It took six days for Mo Makled to get the notification he wanted. Minutes after the Warriors won Game 5 of the NBA Finals on June 12 and raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Makled started working his fingers. He already knew how he was going to craft his post. He just needed to make sure that Kevin Durant saw it.
Five days went by with no response, and then Makled started noticing something on Twitter. Durant, who as of this writing has 16.6 million followers, was going back and replying to people. A lot of people. Starting on June 15, KD’s first post-title Twitter appearance, and going for a week until June 22, Durant tweeted and replied to people 67 times. There was the scoreboard reply. The hilarious well, actually reply. The don’t correct my grammar reply. The always-necessary subtle-dig-at-analytics reply. Even the please, tell me more reply. And the legendary scouting report on Markelle Fultz, too.
Before that spree, Durant’s previous 70 tweets had spanned back all the way until the middle of December 2016. Among those, only four were replies to Twitter users that actually sounded like Durant was speaking. But after the Finals, as KD resorted to messy, spell-check-allergic tweets about whatever was on his mind, and at anyone who tweeted at him or replied, it was clear something had changed—even if it was simply just that he now had a ring.
Makled saw this development while working at his family’s business on June 18, and it was then that he got the notification of a lifetime.
bro, I'm gettin old as hell smh. Nice stroll down memory lane! Thanks— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) June 19, 2017
“I kinda just stared at my phone in disbelief,” Makled told me in Twitter direct message. “Then a bunch of people I know started tweeting and texting me because they know what a big fan I am.” Makled says he can’t remember the exact number of texts and tweets he received. “It was a pretty awesome moment.”
In 2009, according to a study by the marketing company Sysomos, three of the most followed NBA players on Twitter—Shaq, Paul Pierce, and Dwight Howard—tweeted less than twice a day. For comparison’s sake, on July 21, LeBron, who is the most followed NBA player on Twitter today, tweeted or retweeted something five times. Durant’s replying spree on July 24 amounted to 29 total tweets and retweets. LeBron and KD are just two prominent examples of volume tweeters, but everyone from Evan Turner to Andre Iguodala are using the medium as a place to talk and think aloud alongside their fan bases.
Players have signaled their intentions on Twitter and Instagram so often now that the outlets have become as much of a news source as ESPN, Yahoo, and other legacy sports media. Twitter birthed the great emoji fiasco between the Clippers and the Mavs two summers ago and was also where we discovered that Isaiah Thomas followed Gordon Hayward on Instagram a day after the Finals ended. Instagram is where we learned that Kyrie unfollowed LeBron. Snapchat is where we found out about the banana boat, and on Instagram we get to analyze the lyrics to whatever Meek Mill song LeBron is jamming out to.
The window that social media offers us is wide enough to look into a player’s life, but narrow enough so that he can control what gets in and what gets out. It provides the canvas for perfect, subtly informative teases, allowing the player to feel in control of the message while also reserving the right to dive into the muddy waters of his mentions to talk back if need be.
“A fan used to be a passive spectator,” said Jordan Dowler-Coltman, an independent filmmaker from Vancouver who was once on the rough end of a since-deleted Durant reply on Twitter. “I think Twitter has democratized the whole fan interaction. When someone you respect from afar talks to you on Twitter or even just likes or retweets you, you feel special and you feel like you matter for a moment in their lives,” he says. Dowler-Coltman believes that an athlete who understands the power of connecting with consumers that will inevitably fuel his brand and have a leg up on the competition. “But fans see through blatant self-promotion or ego and are attracted to authenticity,” he says. “Someone willing to be authentic is key.” Over the last few years, athletes, especially young NBA players who grew up with social media, have started to come around to that very idea: being public doesn’t necessarily mean being perfect, but rather being authentic.
On Sunday, Damian Lillard, an avid Twitter and Instagram user, sat down to an interview with ESPN’s Nick DePaula and discussed his shift from completely ignoring social media to fully embracing it, and how it has helped his brand. From his own posts on music, basketball, and fashion to countering those who come at him, Lillard, like many of his NBA peers, has capitalized on the multiplicity of advantages of social media.
“People tell me all the time, ‘Man, you don’t gotta respond to it.’ But I’m always going to say something,” Lillard told ESPN. “Sometimes, that’s the last thing they expect. Or they don’t want to have to explain what they said, or they don’t want that type of confrontation.”
Makled was a lifelong Durant fan who found himself on the receiving end of a benign, funny KD tweet. Of course, that hasn’t been the case for everyone. Justin Carroll, username @just2eazy on Twitter, went after KD on July 24: “I hope ur happy with ur bought ring,” he tweeted. “Cause it damn sure wasn’t earned.” Carroll was with his friends at the time—coincidentally, about to play a pickup game of basketball at a park in Brooklyn—and put his phone down after firing off the tweet. When the game was over an hour later, he came back to roughly 100 notifications and mentions. KD had sassily countered with: “How much did I pay for it?”
“I tweeted him something I thought would bother him enough to respond,” Carroll told me. “But at the same time, I didn’t think he would actually respond. I still didn’t believe it until I saw his response. My friends couldn’t believe it.”
Carroll’s favorite player is Carmelo Anthony. You can’t scroll through Carroll’s Twitter feed without seeing multiple posts lauding or defending the current Knicks star. He’s not a fan of Durant. He never has been, and KD’s departure from the Thunder to join the Warriors didn’t help. But though his message was meant to incite, Carroll couldn’t believe Durant had picked his tweet and taken the time to reply. Even though Carroll publicly expressed his dislike of KD, Durant’s decision to engage translated better and more effectively than anything he could do on the court.
“I enjoy the fact that he really interacts with people on social media. Very few superstars do,” Carroll said of Durant. “He became more likable to me. Absolutely.”