Back in 2007, Lang Whitaker dubbed Gilbert Arenas, “The first blog superstar.” Fans had voted Arenas into the All-Star Game as a starter and Lang wondered whether this was a product of Gil’s online notoriety. Arenas was unquestionably Internet famous. But was he also getting IRL famous because of the Internet?
Fast forward to the present, where the NBA is so enmeshed with the digital sphere that the league runs television commercials about Twitter. Drawing this kind of hard-and-fast split between the Internet and everything else makes little to no sense when technology has become so essential to the sport. A large part of being a superstar is being famous on the Internet. It practically comes with the territory.
But there’s also been an important shift in the role played by the online community. Back in Arenas’ day, the blogosphere was largely passive, disseminating the “Agent Zero” persona that Gil worked so hard to cultivate. For players coming of age in the era of Basketball Twitter, the Internet isn’t an opportunity to decide who they want to be — it’s where the hoops cognoscenti decides who you are and how you will be talked about. And everyone, including the league itself, has no choice but to follow suit. To do anything else would be foolish.
Look no further than the buzz around Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, the putative Rookie of the Year and a superstar-in-the-making. The league has done little to throw its marketing weight behind Towns. It rarely invests in rookies (LeBron and KD are the sole recent exceptions) and with good reason. Despite what proponents of the age limit will tell you, even top lottery picks are unproven commodities who usually play for lousy, often unwatchable teams. When it comes to marketing a player, a year of incubation is a good thing, and not just because it allows the league to manage expectations.
This waiting period gives the Internet ample time to shape the conversation around Towns. Instead of telling fans what to think, the NBA sits back and crowd-sources the idea of Karl-Anthony Towns. Nobody needs to be told that Towns is an exceptional basketball player. However, it’s worth noting that in a year dominated by talk of the Warriors, Steph Curry, the Warriors, the Spurs and Kobe’s farewell tour, nearly every Towns’ performance has warranted at least some online attention. This is where the legend begins. This is how the rep gets set.
Towns isn’t just good, he may even be underrated. While breathtakingly athletic, his footwork and post moves mark him as a player developed beyond his years and thus capable of sky-high growth. In certain circles, Towns has already been crowned the best young big man since Anthony Davis — better even than Davis was at that age and possibly already a more complete player. Via Towns’s Rookie Diary for GQ, we’re also seeing a personality come into focus: an affable, approachable, post-Steph figure who is at once charismatic and unassuming, poised without feeling stilted, dominant on the court but effortlessly deferential off it.
Granted, in this case it’s Towns himself doing the talking. But whether he knows it, the young big man isn’t issuing press releases for himself. He’s speaking to the hard core of NBA fans, putting out the raw data for a process that’s nearly as important as charting X’s and O’s. Forget focus-grouping. How this kind of content is received — and in this case, supported — by the web does the essential work of helping corporate interests figure out who and what the public wants Karl-Anthony Towns to be. It’s a revolutionary shift in the way player are construed. We’re going from being force-fed talking points to being openly invited to participate in the process.
Towns’ slow-burn arrival couldn’t be more different than that of Kristaps Porzingis, whose early success made him into the biggest thing on the Internet this side of, well, the Warriors. Granted, Porzingis benefits tremendously from the visibility afforded by NYC. And Knicks fans — all closet optimists — are quick to embrace any indication that the team might finally turn a corner.
Porzingis Fever was no Linsanity. But almost immediately, he emerged as not only a bright prospect but an immediate cult sensation and a fully branded phenomenon. A gangly, swaggering, Latvian teen reared on hip hop, his long threes and vicious putback dunks were immediately Vine-worthy. That his play was anything but consistent didn’t change the fact that he was meme-worthy from Day 1. Scrolling through your timeline, you’ll still find plenty of people whose handles are Porzingis-related puns. And if his appeal is as much about his image as his ability, for the time being that might be enough. Towns is the better player but Porzingis is ready for export to the non-NYC mainstream.
There’s a certain circular logic at play here: Towns and Porzingis are being groomed for stardom in part because they’re such easy sells. They don’t pose the same challenges as, say, post-Sheed megalith DeMarcus Cousins or the eternally enigmatic Giannis Antetokounmpo, two longtime Internet faves who fall outside of the NBA’s marketing purview. Despite massive online cosigns, they remain supremely talented players toiling away on mediocre teams.
The Internet may never be able to construct a superstar on its own, as Lang speculated it had with Arenas. The synergy between IRL and the web — between what a player brings to the table and the way we choose to interpret it — is too complete for that kind of stunt. But the fact remains that a multi-billion-dollar corporation is now counting on a bunch of impulsive Twitter users to lay its marketing groundwork.
To look at it another way, in endorsing these voices, the NBA is admitting what all smart brands do: That people are way too canny as consumers to be simply sold a bill of goods. They want things to be participatory. They want to feel a sense of ownership and investment in these athletes. And if things continue in this direction, players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis will only be more popular for it.
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SB Nation Presents: NBA rookies imitate Kobe, LeBron and more stars
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