Hashtags and Hardwood

The 2014 NBA draft was, according to many observers, the deepest that the league had seen since the 2003 bumper crop, whose top 10 selections included Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, and T.J. Ford (and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade). As such, this draft had all sorts of buzz around it, coming off the heels of several months of detailed coverage of such prospects as Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. So heralded was this group of incoming ballers that multiple starless and rudderless teams throughout the league made a concerted attempt to perform badly in the 2013-14 season, in order to maximize their odds of receiving one of the prized top picks. No team did a better job of unambiguously tanking than the Philadelphia 76ers. If that sounded like some sort of derogatory comment, it wasn’t; you can only win an NBA championship if you have one or two of a very select set of elite players. If you know anything about basketball, you probably know that the 76ers have not employed any of these players in years, and that it definitely behooves them to acquire one in the simplest available way: through the draft after a season of total ineptitude.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, Kansas standout Joel Embiid was widely touted as the best player available. That is, until a medical exam revealed he was in need of surgery. The Sixers, who ended up with the third pick in the draft after recording the second-worst record in the league, are familiar with selecting high-upside big men with troubling injury histories. They did the EXACT same thing early in last year’s draft, choosing Nerlens Noel, who had one less functioning knee than a team would like to see on draft day. So, what did they do this year? They picked Embiid. Real, actual Sixers fans, whom I speak to regularly, were devastated upon hearing of this selection, especially with rumors that the team might hold him out of game action for his first season, much as they had with Noel.

People were very upset. Short of Wiggins or Parker, it would have at least been nice to pick the man with the smoothest accent in the draft (Dante Exum), or with the most generic and unmemorable name (Aaron Gordon), or the unassuming long range shooter who wears a t-shirt under his jersey (Doug McDermott, but no, it was good that they didn’t pick him, probably. Does nobody remember Jimmer Fredette?). Reactions were generally negative in the following weeks. People questioned whether the Philadelphia front office had any idea what they were doing, especially since they also used a top ten pick to trade for some European guy who wouldn’t be in the NBA anytime soon. The cloud of uncertainty hung over the fan base until one fateful day early this month: The Day Joel Embiid Tweeted His Thoughts.

After the draft, something deep inside young Joel-Hans shifted, and he let everyone who wanted to listen know that he’s a comic wizard. He tweeted a screenshot after having Twitter-blocked LeBron James, for fear that LeBron would send unwanted direct messages. He petitioned for a date with Kim Kardashian, and later claimed to not know of her incredibly public marriage to Kanye West, all while peppering his missives with his minced-oath mantra, paraphrased from a very bad song, “These Girls Ain’t Loyal.” Which girls aren’t loyal, Joel? At the time of this writing, he had never made this clear. Then he switched lanes and switched his attention to Rihanna, tweeting, “SOURCES: Rihanna strongly considering JOEL EMBIID’s offer.” Officious? Probably, but I instantly started rooting for Rihanna to strongly consider Joel Embiid’s offer, regardless of what it was.

I hadn’t watched Joel Embiid play much basketball on TV at all. I generally don’t enjoy watching college basketball unless it’s in person. Or if my self-worth is riding on the result, because my bracket predicted a certain outcome. I just knew that he wasn’t a good pick once I had heard of his injury. “The team that takes him is going to be sorry,” I thought. Too many times, talented NBA big men have been sidelined by injuries brought on by their immense sizes. This time, teams knew GOING IN that something wasn’t right with the guy. Little did I know, the Sixers must have had a character interview attached to their assessment of Embiid. Now I couldn’t endorse him more. Sam Hinkie is a genius who sees things that less savvy teams (Cleveland) refuse to acknowledge.

Embiid’s social media presence is only so great because of how it contrasts with that of his contemporaries. Try reading Jabari Parker’s Twitter. It’s so lame. He’s my younger sister’s age, and he tweets like someone who she and her friends would mock incessantly if he wasn’t already fabulously wealthy. A recent tweet: “People need vocations. What if college doesn’t workout? What else would they rely on? Please CPS, keep these programs alive in Chicago.” B O R I N G. “To all the shorties that’s out there hoopin. Keep grinding, not to prove anything to anybody but yourself. Keep the love for the game.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. It’s not even that Parker is doing anything wrong, it’s just that nobody gains anything from having read his tweets. They have messages, sure. They have positive messages that are great for young people to read, sure. In fact, if all of our youths were as conscientious and kind as Jabari Parker seems to be, our world would have no war, and no one would ever forget to bring their canvas shopping bags to Whole Foods. This is true. But these tweets are, if nothing else, reminiscent of the manicured social media presences of basically any major American sports figure.

LeBron has 13.8 million Twitter followers, but he never says ANYTHING interesting on there. The backlash from The Decision would have been nullified if he had decided to start cracking jokes and retweeting memes about himself in 2010. Instead, he tweets things like, “Good morning folks! Another day to improve and be thankful for seeing this day. #Smile #StriveForGreatness.” It sounds like it came out of a greeting card factory run by Pat Boone and the eggplant from Veggie Tales. I’m sure a lot of athletes have funny thoughts. I’m more likely to appreciate an athlete who seems like a real person and not a Nike-powered, stock-quote machine. I’m more likely to like ANY PERSON who sounds like a real human being, and not an inspirational-quote dispenser. I know the point for an athlete’s representation is to reduce the level of controversy surrounding their client, and nothing is a greater powder keg of controversy than Twitter. It’s refreshing that at least one agent-athlete combo doesn’t seem to mind.

Reading Embiid’s tweets, though, saddens me, because it makes me think of the multitude of athletes who have been advised not to be themselves in those 140-character spurts. What if Tiger Woods really liked that episode of “Designing Women” he just saw on Nick at Nite? What if Derek Jeter goes all red in the face when people don’t reprimand their tantrum-ridden children at Pottery Barn? What if Peyton Manning wonders why Drake has a verse on that otherwise-good Rick Ross track? If they do, we’ll never know, and we’ll never get a chance to know. Maybe with good reason, if it turns out that Embiid can’t actually play basketball. But I hope his story doesn’t end up that way. His success would be the success of everyone who doesn’t quite like the model of athletes as business entities. Who doesn’t want their pal with the funny tweets to succeed?