Twitter Heroes: How Twitter Is Changing Our Perception of the NBA

Noel Diaz de RiveraCorrespondent IApril 7, 2009

The public has always placed their heroes on pedestals.

It is a position that is out of reach, a place to look up to and aspire to, and there’s a reason for that. In the traditional sense, heroes don’t belong in the realm of mortals because they transcend such distinctions.

They belong above the crowd, behind a wall of mystique that ensures the public that yes, these people are better than us, and yes they deserve to be viewed as such. Their legends are built around the principle of mystique.

NBA players are no different. They fly on a different plane of existence, with explosive dunks and silky smooth reverse layups. They are cut from a different cloth that bulges with toned cores and bulging biceps—a culture of sculptured physiques that show man at his best, his most powerful.

The typical NBA athlete knows this, and aloofness abounds in the Association as a result.

The best carry themselves as if they are the best. They put their game faces on like masks and that is what the public sees—the fierce scowls of competitive fury, the fist pumps that defy the heavens, and the earth shattering displays of strength and athleticism.

When we watch Superman sky for a block, the King slice through the lane like a freight train, or the Big Aristotle throw down on all who stand in his way, we don’t see mortals. We see heroes. Not-of-this-earth, larger-than-life, and inaccessibly talented heroes.

That was before Twitter.

These days, pedestals are being ripped down. The heroes are coming down from their gold-laced cloud-fortresses to walk amongst the people, and perceptions are changing. But is it for the better?

There was a time when the public’s exposure to an NBA athlete’s personality was limited to newspaper blurbs and canned post-game interview responses. These small slivers of personality (or lack thereof) became accepted and more or less expected, and only occasionally would tempers flare enough to get the occasional sound bite of humanity (Practice?!?).

Apart from these outbursts of emotion though, our heroes knew exactly what to say when the camera lights came on. Everything was filtered. Of course, that was before the Internet.

Most famously, Gilbert Arenas started the NBA blogging revolution by being one of the first Triple A NBA guys to blog candidly and publicly. Others followed suit, but Gilbert was always the most recognizable NBA name in the blogosphere.

He is a candid personality unto himself: irreverent and honestly arrogant, Arenas never seems to filter himself. But despite that, he understands his position as an NBA star: after seeing a kid mimicking Rip Hamilton’s free throw routine, he devised his own three-dribble, three times behind the back routine so that kids would copy him, a story he acknowledges himself.

This kind of honesty and self-realized idolatry brings about the question of whether or not we as fans want our heroes to be so candid. If there is no curtain to hide the humanity, can we really view our heroes as invincibly as we once did?

Last Sunday, LeBron James was on 60 Minutes. He was calm and composed, offering Steve Kroft measured answers to every question asked. The result was a careful distance from being too exposed, but it was an honest distance.

It was as if LeBron bought into his own regal image, laughing heartily at his own jokes, walking through Akron like Dr. Manhattan floating through a world he is elementally a part of while managing to transcend beyond it; in every sense, he played the invincible and untouchable hero. He was born on a pedestal.

If Gilbert’s blog tore down the curtain around the pedestal, then Twitter is beating the pedestal with a sledgehammer and setting fire to the debris.

Charlie Villanueva (CV31) is getting reprimanded for tweeting at halftime.

Mark Cuban (mcuban) is getting fined for complaining about refs through tweets.

Paul Pierce (Paulpierce34) is giving away tickets with secret rendezvous and passwords.

Shaq (THE_REAL_SHAQ) is taking pictures of himself while sleeping and posting them.

Baron Davis’ beard (BoomsBeard) is giving regular updates on his relationship with Baron Davis (Baron_Davis).

Jerry Sloan has no idea what I’m talking about.

With all this self-induced and self-censored exposure, the curtain is coming down around the mystique of some of the NBA’s most notable personalities, and while stars like Kobe and LeBron have not yet jumped on the bandwagon, would we really want them to? John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog puts it this way in response to LBJ’s 60 Minutes interview:

There’s still a sense that the LeBron we’re allowed to see is manufactured, but when…players are Twittering away our respect for them, segments like this one remind fans that we don’t mind seeing a manufactured image every now and then if we sense it was made with good intentions.

So that’s the conundrum. On the one hand, there are uberstars like Kobe, LeBron, and Dwyane Wade, who refuse to come down from the pedestal, so focused they are on their basketball image.

And then there’s Shaq (who I only started really liking after following him on Twitter) and Baron (who has nothing better to do on the Clippers).

Some people would argue that players such as these are not the true upper echelon heroes of the NBA, and some of those people would argue that their presence on Twitter is evidence of this (after all, what kind of hero would have time to dally in 140-word phrases?), but this is simply not true. Twitter has created a different kind of hero.

These pioneering Twitters are becoming true heroes of the people. When I see a tweet from THE_REAL_SHAQ complete with a twitpic of any sort I get more excited than any post-game interview.

It’s like a brief and fleeting connection with the Diesel, like he’s showing me a secret window into his life. I click the link and I get to see Shaq’s newly shaven beard, him sitting in a barber’s chair, or him driving down the 405 complaining about traffic. Not even Craig Sager can claim that kind of immediate intimacy.

It is a completely different kind of exhilaration that in no way takes away from the luster of seeing the real real Shaq slam it home on the hardwood. If anything, it adds to it.

When I see Shaq play, I root for him like I root for a friend—If he wins tonight maybe he’ll tweet funnier tweets!—I think to myself, an effect that could never be achieved before Twitter. It is an amazing feeling of interconnectivity, and I appreciate Shaq’s basketball play all the more because of it.

For all the NBA Players I follow on Twitter, my respect for them is a respect bred from a sense of camaraderie as much as it is a respect of their skill.

Obviously, Shaq is unique in his ability to entertain. He has personality and humor. He is a walking quote machine. He was built for Twitter.

Can you even imagine what a Kobe Bryant tweet would sound like?

I just tried. It’s impossible, and there’s a reason for that, too.

It really is all about image and personality. Just like there are those who are reluctant to give in-depth interviews, there are those who do not wish to be in the public eye more than they have to be.

Twitter can occasionally feel incredibly trite and ridiculous and in that sense it can definitely be an image-destroyer. There are thousands of tweets that I simply don’t care about, and sometimes those tweets come from NBA athletes. But it is by no means a condemnation of Twitter itself. Twitter is just another platform.

For some NBA stars, it can be another pedestal. But it’s like a pedestal with a cool rope ladder that allows backdoor access for the cool kids who know the password. It’s a secret club where I can pretend to be friends with Shaq and BDiddy and Andrew Bogut (yes, I would be friends with Andrew Bogut, shut up), a club where Mark Cuban thinks he can criticize refs, and Charlie Villanueva passes notes during halftime.

After all, what’s wrong with wanting to be friends with some of your heroes? If the curtain comes down and we like what we see, why not?

But Krolik is right. There are some times when we do like seeing something more than a hero.

Sometimes we like to see legends. Some legends don’t fit in under 140 words.


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