Twitter craze a natural fit for trend-savvy NBA players
Dozens of NBA players, including Shaq, actively maintain Twitter accounts
Young, culturally attuned players are natural early adopters of technology
With players tweeting during games, the trend has gained much attention
Unaccustomed both to the rate and the depth at which the Los Angeles Lakers were losing during his brief stint as their coach late in the 1993-94 season, Magic Johnson locked away his trademark smile for the duration. The blemish on Johnson's stellar résumé remains a tiny one -- a 5-11 stretch marked his share of the Lakers' 33-49 record that season -- but he knew it was there and growing, and it ate at him the way a C in a biology class would have eaten at Stephen Hawking amid all those A's in quantum physics. Let's just say the Magic Man was in no mood.
So when a beeper went off early on the morning of April 14, 1994, during a team meeting Johnson had organized specifically to discuss the "beepers and car phones and outside business interests" distracting his oh-so-modern Lakers, the short-time coach snapped. Johnson found the obnoxious device (which belonged to Vlade Divac) and hurled it against a wall. The next day, he made it known that his coaching career was over.
That was 15 years ago. According to Moore's Law -- the transistors theory that claims computing power grows exponentially, doubling every two years or so -- that means Divac's beeper was the equivalent of scratchings on cave walls in terms of personal technology in the hands of an NBA player. These days, the car phones and pagers that drew Johnson's ire are clogging landfills, replaced several times over by PDAs and BlackBerries and iPhones.
And of course Twitter.
Milwaukee forward Charlie Villanueva got some heat and plenty of attention for "tweeting" on the popular social networking site during halftime of the Bucks' March 15 home game against Boston, but it was merely the latest instance of basketball players and other athletes riding the same techno tide as the rest of us. Imagine taking a walk back in time through the halls of NBA arenas. The history of players embracing gadgetry might go something like this:
Gilbert Arenas breaking news about his latest surgery on his blog ... Yao Ming doing a live chat with some of his countrymen back in Beijing on his own Web site ... Dwyane Wade and Charles Barkley contributing to another outtake reel from their Fave Five commercial shoots ... Paul Pierce playing Tetris on his cell phone on the Celtics' bus to the airport ... Keith Van Horn updating his to-do list on a Palm Pilot ... Glenn Robinson flipping open his Motorola StarTAC "clamshell" to the oohs and aahs of teammates ... Purvis Short needing a holster to tote around an earlier cell phone, the famous two-pound "brick" ... Adrian Dantley making dinner reservations on a telephone handset that, hey, doesn't even have a cord ... Wilt Chamberlain monopolizing the pay phone outside the visitors' locker room at Chicago Stadium, fine-tuning his social calendar ... Bob Pettit fishing through the trousers hanging in his locker to tip the Western Union guy who delivered that telegram at halftime ... George Mikan yukking it up with a rider from the Pony Express, while Minneapolis coach John Kundla grinds his molars in the minutes immediately before a game...
The point is, NBA players are young, bright, well-paid and hyper-attuned to trends and culture and they have gobs of free time on their hands, all of which makes them natural candidates to jump on board new technologies. Early adopters, as they say in the gadgets trade. Coaches, on the other hand, are traditionally older, busier, more susceptible to job loss, more set in their ways and definitely more single-minded, which puts them on the other end of breakthroughs and slick toys.
That dichotomy leads to a lot of shrugs, bewilderment, slow burns and stuff thrown against walls. The NBA loves its reputation as a cutting-edge league -- online All-Star voting and 3-D telecasts, anyone? -- and coaches are happy to tolerate gizmos when they allow their big men to study DVD breakdowns of last night's low-post moves on a MacBook. But with some of these advances, they remain well behind the curve.
"Twitting? What is it?'" Oklahoma City interim coach Scott Brooks said the other day. "So you 'tweet' on Twitter? I don't anticipate myself ever doing that. I guess I'm not around the guys in the locker room enough to see it.''
Informed that, no, this goes on now at halftime -- in Villanueva's case and in the case of Shaquille O'Neal, who tweeted "Shhhhhhh'' before the third quarter Saturday against Washington to his The_Real_Shaq feed -- Brooks, 43, said: "That's interesting. But why? Why would anybody want to know what I'm doing, when they could have talked to me prior to the game? That's wild, that people are so into that.'' The Thunder coach paused. "What about you guys, do you guys tweet?''
Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale, who reveres all things old school, told Minnesota reporters, "I heard someone say Charlie Villanueva was tweeting and I thought it meant he went in to take a leak at halftime.''
Unbeknownst to him and most other NBA coaches, their locker rooms are full of tweeters these days, to the point that it soon will be easier to name those who don't than those who do. Other players known to be active on Twitter include Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis, Tyson Chandler, Chris Bosh, Danny Granger, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and presumably dozens more. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tweets, although we're guessing Wizards owner Abe Pollin and most others in the Board of Governors do not.
Just Wednesday night, about an hour before Phoenix's home game against Utah, The_Real_Shaq put this up on his feed (typos and all): "I have oe ticket laft at will call under twitter, first one there its yurs just say twitter.'' No word on who snagged the ticket, but it wasn't the first sweepstakes conducted by the, er, Big Twit.
"I was surfing around on Google and saw that Shaq was on Twitter,'' O'Neal's former teammate Mark Madsen said. "Then I found that Steve Nash was on. I said, 'If these two guys are on, I'm going to find out what it's all about.' ''
Madsen, a Timberwolves forward with an economics degree from Stanford, asked me if I'm on Twitter, and I told him not yet. I'm pretty savvy with mp3 players, I know my way around podcasts and my life would grind to a halt without my DVR. But I had to admit I'd just last week learned what a "boss button'' is. (It's the thing you click to instantly hide the NCAA streaming video on your PC monitor, lest your supervisor walk past your cubicle. I blame working from a home office for my slow adoption in this case.)
"Shaq posts pretty much all the time,'' Madsen continued. "We were on our bus when I saw where Shaq had put up a post that said something like, 'Sitting here in Scottsdale at the Four Seasons hotel. First one to get here wins.' Shaq's next post said, 'Eight minutes left, no one's here yet.' Then a few minutes later, he posts, 'We have a winner,' and he put the guy's name up there."
Madsen is a rare pro athlete who hosts not one but two Web sites. There's markmadsen.com, which has his blog and other features related to the NBA and his basketball career. Then there's maddog.com, a fledgling operation based on his nickname and conceived to eventually be a Drudge Report-like aggregator of political, economic and other global news and analysis.
"I read an article in The Wall Street Journal a week or two ago that said when the plane crashed in the Hudson River, the first and really the most accurate information was posted on Twitter,'' Madsen said. "There were photographs, and people wrote about what they had seen. And now Twitter is searchable, so you can find all these posts on what people are thinking and feeling. Whether it's about a plane crashing into a river or the stimulus package -- which I've typed in, by the way -- or what they think about the Timberwolves.''
Typing that or anything else in during an NBA game, though, might not be the smartest use of a smart phone.
"The fans love that stuff but the coach doesn't,'' Madsen conceded. "If I was playing for [Milwaukee's] Scott Skiles, I never would have tried to do it at halftime. You run the risk of somebody finding out and getting mad. Now, right after the game, to me that's fair game.''
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.
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