Jason Terry knows he’s breaking the rules, but he can’t help it. In the Milwaukee Bucks’ locker room 75 minutes before a matchup with the visiting Washington Wizards, the veteran guard’s eyes are lowered, in deep inspection of his phone.
This season, the Bucks — not the team, but the players — implemented a rule: Stay off your phone before games. Players are only allowed to navigate music playlists. There is an exception for guys with certain pregame routines such as Terry’s video poker habit, which the 40-year-old has long used as a way to ease his mind before taking the court. But general phone use — and especially social media — is off limits.
“This is the time to get focused,” Terry explains.
But he isn’t watching the monitor showing Wizards game footage or playing video poker. He’s busted: The lull of the moment draws him to his email. The phone — as ubiquitous in an NBA workspace as X’s and O’s on the whiteboard — has the locker-room veteran breaking the rules.
“I mean, it’s addictive,” Terry admits.
NBA players are a special breed, blessed with skill and athleticism, yet they are not unlike most of us: They, too, are obsessed with checking their phones, thumbing through Twitter and liking photos on Instagram.
The NBA social media boom began in 2009 in Milwaukee’s locker room when then-Bucks player Charlie Villanueva sent a tweet during halftime of a game against the Boston Celtics. The message was harmless, if superfluous: Villanueva shared with his followers that he needed to step up in the second half. His coach at the time, Scott Skiles, chastised Villanueva afterward for creating the perception that he was not focused. Before the start of the following season, the league introduced a rule banning cellphone usage during games.
Players now operate within these rules while otherwise tweeting and sharing with abandon. Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant was caught using a secret account to defend his honor against haters. After being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, Nikola Mirotic seemingly trolled his former Chicago Bulls teammates by posting a shrug emoji moments after they gave up a late lead and lost to the Philadelphia 76ers. Those Sixers, by the way, feature the NBA’s king of Twitter.
All-star center Joel Embiid discovered his social media voice when he lost his entire rookie season to injury. He played a lot of video games but got bored and started tweeting — needling LeBron James for a reply and requesting dates with singer Rihanna.
“I just figured that social media would be a way for me to have fun, and that’s how I got into it — that summer that I got drafted,” says Embiid, who now boasts more than 2 million Instagram followers and another 1.27 million on Twitter. “From there, I guess it took off.”
For the NBA’s millennials, this is a way of life, because they have been wired to smartphones since childhood.
Before an early-season game in Washington, four of the six Phoenix Suns players in the visitors’ locker room were checking their social media feeds less than 70 minutes before tip-off, and the two abstaining were eventually pulled in by rookie Josh Jackson showing off an Instagram post. Then again, that scene isn’t particularly surprising — the Suns have the NBA’s youngest roster by average age, causing interim head coach Jay Triano to joke, “No alcohol in there, please. It’s not allowed.”
Memphis Grizzlies rookie Dillon Brooks says he has tried to break his college habit of checking his phone — curious to see the instant reactions after he hit a big shot or flopped theatrically for the Oregon Ducks — but once he got to the NBA and saw teammates glued to their devices, he followed suit.
“I try to stay out of it,” the 22-year-old says, “but, like, when you walk in after a game, every single person is on their phone, just looking at Instagram, looking at Twitter.”
Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr., also 22, has more than 530,000 followers between his Twitter and Instagram accounts. He is equally likely to retweet a Zen message from Hindu guru Mata Amritanandamayi as he is to mock a lifestyle Twitter account for not including him among the best dressed players in the NBA. He carries two phones and will often pick up one immediately after participating in the team’s morning shoot-around. But he wishes he wasn’t so much like his peers.
“I hate it,” Oubre says. “It’s a generational thing, I would say for sure. It’s something that I really don’t like — the stereotype about my generation. I feel like we’re too dependent on the cellphones and the social media to hype our egos and make us feel good when, at the end of the day, that comes from yourself. It’s just a crutch, honestly. I call it the ‘SMD’ — the social media disease.”
Oubre may have a point, according to what Jim Taylor has observed in his clients. Taylor, who specializes in sports psychology and has worked with athletes from the NBA, NFL and MLB, believes social media can be distracting. Before several of his clients set off for PyeongChang to compete in the Winter Olympics, he recommended they shut off their phones.
“Just like almost every other person on the planet these days, they’re addicted. They’re probably more addicted to their phone and their social media,” Taylor says. “Because of egos, because of audiences . . . it’s psychologically more addictive because of the size of the audiences, the adulation that they receive. And also, realistically, they get hooked on the trolls, too.”
Some NBA coaches say there is no cure for the “SMD.”
“You’re banging your head against the wall if you’re going to try to get them to put their phones down,” the Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy says. “They’re not on their phones when we’re in a pregame meeting, they’re not on their phones when we’re in meetings, they’re not on their phones when they’re out there playing. But every other time, as soon as I walk out of the postgame meeting . . .”
Coach Luke Walton has not banned phones from the Los Angeles Lakers’ breakfast meetings or film-room sessions, but if a player’s device rings, he can expect to pay a small fine.
When 76ers Coach Brett Brown scrolls through Embiid’s social media feeds and notices something controversial — such as Embiid and Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside engaging in Twitter trash talk after a preseason game — he will use it as a teachable moment.
“If you can find a way to not dismiss it and educate them on the pitfalls of social media, of which there are many, then, you know, you’re just not living with your head in the sand,” Brown says. “It’s the world we live in.”
Triano says it’s much like the way he texts his kids to get through to them.
“I know they’re going to get that before they hear me verbally,” he says. “It’s the way things are, and I think we as coaches need to adapt and know that it’s going to take different ways to reach these young kids now.”
It’s not just the kids. The oldest of Terry’s five daughters is in college, yet he is a grown man who can’t put down his iPhone 5 before games. In 2014, Terry was 36 and a member of the Brooklyn Nets, a locker room filled with veterans, including Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Reggie Evans, when it hit him.
“That’s when I noticed guys were on their phones,” Terry recalls.
Back inside the Bucks’ space, Terry looks around and sees teammates watching the pregame scouting video. Occasionally, one looks down at his phone and thumbs up, though it’s only to find the next song.
Terry gets chastised by his kids for using a phone that’s a few generations out of date, and he’s heckled by young teammates who implore him to join Instagram and Snapchat. But Terry’s fine with having just Twitter and a few apps. Besides, he’s already trying to break the addiction.
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