Why the NBA Needs Twitter

The social media platform is a constant reminder of what the league really is.
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Photo: Flickr

Russell Westbrook runs. He jumps. He goes really quickly, then stops suddenly and jumps. He has been photographed playing defense and looking really serious about it. So there were any number of more exciting photos of the guy than the frankly inert one of Westbrook dishing off a poker-faced high-five that ran at the top of last week’s column. But, for a column on basketball as ceaseless churn of action, the picture had to be one of Russell Westbrook. That there was even a dull, mostly static photo of Westbrook in existence seemed to demand its use. If you have a photograph of the Loch Ness Monster gorging itself on Endless Shrimp at Red Lobster, you use it.

Westbrook, action incarnate, exemplifies the idea of basketball as motion without end. He seems, with every play, to insist upon it. That's not to say that Westbrook is impetuous, sloppy, or lacking in guile and strategy—though in all fairness, most of those complaints could have been lodged against him at various moments in his career, and could be fairly stated about him now. It's more that Westbrook, as best illustrated during his strikingly un-choreographed tear through the All-Star Game, is a bolt of energy who makes his own way through a game. 

In a game in which every moment holds the promise of or actually delivers upon surprising development, Westbrook seems especially intent on cutting against all possible grain. He's a one-man rupture in the game's fabric, a player who through sheer dynamism is able to set convention teetering. Fittingly, Westbrook often eludes most description. Attempts to encapsulate what he means for the Thunder, or what he does on the floor, feel hopelessly inadequate. His next big play invariably makes them look like understatement, or ancient history. Call it unplanned obsolescence.

Given that my column was about churn and motion and speed, it’s somewhere between curious and ridiculous that I left Twitter out of the discussion. It has been a truism for some time now that the NBA and Twitter, if not necessarily a natural match, work together in a way that no other sport can claim. Maybe it's the density of activity, the level of detail, the amount of material to crack wise about. Mostly, though, it seems to reflect the idea that the NBA, as non-stop activity, defies good, old-fashioned storytelling; no other medium makes quite as much sense, or offers a truer reflection of what it’s describing. 

On any given night, my timeline (keep reading, please, and know that I know the words “my timeline” is a death-knell for interest) is full of split-second reactions, responses, and quips, all ripping furiously, and in no particular order, through every one of the games in progress. On a Thursday or Sunday, when all of America is huddled around a single marquee showdown—usually one that, in theory, offers an easy framework for meaning—the effect is pretty much the same.

Any good player, or game, is heterogeneous. It's the nature of basketball (at least the NBA) to reveal this. Twitter facilitates, even demands, this splintered and altogether richer perspective on the game. Last year, I had an ill-advised, if well-meaning, aversion to Derrick Rose. My real issue, though, may have been that Twitter could manage little more about him than a NSFW "holy cow!" every time he touched the ball. Even the most overwhelming plays have in them the possibility of variety. Even Shaq in his Lakers prime, dunking colossally from deep in the paint on possession after possession, still left us stunned and wounded in different ways each time. 

If the NBA were all about the end result, you could just watch the last five minutes and count yourself a real fan, and get the satisfaction a real fan gets. But that’s not how it works, even if the game is reaching the point where you can miss games and still adequately experience them through online reconstruction; that’s less a change in the game itself than the result of the way in which a glut of YouTube clips and quick-hit blog analysis provide a window into a game’s breathless, real-time exposition.

It would be one thing if the NBA’s Twitter community existed only as a cult, reifying a certain version of the league, and vision for the sport, while sealing it off from the prying eyes of the less obsessive fan. Twitter, however, also serves as a natural advocate for the NBA, a constant reminder that this sport is not like those other, relatively more popular, tales of good guys, villains, heroes, and utter cowardly jerks. 

Take, for instance, LeBron James, the player most readily victimized by the cult of “hot sports takes.” Twitter regularly anticipates, chews up, spits out, and mercilessly satirizes anti-LeBron narratives after a Heat loss—before Skip Bayless or Colin Cowherd has even had a chance to sharpen his pencil for the next morning’s program. Not only does NBA Twitter offer up reams of impressions and data that complicate the facile “LeBron blew it” (of which there are only a few variations); it also accelerates the news cycle to the point of absurdity, sending it whirling towards parody. Picture a hamster wheel spinning too fast in a cartoon, to the point where it goes from orderly machine to chaos-sowing pile of junk.

Twitter has the power to do that to the mainstream of sports, which consists primarily of simplistic fairy tales and windbags who see all games as iterations of a few basic themes. If watching, or contributing to, Twitter non-stop seems like a daunting task, then making this chatter a central feature of the viewing experience—as the NBA has, in small ways, started to do—offers a rather strong counterpoint to the way sports are usually fed to us. We’re encouraged to watch passively and wait to see option A or option B come true. Twitter suggests that participation can make the experience complicated, or in the case of the NBA, manifestly closer to what’s really been there all along.

I don’t want to sound as if I’m extolling utter chaos, or rejecting any attempt to make sense of the whole of a game, or a season. These are perfectly natural, and practical, feelings to have. And of course, totals and final scores do matter. Wins and losses determine standings, decide playoff series, set up important financial decisions, dictate the hours or seconds remaining on each team’s self-destruct timer. We do not live in an unlimited, positively open-ended world, and sports, in many senses, thrive off of their ability to impose decisiveness and order. 

Yet there’s a difference between thinking that this end-point sets the tone for sports, and seeing all that precedes it as valuable in its own right. When it comes to the NBA, the end-point doesn’t come as a crescendo. It’s just when the action has to stop for the night.

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I don't know whether the NBA fan community does twitter better than other fan bases. If it does it in the way you've described this season, how much of that has been bolstered by the fast, constant pace of the compressed season itself?

Viewed from a different perspective, the NBA is kind of terrible at twitter. You focus on the reaction to it, and the engagement seems to be mostly fan-driven and fan-created. Coming from the other side (i.e., the league and the players), it's unintelligible and unfollowable. I think I've finally eliminated every NBA player I'd initially followed. They aren''t all the same-- there's a difference between the twitter presences of LeBron James, Baron Davis, Steve Nash, and Chris Kaman, for example-- but none of them were particularly engaging, interesting, entertaining, or (often) readable. Kaman probably came closest out of that bunch.

By contrast, at least on the "league" level, NASCAR is really going full-bore into twitter in a potentially neat way, and I think that case could be made even before Keselowski tweeted from his car during the Daytona 500.

You described a bottom-up model in NBA tweeting, and NASCAR is going hard at a top-down model. I'm not sure which is more sustainable, but I'm also not sure if sustainability is high on the list of concerns in a twitter-paced world.

I think you are making the mistake of conflating your own timeline with Twitter itself.

It may be that the particular people you follow are anxious to perform their critical distance from the sports media.

However, the vast majority of tweets simply reiterate the basic story lines.

Case in point: after reading your post I did a search for all the tweets sent to LeBron James tonight. A handful point out that he had an amazing game. Most of them, however, taunt him about Kyrie Irving's game-winner and point out LeBron's failure to close games.

I like the take on Cowherd et al. The NBA is too complicated and in motion for morons to follow in detail, so they simplify everything all to the point where all meaning is lost and nobody cares about what any of it all looks like. Who gives a shit if Westbrook makes some great plays if the lead idiots think they should all be Durant's?

This strikes me as exactly right. Maybe the most interesting counter/parallel is with WWE: in that entertainment environment, literally all there is is narrative, provided, consumed, reacted-to. All that consuming & reacting-to forms, yup, still more narrative. It's more than a little echo-chambery, but it's one more interesting step toward the "we are all our own columnists" tendency in sports-watching.