @World_Wide_Wob, which has propelled him from unknown to virtual celebrity.
The NBA is the most tweeted-about sports league in 2018, according to Twitter, with more than 100 million NBA-related tweets heading into the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday. The most mentioned athlete in the United States last year was LeBron James, and the most mentioned team was the Cleveland Cavaliers. With James’s Cavs taking aim at a title against the Golden State Warriors for the fourth straight year and the face of the league expected to test free agency this summer, NBA Twitter should be all-consuming these next few months.
It has been particularly lively this week, fueled as always by headlines that cast the league as the sports world’s most intriguing soap opera — specifically, news that Bryan Colangelo, the Philadelphia 76ers’ president of basketball operations and general manager, might have used anonymous Twitter accounts to take shots at his players while patting himself on the back.
The entire episode has sent NBA Twitter into overdrive, underscoring how vital social media has become in the league. Since its earliest days, NBA fans planted a stake and claimed Twitter as their preferred meeting spot. A community grew that includes players, fans, journalists — and users such as Perez, whose platforms turned them into pseudo-journalists and NBA Twitter stars. They watch games together and comment on news, highlights and roster moves. They’ll dissect pregame wardrobes and postgame news conferences. They traffic in humor and highlights, trading snarky analysis about things on and off the court. There’s no membership card; NBA Twitter simply requires fans to follow the game’s players and personalities and jump in a conversation that moves quickly and has no boundaries.
“It’s so hard to explain NBA Twitter to people who aren’t on Twitter,” said Alexis Morgan, whose fandom and Twitter presence helped her land a digital reporting job with the Memphis Grizzlies. “I was trying to explain this to my mom, and she just didn’t get it. You have to be inside of it to totally understand it.”
Veering from the pack
It’s no accident that the NBA has cultivated a devoted online following. The league has leveraged social media to stay relevant, to keep its fans — especially those who skew younger and more tech-savvy — engaged year-round.
“If I knew what the secret sauce was, I’d bottle up it spread it around to every single league property that I work with,” said TJ Adeshola, Twitter’s head of sports league partnerships. “NBA Twitter just has this really special connectivity to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
“It’s really reflective of the league’s approach in the broader marketplace to be innovative, to give their players this level of authenticity and connectivity. It’s relatively unprecedented in the sports space, which lends itself to a perfect, perfect marriage with a Twitter platform. The league has been the one to lift up the hood and give folks a unique view.”
A Gallup poll released this year found that 37 percent of Americans said football was their favorite sport, down from 43 percent in 2006. Basketball, meanwhile, stood second at 11 percent, having surpassed baseball (9 percent). But the popularity online and race to attract younger fans is no contest, as social media has helped the NBA build a sizable advantage over other leagues. According to data from Sports Business Journal and Magna Global, the average age of baseball viewers in 2016 was 57. For the NFL, it was 50, and 42 for the NBA. Data from Nielsen has suggested that 45 percent of NBA viewers are under 35.
While there was no formal launch of NBA Twitter, the league played a vital role in its inception. As the Internet grew and new platforms emerged, sports leagues had to wrestle with how they wanted to protect their content, particularly the highlights and video that networks paid millions of dollars to broadcast exclusively.
Melissa Brenner, the NBA’s executive vice president of digital media, recalls sitting in a meeting room in 2005 with a handful of league lawyers and future NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who was an influential league executive at the time, debating YouTube.
“There were sports properties that didn’t appreciate the opportunity that YouTube afforded fans and looked solely at issues such as piracy and copyright, which are important issues to address,” Brenner said. “Adam quickly identified the opportunity, which was: How do you infuse our content and communities where people are gathering? How do we make sure we’re a part of the conversation?”
While leagues such as the NFL and Major League Baseball have gone after sites and social media users who have posted video without permission, the NBA took the opposite approach. Silver considers online videos to be a form of marketing. He likens them to “snacks” that might whet fans’ appetites for something bigger.
“If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience,” Silver recently told strategy+business magazine. “We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.”
The ability to share videos via Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat changed the nature of discourse during the season. Fans could comment on highlights almost in real-time, swap funny captions on bloopers or make observations of things they noticed in the huddles or stands or far away from the action.
“A lot of people think Twitter is a secondary screen when you’re watching the NBA,” the Grizzlies’ Morgan said. “I kind of think of it as the first screen because that’s the first thing I look at when something crazy happens. A lot of times, I’m watching my timeline more than I’m actually watching the game.”
Soon, everyone was tuned into the same games — or at least the same discussions — and the conversation extended well beyond the season.
Perez said he believes NBA Twitter coalesced as a community during James’s free agency in 2010. James had injected maximum suspense, and fans gathered on sites such as Twitter and Reddit to discuss his pending decision ad nauseam, reading the Internet’s tea leaves for clues. “All we did was chase private planes and swap this information,” Perez said. “ ‘Oh, there was a flight that took off from Akron to Miami — what does that mean?’ To me, that was the moment.”
What’s followed has been an endless stream of moments, mostly inconsequential events that never would have been noticed pre-social media. Of the four major North American sports, Reddit’s NBA message board is now the only one with more than 1 million subscribers. With this rabid community dissecting things big and small, everything is subject to analysis, even if it’s only tangentially related to basketball.
There’s JaVale McGee bloopers, Russell Westbrook outfits, Twitter beefs and Nick Young being Nick Young. Chris Paul and superstar friends were on a banana boat, DeAndre Jordan was jokingly kidnapped by the Clippers (which spawned a series of emoji from NBA players — and revealed Paul Pierce’s technological illiteracy), and the Rockets tried to use a secret tunnel to find the Clippers’ locker room for a postgame scrap — or so we thought at the time.
“It’s all these things that maybe you and your buddies would be talking about,” Perez said. “What Twitter did was put it all front and center. This is how I’ve always watched the game. You care about the score, but I was always looking for things like crossovers, poster dunks, pettiness, unnecessary drama. Things like Malice at the Palace or John Starks fighting — I lived for that.”
He just had no idea his interest on the sideline could someday pay dividends. Nobody did.
On NBA Twitter, the players are recurring guest stars, sliding in now and then to toss a piece of meat to the hungry pack. But anyone can jump into the conversation, and those who have consistently had something smart or funny to offer have distinguished themselves, blossoming into personalities that help drive the dialogue.
Perez, for example, was an NBA fan who worked in the New Orleans Hornets’ ticket office before starting his own ticket brokerage firm. After selling that, he found himself with time on his hands and turned to Twitter to crack basketball jokes and share insights. He now has 221,000 followers, more than many NBA players, and works for Cycle Media, where he hosts a regular streaming show called “Buckets.”
“The only reason I exist in this industry to begin with is because of Twitter,” he said. “No one would’ve found me.”
Serrano was a basketball fan working construction who then got a teaching gig before breaking into the farthest fringes of the sportswriting world. His basketball commentary eventually garnered the attention of Bill Simmons, and Serrano now has 238,000 followers. He has written two books, one of which — “Basketball (And Other Things)” — was mentioned by President Obama as one of last year’s best reads.
“There are people who only know me because of Twitter,” Serrano said. “Without Twitter, the books don’t get on the bestseller list. All that stuff doesn’t happen. Twitter is probably 55 percent responsible for my career; the other 45 percent is working under Bill Simmons and [the Ringer’s editor in chief] Sean Fennessey.”
Or consider Omar Raja, who started the popular House of Highlights Instagram account while in college. The account is a mix of highlight-reel plays and funny moments. Now 23, Raja has more than 9 million followers and was hired last year by Bleacher Report. He creates the kind of viral content that serves as fuel for NBA Twitter — about half is game action, and the rest might be more personality-based.
One of his most popular videos of these playoffs featured Cleveland’s J.R. Smith reacting after sinking a three-pointer against the Boston Celtics. Raja’s caption — “When you successfully slide in her DMs after she’s been liking your pics for months” — made reference to Smith getting caught crudely propositioning a woman via direct message a few years back. It’s a popular NBA Twitter inside joke. Raja’s clip has nearly 2.9 million views.
“You never know when something’s gonna pop. This thing is completely 24-7. I’m always on high alert,” he said.
Raja’s phone buzzes every couple of minutes with suggestions or requests for House of Highlights. He doesn’t stop to catch his breath and will interrupt meals or dates to post. He recalls last postseason, sitting in a movie theater, watching an installment of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise, and his phone was lighting up with people talking about Marc Gasol and Kawhi Leonard exchanging big baskets. He got right to work.
“I had to cut it and put it all together on my phone,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I have a job to do. People are waiting for this. Hope you understand.’ And I put my head down, did the headphones in one ear and did it as quickly as I could.”
Players dropping in
Shaquille O’Neal was one of the first athletes to embrace Twitter, effectively kicking open a doorway back in 2008 for nearly every player since. More so than many athletes from other sports, NBA stars can be more willing to share parts of their personal lives, fostering a deeper connection with fans, Twitter’s Adeshola said.
“The focus on the lifestyle, the focus on this relatability that Twitter allows to connect directly one-to-one with these folks has really come to life on the platform,” he said. “If it was about the box score, the conversation would be relegated to just the regular season. But you see that it’s a year-long dialogue.”
Raja said he believes what separates the NBA from the other leagues is the personalities, accessibility and relatability. Even if NBA players have wildly different incomes and lifestyles than their fans, they live in the same online community.
“Just look at the personalities in the league and how they interact with fans, how they react to games. It feels very much like a friend who’d be texting you during a game,” he said.
Some of the biggest tweets take place out of season and have little to do with the sport. There were nearly 76 million NBA-related tweets from the end of the NBA Finals last year to the season opener four months later, a testament to the league’s desire to be a year-round topic of conversation. Players often craft story lines that fans flesh out with their commentary and chatter.
Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, who has 8 million followers, tweeted about the victims of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February, a post that received 538,000 likes and 155,000 retweets. Blake Griffin posted a comical GIF from the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in January after he was traded that got 260,000 likes and 105,000 retweets.
The biggest athlete tweet ever came, not surprisingly, from James, who has nearly 42 million followers on the platform. He directed a tweet last September at President Trump, whom he called “U bum,” adding, “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” It received nearly 1.5 million likes and 645,000 retweets.
Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid would be the likely consensus No. 1 pick on an all-Twitter team right now, an expert at trolling other players, talking trash and cracking jokes. While he can be subtle and clever, his most famous tweet was asking singer Rihanna on a date in March — 72,000 retweets, 234,000 likes — which sent NBA Twitter into a tizzy for several days.
After the Colangelo story broke this week, Embiid naturally hopped on board, tweeting at one of the accounts allegedly linked to Colangelo about former GM Sam Hinkie.
Joel told me that @samhinkie IS BETTER AND SMARTER THAN YOU @AlVic40117560 #BurnerAccount— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) May 30, 2018
Fun night on Twitter lmao.. All jokes asides I don’t believe the story. That would just be insane— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) May 30, 2018
“I think I kind of represent Twitter in the NBA,” Embiid told Philly Voice last year. “But I never thought I would have this type of influence, and like I said, I’m just trying to be me. If people enjoy it, that’s great.”
As for what’s next for NBA Twitter, people are keeping a close eye on Twitch, the live-streaming platform that encourages real-time interactivity and is particularly popular with video gamers and younger generations. (The site is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) The NBA has deals to stream some G-League and NBA 2K League games on Twitch, allowing fans to serve as commentators and possibly develop followings.
“I can see things moving in that direction,” the Grizzlies’ Morgan said. “It’d almost be like you don’t even need announcers. You’d just follow along with the people you like and want to hear from.”
And who knows? Maybe the league will continue to lean in and make itself even more Twitter friendly.
“Can you imagine if the NBA ever allowed players to go to their phones during games?” Perez said, referring to a rule the league introduced after a player tweeted midgame in 2009. “Oh my God — can you just imagine what J.R. Smith would tweet at halftime after going 0 for 9 or 12 for 12 or [getting] a flagrant from pushing Al Horford? Holy [cow], that would be amazing!”