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Vince Thomas

From The Floor

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Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Twitter gives players a voice, at 140 characters a shout

By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Mar 31 2009 11:28AM

Late last week, I had, what I thought, was this brilliant, new-media, cutting-edge, culturally significant idea. "Vince," I said to myself. "You should write a piece about Twittering athletes. Only, to source the piece, use tweets from the athletes themselves." Genius, right? So I went ahead and sent tweets from my account (VinceCAThomas) to some of the athletes that I follow on Twitter.

I asked Shaq (THE_REAL_SHAQ) and Paul Pierce (paulpierce34) why they started tweeting; reached out to Tyson Chandler (tysonchandler) to gather why Twitter seems so special to athletes; wondered to Charlie Villanueva (CV31) if there was anything that could make him stop using Twitter; I even got at Mark Cuban (mcuban) to find out his 140-character thought on Twitter's potential drawbacks for athletes, he of a recent Twitter-related fine.

You know what I got back? Nada. The tweets I sent to Baron Davis (Baron_Davis), Jason Richardson (jrich23) and Steve Nash (the_real_nash) may or may not have been lost when I deleted them in an all-thumbs moment. Who knows? They probably igged me, too. Charlie V. was the only cat that responded. Within about five hours of my initial tweet, he shot back: "There's nothing that would stop me from tweeting. I want to stay in tune with today's new age, the fans are important to me."

I thought about resending a few of the tweets, maybe "nudging" them. It even crossed my mind to e-mail some of the team PR guys for some help. ("Hey, Julie. Any way you can get Shaq, Nash or Richardson to respond to some tweets I sent them?") That's when this athlete-Twitter relationship crystallized, for me. There was a sort of boundary. For a lot athletes, Twitter is an A and B conversation and journalists can C their way out. In the time since I sent my initial tweets, these athletes -- some of with which I previously had extensive conversations -- responded to dozens of strangers. Funkadelicfunk -- some random chick from Arlington, Texas -- asked Shaq: "is your foot really the size of a small baby? that's what someone told me..." Shaq responded, "Yup." Me, a journalist, attempting to write what I perceive to be a timely and culturally relevant column, asks The Dies to comment on a trend he's championing and he basically tells me to talk to his cyber-hand and get-to-steppin'. And that's how it should be. If I have a question for Shaq or Andrew Bogut or Baron Davis or any other Twittering athlete, I can catch them at the arena or go through the team's PR office.

The whole point of this Twitter thing is to skip the media, skip the marketers, skip everything that separates a jock and his fans and get right to the people. Twitter may seem frivolous and trivial, but it's actually a G-move.

Before Twitter, a guy like fitch87 risked rejection if he approached an athlete in public. Now he can just tweet Shaq his amusement at the Suns' pregame bowling-pin routine, like he did at 11:51 p.m. March 27, and ask if Shaq has anything else in store. And now he can truly expect to hear back from the Diesel, which is why he probably wasn't surprised when Shaq tweeted back, "we got somethin we just waitn on lebron."

Athletes have had websites and poorly maintained, rarely-updated Facebook/MySpace pages for years, but nothing has ever approached the fan-player interaction you can find on Twitter. Fans have always wondered what a player "really" thinks. I put "really" in quotes because what we read in newspapers and on sports sites is typically cliché drivel on top of cliché drivel. But now, increasingly, we're getting random, almost whimsical thoughts from these Twittering dudes that would normally strictly remain as voices inside their heads. A couple weeks ago, Tyson Chandler told his Twitter followers: "Back in Chicago today it's such a great city.. It's also such a shame how my time ended here..." We were aware of these emotions immediately after he left the Bulls, but the fact that he was still struck by these emotions, three years later, on the eve of a game is revealing. After the game he tweeted, "The worse thing is losing to your old team."

This may be a fad, but until a newer, more ingenious form of communication latches on, this Twitter-thing is a movement. All the fogies and cynics and cornballs need to get hip to this. For the folks that actually think they are too hip for Twitter, that it's just another tool for self-indulgence -- I can dig that, but they need to wake up, too. This is progress. For a league that suffered a full decade of a supposed "disconnect with the fans," this is a boon. And for the players that constantly feel like prisoners of someone else's projection, this is like an image coup d'état. Journalists -- close to caving under the pressure of a harsh economy that makes us all expendable -- probably don't take any pleasure in the fact that Twitter scooped Los Angeles beat reporters when, hours before it was reported by the Associated Press, Davis tweeted that he had an ulcer. But that's small stuff. The movement lives inside the way athletes are taking re-ownership of their image. Twitter is a place for them to say what they feel, deny false claims, offer some quick insight on an upcoming game, maybe even quell a controversy without the use of traditional outlets.

How many times has a ballplayer said he was misunderstood? A gazillion times, right? And who do they often attribute this to? The media, right? I can feel 'em on many levels. Writers -- hard news journalists included -- infer things. We'll tell you we don't, but we do. Our stories have more than a few subtle conclusions based on evidence and circumstance. And that's for those paid to keep our opinion out of the story. Columnists are a different story. In years past, if your local columnist thought a particular player was a jerk, he'd tell you so and, inevitably, he wasn't always right or justified in that characterization. The information you pick up from features and columns colored how fans perceived the dude. That's how it's always been. And sometimes, maybe even often, our (the media's) take is the wrong take, the picture we paint is flawed. Although I've never had an athlete step to me to take umbrage with something I've written, I'll bet that every athlete I've ever profiled or opined about has read at least a couple passages and thought, "that not what I meant," or maybe even "you don't know what you're talking about."

That's all changing now. Not only can the ballplayers feed fans tidbits -- like Jason Richardson's tweet about teammate Alando Tucker jokingly sending him Rogaine for his thinning wig or Villanueva's thoughts about a tough road trip -- but I bet that, at some point, an athlete will be caught up in some type of controversy and will turn to Twitter to set the record real. And that will be an all-powerful moment.

Any new medium will have its problems. Twitter Best Practices are not very clear (hence, Charlie V. tweeting during halftime) and fake Twitter accounts are always popping up, like the clearly satirical Julius Erving page that has tweets like this one to what was a fake (and now defunct) Kobe Bryant account: "@bryant24 you will never be as good as me son. I was crowned MVP while you were in diapers...you cocky turkey. You Got the Doctor riled up." That hilarity aside, ballplayers need to keep track of this kind of tomfoolery. Sometimes it's not that easy to determine what's authentic. The type of unfiltered communiqués that Twitter engenders makes for open season for gaffes and mouths that end up tasting like sneaker soles. That's not to stop cats like Paul Pierce from embracing Twitter and using it to give away tickets, which he did for Sunday's home game against the Thunder.

Athletes have always had a stage. Now they have a voice.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites your feedback at vincethomas79@gmail.com.

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