Being an NBA executive has always been a high-wire act, with a career-ending mistake awaiting you at nearly every step.
But being the executive face of a franchise in the age of social media can doubtless seem like trying to walk between skyscrapers during a hurricane. With voices coming from all sides at all hours how easy would it be to get blinded to good sense if you chose to get drawn into the second-by-second shifts of opinion that fly around like shrapnel?
The key to success is being able to rise above it.
Right now Philadelphia 76ers president and general manager Bryan Colangelo – who previously held both posts with the Toronto Raptors for seven years beginning in 2006 – is out there on the wire and a social media storm is blowing at gale force.
The only question is if he’s the person who stirred up the storm in the first place as one of the most unusual sports stories in recent memory blew up on Tuesday night.
“I don’t want to believe it,” said one NBA insider.
It is no exaggeration that his professional career and personal reputation are whipping in the wind after the sports and pop culture site The Ringer dropped one of the most potentially damaging stories the NBA has seen in a long time with Colangelo at the centre of it.
Acting on a tip from an anonymous source claiming to have used a data tool to analyze the similarities between certain social media accounts, the story implies the long-time NBA executive was using five fake Twitter accounts to defend Colangelo’s record, question his star players, criticize rival executives – including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and his Sixers predecessor Sam Hinkie – and, most damning, release privately held team medical information and strategy.
Some of the personal details pointed directly at Colangelo, too, as they followed the University of Chicago basketball team, where his son plays, or his son’s former high school coach at Upper Canada College in Toronto, where Colangelo still owns a house. Reporter Ben Detrick analyzed the content of the accounts in excruciating detail – who the accounts followed, what they tweeted about and even the language used – and concluded that there were very strong links to Colangelo or someone in his immediate orbit.
Those conclusions were bolstered on May 22 when Detrick presented information on just two of the five accounts to the 76ers, holding back on the other three to see if there would be any activity on them. Sure enough the three that weren’t discussed were set to private shortly after Detrick contacted the club – suggesting Colangelo was trying to cover his tracks or an almost unfathomable coincidence.
If the allegations are proven true it will certainly end Colangelo’s career with the 76ers and his long run in the NBA. It would be the kind of reckless, public misstep that can’t be survived, and would be a stain on a family name that has been held in high esteem in the NBA for more than 50 years since his father, former NBA executive and owner Jerry Colangelo, left Chicago with his young family to run the expansion Phoenix Suns in the late 1960s.
If true it’s a high-profile, largely successful executive with an otherwise pristine professional reputation committing career suicide over petty slights.
If the allegations are false, however, it’s one of the most diabolical plots against a sitting executive in sports history. The legal ramifications could keep the story alive for years.
While many of the posts were innocuous – pumping up 76ers star Joel Embiid’s campaign for the 2018 all-star game was a regular subject – there were enough that were damning and several more that would make Colangelo look plainly ridiculous and the subject of social media snickers that would never end. There are already Twitter accounts set up to spoof various elements of the story.
Some were more salacious. Unbeknownst to me, one of the accounts tweeted at my account around the 2017 trade deadline and again in May of 2017, mocking Ujiri for seeming to stand pat after the Raptors were swept by Cleveland.
Colangelo publicly jeering his successor and former protégé would be huge news, even if the league is full of private disputes and petty jealousies.
But an executive found to leak closely held team information can’t survive.
There were a number of tweets about a trade involving former 76ers centre Jahlil Okafor falling apart because he failed a physical. Reporters covering the team were pushed to ask questions about the physical even though it hadn’t been disclosed.
Additionally, there were others suggesting there had been a falling out between Sixers rookie Markelle Fultz and his mentor/personal trainer that may have shed light on the mysterious shoulder problems that cost Fultz most of his rookie season, along with pointed criticism of Embiid being out dancing at a concert while missing time with a knee problem.
As one league source I spoke with put it: “That throws a major wrinkle into your organization, doesn’t it, if your star player can’t trust you?”
Embiid initially took to Twitter to fire back at the Colangelo – or at least one of the purportedly fake accounts.
The all-star centre told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that he would be monitoring the situation like everyone else.
Colangelo reached out to several people caught up in the web to deny any knowledge of them, Embiid among them.
“I talked to him [Colangelo] and he said that he didn’t say that,” Embiid said. “He called me just to deny the story. Gotta believe him until proven otherwise. If true though, that would be really bad.”
Those that have worked closely with Colangelo can see some of their colleague in the scandal. Thin-skinned is an adjective that gets tossed his way often.
According to multiple sources, he was known to be hyper-aware of what was being written and said about the Raptors and his own performance during his time with Toronto. Navigating Colangelo through some his frustrations about unfavourable coverage was part of the job description if you worked with the Raptors when Colangelo was president.
So in that sense there might be a fit.
But on the other hand Colangelo was cautious, controlled and careful with his comments, even casually. He had a temper, but for the most part was measured. The idea he would so carelessly and recklessly use multiple social media accounts in ways that would obviously be at risk to his career is hard to believe.
As one professional acquaintance who has been present for several dinners with Colangelo, no matter how freely the wine flowed he never “dumped on Masai, dumped on Hinkie or complained about Joel.”
Former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie, who worked with Colangelo for six years, said to me: “I sure didn’t see any behaviour like this in the time we worked together.”
Which could be the point: Colangelo was behaving as if no one was watching, misguided in his belief that he could shield his anonymity online, or too clumsy or lazy to do it properly.
And if Colangelo was anything it was detail conscious – parsing every public word; his clothes and grooming forever on point.
Another former MLSE employee related a story about how aware the former Raptors president was that people were watching at all times, and how zealous he was about the expectation that team information be protected:
Preparations were being made internally at MLSE in advance of Colangelo’s trade of former Raptor Matt Bonner to San Antonio for Rasho Nesterovic in the summer of 2006. A staffer excitedly sent an email to a friend about the deal. When news of the trade broke publicly before it was officially announced Colangelo ordered a search of company email to determine where the news had leaked. The staffer in question was cautioned but not disciplined when it was determined that his email wasn’t the source of the news story.
But now it’s Colangelo who’s the subject of a much more serious investigation into electronic snooping.
“The allegations are serious,” the 76ers announced in a press release. “And we have commenced an independent investigation into the matter. We will report on the results of the investigation as soon as it is completed.”
Colangelo didn’t respond to a text sent Tuesday night, but in a statement to The Ringer he acknowledged one of the accounts — @Phila1234567 — was his and that he used it to keep up with news and current events related to the league but denied any knowledge of the other four.
“This storyline is disturbing to me on many levels, as I am not familiar with any of the other accounts that have been brought to my attention,” the statement read, “nor do I know who is behind them or what their motives may be in using them.”
The answer to those questions will determine Colangelo’s fate. In the meantime his career and reputation sway in the balance, the winds of trouble blowing hard.
It’s a long way down, and there is no net.