It was 2:45 PM last Thursday, and I was in my room endlessly refreshing Google Chrome, glued to the front-page of the Reddit’s r/NBA , the biggest forum of basketball fans on the Internet. We were 15 minutes away from the NBA Trade Deadline, and I was trying desperately to keep up with the absurd flurry of moves going on, with contenders looking to shore up their rosters with that final “missing piece” and less successful teams looking to secure assets for a bright future. Among many other trades, the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers traded a third of their team in about half-an-hour, setting up the talking heads for a solid week of back-and-forth over Lebron James’ finals chances and future. Did these moves get them back on track? Will he bring another one to “the Land”? I kept refreshing, with the Twitter links flying in faster than I could even click on them, each reporter desperate to get the scoop first and the analysis rolling.
Like all professional sports leagues, the NBA is active on social media, but no league has been able to utilize the platform as successfully. No other professional sport is so connected to the platform that it has created its own subculture connected to Twitter, with the phrase “NBA twitter” carrying with it the connotation of endless inside jokes bridging the gaps between teams, players, and fans. It seems quaint in comparison to now, but Twitter has been in the NBA’s spotlight since February 2009, when the NBA officially created its Twitter account. Their first tweet is a simple celebration of their “Where Amazing Happens” campaign, hardly hinting at the ways Twitter would transform the brand in the coming years. 27.3 million followers later, the NBA endures in the Twitter-sphere.
A full analysis of the NBA’s embrace of Twitter could fill a whole book, so in this blog post I’ll be tackling the unique phenomenon of the pursuit of breaking news, a pursuit that has elevated some reporters to a status of cult-like reverence in NBA fan circles.
If there is a president of NBA Twitter, it is undoubtedly Adrian Wojnarowski, or “Woj” as he is known to his fanboys. Formerly with Yahoo Sports, this ESPN analyst has a knack for delivering the most important NBA news straight to your Twitter feed as soon as it happens, with nary a spelling mistake in sight. All those trades the Cavaliers made that I mentioned? You probably heard it first from Woj, or at least one of his 2.26 million followers spreading his gospel. Every “Woj bomb” sends shockwaves through the NBA and NBA fandom. How is this man so knowledgeable about what teams are doing? Who are his sources? These questions, of course left unanswered, are all part of his mystique. His move to ESPN at the start of the NBA free agency period in 2017 was huge news in sports journalism. As the Boston Globe stated succinctly a September 2017 article, “ESPN couldn’t beat Adrian Wojnarowski, so it hired him”. Woj, a no name reporter only years before, was now one of the hottest commodities around for the biggest sports media empire the world has seen.
It poses an interesting question about how priorities have changed in sports journalism. Detailed analysis is often not what gets people excited, it is the allure of that next scoop that excites fans and gets them in a frenzy. Look at how one man, Woj, and his sacred sources made for a more captivating follow than whole websites full of NBA journalism. It’s not that genuine analysis is gone; my personal favorite NBA writer, ESPN’s Zach Lowe, has a good Twitter following of his own (625,000 strong), and still writes in-depth articles full of analytics and brainy analysis. His reputation among “NBA twitter” is esteemed and continues to flourish. Wojnarowski himself is also not a one trick pony, as he too writes longform articles alongside his big breaking news. But the allure of a popular tweet can also lead to an embrace of ludicrous drama that has little substance to offer.
The saga of DeAndre Jordan, a free agent of the LA Clippers who verbally agreed to sign with the Dallas Mavericks in 2015, only to renege and go back to LA days later, is maybe the most dramatic example. As the drama and betrayal escalated, the tweets reached tabloid levels of absurdity: in one memorable example, ESPN’s Chris Broussard tweeted that Dallas’s celebrity owner Mark Cuban was “driving around downtown Houston begging…Jordan’s family 4 address to DeAndre’s home”, painting Cuban like some sort of jealous lover desperate to get in touch . The tweet was so ridiculous that Broussard would apologize to Cuban, but not before Cuban fired back with a tweet of his own.
It’s a story that would have had been far less dramatic in the non-Twitter era. But with Twitter leading the charge, fans got instant access to every twist and turn, even as questionably basketball-related as some of them turned out to be. This also happened recently with Lebron James and his “Return” to Cleveland, Kevin Durant’s dramatic move to Golden State, and really any major NBA news: it becomes far more than just the original story. Every side story becomes drama all its own, inviting jokes, memes, and hot takes galore. I’m as guilty as any fan of enjoying the chaos. It can be fun to laugh with other fans at things like the Jordan fiasco, and it’s easier than ever with Twitter and social media. The internet’s obsession with Lonzo Ball and the “Big Baller Brand” is the latest example. But I do think it’s important that fans should see quality journalism rise above the sometimes-overwhelming sea of tweets. They can certainly complement each other, and I think they do, but let’s not get to caught up in every “Woj Bomb” we see. Twitter can reward breaking news and analysis alike, and create mutual benefit for the average basketball fan, and for the growth of the NBA brand.