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The One Year Anniversary of “Burnergate”

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A look back at one of the weirdest sports stories in our modern social media world

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s May 29th and so it’s one year ago to the day that Ben Detrick of The Ringer wrote one of the weirdest basketball-related reports many of us have ever read. “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account” was so mind-boggling that it actually led to Colangelo stepping down 9 very long days later.

“Burnergate” as it’s often called, has become one of life’s preciously rare instances that feels like it happened a much longer time ago than it actually occurred. Usually you look back at something that happened a year ago and say “wow, how was that a year already?” Burnergate is the opposite. There’s a distance to it. One basketball season now feels like a dog year.

Part of that feeling could be all of the stuff that has happened since. You know, stuff like: the 2018 draft, a disappointing free-agency, hiring Elton Brand as GM but calling it a “collaborative” group, Markelle Fultz starting over JJ Redick, Zhaire Smith breaking his foot and then later having a near-death experience because of an allergic reaction, acquiring Jimmy Butler, then Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid playing like an MVP candidate but getting too many minutes and getting injured, Ben and Kendall or Ben and his jump shot or is Ben a center stuff, fans getting tattoos, Kawhi’s crazy fadeaway, not to mention all of the other NBA stuff that happened beyond the Sixers’ universe and life beyond basketball entirely.

What’s that John Lennon quote? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans unless you’re a Sixers fan then life is a blur that leaves you pulling your hair out but unsure why you’re doing so.” Or something like that.

The other thing that makes this story so unique is that we were all sort of involved. If you were a Sixers fan or media member who used twitter during the 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 season you may well have interacted or at least received a reply from one of the now infamous burner accounts. Think of a Sixers related twitter handle that you follow. There is a decent chance that some of the tweets you engaged with or read had a reply from one of the burners. This was not limited to beat, national or side-line reporters, although many of those were on the receiving end of replies. This was the casual fan too. Fans like you and me. When the article first dropped, it left the amazing question for many of us: “could I have actually been interacting with an NBA GM...about the NBA...on Twitter?”

The beginning of the piece categorized for us elegantly the different themes of opprobrious conduct:

  • “Criticize NBA players, including Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, and Nerlens Noel
  • Publicly debate the decisions of his own coaching staff, as well as critique former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri
  • Telegraph the 2017 trade in which the Sixers acquired the no. 1 overall pick that would become Markelle Fultz
  • Disclose nonpublic medical information about Okafor and gossip about Embiid and Fultz to members of the national and Philadelphia media.”

Next it disclosed the crafty way that Detrick and his accomplices triggered the smoking gun, alerting the team about 2 out of 5 of the monitored accounts. That ploy led to the non-named 3 being switched to private mode within hours of the tip. And they still had access to note the “unfollowing” of plenty of Colangelo family and business connections! What!?

When I first started to read the article I only made it about that far. Once I recognized one of the twitter handles as one I routinely interacted with, I only needed semi-reasonable suspicion that it was all true in order to fully freak out. In fact, as soon as I read the premise I thought of the very weird twitter handle that I had told a few people about weeks before the piece dropped. It was a handle that claimed to be 77 years old and seemed very dialed into social media and the Sixers, occasionally speaking as an NBA insider, (referencing things the public wouldn’t know) and routinely debating with me the merits of Sam Hinkie’s leadership vs. Bryan Colangelo’s. My eyes skimmed Detrick’s piece for “Still Balling” and when I spotted it as one of the possible Colangelo burner accounts, I could almost feel my pupils dilating.

I ran home and pulled open my lap-top and my heart started slamming as I realized I was 1 of 10 followers of “Still Balling” (@s_bonhams) so I could still read everything that it had tweeted. I didn’t know how long that would last before it might be deleted so I started stupidly frantically screen-shotting. Then someone (I guess seeing that I was a follower of the account) sent me a direct message suggesting I save the tweets as a PDF. Once that was done, I relaxed a bit. I finished The Ringer article and dove into the unbelievable world of “could this really have been an NBA GM” and devoured each tweet through that lens.

Every few minutes I’d check back on Twitter to see more reactions like this one:

Things like Joel Embiid’s reactions helped me to figure out at the time where to lump this piece in my mind.

How big was this? I was still sorting out questions like is this going to be something fans like me remember, but the team largely ignores? Will we get a couple days of ESPN talk shows but then go back to national broadcasters praising Colangelo for saving the team from the ‘dreaded Process?’ Will this be swept under the rug or will he like...get fired tomorrow?!

We were all piecing this together, fans, media, and NBA players. Crazy!

Here’s a handful of stuff I saw that first night from our chats. The Ringer did such a great job highlighting the more egregious ones that might hurt player’s feelings, or disclose sensitive medical stuff but here are some mostly lighter ones. Folks from The Ringer, The Athletic, Rights to Ricky Sanchez pod, PhillyFrontOffice, Liberty Ballers, and more were included:

I actually found the tweeter’s personality pretty warm and friendly. Which is why I decided to follow back at one point. The person would tease me about being a Sam Hinkie worshipper but in intelligent ways, citing things like “Hindsight Bias,” “stendahl’s syndrome,” and other fancy terms I needed to google to learn. The person claimed to be a grandfather, and used European spelling for words like humour, behaviour, etc.

The NBA knowledge was pretty advanced, although not off the charts like a Kevin O’Connor podcast (the person couldn’t remember which pick Michael Jordan was, and mixed up Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash- Kobe was selected 13th in 1996, Steve Nash 15th).

Sometimes there was women’s fashion advice:

Other times though, the tone would feel very different, and sound almost like someone else, referencing NBA players from the early 80’s without humor:

Then the Sixers twitter sleuths began to uncover more. Folks like @legsanity , @DidTheSixersWin built the case that maybe it wasn’t Bryan Colangelo and maybe it was his wife. A theory that was validated by the investigation the team’s legal representation undertook.

Becca Laurie at @imbeccable posted this:

And then it was over with on June 7th. After a couple of days spent wondering if the team would actually go through with the firing (or just pin it all on Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Bottini) and how that might impact the pursuit of players like LeBron James in free agency, Colangelo finally resigned. This thing really took down an NBA GM. How do we put this in perspective?

I often resist the urge to roll my eyes when someone goes on about how it’s a different time now with social media and how your average person can be connected or chat with celebrities, reporters, etc. It’s not that it’s untrue, it’s just overstated. But here was a case where we the fans were way more “connected” than we ever knew. There are lessons for everyone here about what we choose to put out there into the public universe, whether it has our name on it or not. Whether we do it or someone close to us does it with information we’ve conveyed. Imagine people critiquing your job performance or your loved one’s job performance and never wanting to read that and not being able to reply? It must be maddening and as Kevin Durant often finds, simply too hard.

But I don’t think about that stuff too often. For me it was a thrilling and sometimes scary caper. Someone who used to work for the Sixers suggested I change all my passwords on social media and someone else from The Ringer suggested I proceed with caution about sharing tweets until they learned more from their legal team. During that week a year ago, like perhaps many of you, I struggled to explain what was happening to my non-NBA fan friends and family. I’d often begin a sentence, and then realize I had no idea where to begin. “So there is this guy who runs the Sixers, and he had these twitter-, umm wait, so someone in charge of the Sixers has a wife who was anonymously saying stuff about players and then-” every beginning I went with led to tangled brows.

I guess you had to be there. For die hard Sixers fans, we kind of all were there. And it still is a little difficult to explain just how weird this was to someone who wasn’t. Maybe the next year will go faster and the details will feel a bit hazier and it’ll have a more defined context. But for now, it still feels pretty nuts.