It’s the strangest story in sports: the President of an NBA team and his alleged secret Twitter accounts.
The sensational story broke on 29 May 2018 when The Ringer published a lengthy investigative piece suggesting Colangelo may be behind up to five anonymous Twitter accounts which were criticising his predecessor Sam Hinkie and attacking 76ers players.
The Ringer contributor Ben Detrick had been anonymously tipped off about the suspicious accounts by someone who claimed to have picked up on consistencies across the accounts in terms of content posted and Twitter users followed by using an AI algorithm.
Colangelo admitted to operating one of the Twitter accounts that used the handle @phila1234567 though that particular account never tweeted. He denied any wrongdoing.
On 30 May 2018, the 76ers announced they were investigating the matter.
In the ensuing investigation, Barbara Bottini, Colangelo’s wife, told the franchise that she had been behind the accounts. Forensic investigations by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP found evidence that supported her version of events.
Despite this, the trust the franchise and its players had in Colangelo had been irreparably broken and it was clear his position was untenable. On 7 June 2018, it was announced he was resigning from his role, effective immediately.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 7, 2018
The strange tale of Eric Jr. and friends
The five contentious accounts went under the handles Eric jr, Honest Abe, Still Balling, Enoughunkownsources (sic) and Phila1234567. Detrick contacted the 76ers with his suspicions about the accounts but only mentioned two of the accounts in question. Later that day, all five switched to private mode.
The accounts were used to hurl a torrent of criticism at 76ers players Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and former player Nerlens Noel. They also derided the team’s head coach Brett Brown, who has now assumed Colangelo’s duties as the franchise searches for a replacement.
At one point, one of the accounts scolded star centre Embiid after he apparently “danced like a fool” at a Meek Mill show. The accounts later asked Embiid, “Why didn’t you tell docs knees hurt before Houston?”
The accounts also published a number of tweets defending Colangelo from his detractors. Seemingly no issue was too trivial for them to spring into action. When a Twitter user noticed Colangelo’s penchant for oversized shirt collars, one of the accounts shot back: “That is a normal collar. Move on, find a new slant.”
More seriously, the ‘burner’ accounts published commercially sensitive information such as player Jahlil Okafor’s failed medical in the public domain for the first time. They also had inside information about the trade the franchise made to secure the number one draft pick in the 2017 NBA draft before it occurred.
The accounts also attempted to leak sensitive information on player injuries to journalists and bloggers.
Philadelphia and Bryan Colangelo have agreed to part ways, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 7, 2018
On NBA podcast Game Theory broadcasters Sam Vecenie and Dieter Kurtenbach said they knew of multiple executives around the league who use anonymous Twitter profiles known as ‘burner’ or ‘sock puppet’ accounts. Such accounts could be used to gather information and to possibly defend their work under the cloak of anonymity.
As Colangelo’s high-flying career ends in the most ridiculous circumstances imaginable, it is likely many executives will be rethinking any covert use of social media.
The identity of the Twitter user who tipped off Detrick in the NBA’s version of Deep Throat remains a mystery.
Veteran NBA journalist Royce Young told an ESPN roundtable the circumstances of the tip off are curious.
“The idea of an anonymous tipster piecing together the connection between five very random Twitter accounts is strange, and worth looking into,” Young said.
“To even notice these accounts tweeting at Sixers media is fairly dubious in and of itself, and raises a lot of questions about why someone was paying attention in the first place.”