Twitter saga puts Bryan Colangelo's job in uncertain state

NBA.com Global on Jun 05, 2018 08:43 AM
Twitter saga puts Bryan Colangelo's job in uncertain state
FILE - This June 24, 2016 file photo shows Philadelphia 76ers President Of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo speaking during a news conference in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

Let me start with question number one: what the hell were you thinking?

-- Jay Leno’s first question to the actor Hugh Grant, July 10, 1995, in Grant’s first public interview since he had been arrested two weeks prior for solicitation of a prostitute and charged with one count of lewd conduct. That Grant was an incredibly popular actor at the time -- who was in a long-term relationship with the indescribably beautiful Elizabeth Hurley, made the interview/confession must-see TV.

Sometimes … well, you can’t explain why you do things you do.

* * *

When I was 13 or 14, I can’t remember exactly, I had a summer job with some kids I knew from school and the neighborhood. Basically, the job was to sing in a choir. It was a gospel choir that went to senior homes in the area and performed for the residents. We learned about singing in harmony, of course, but also about the values of practice, teamwork and camaraderie -- and, breathing exercises. Decades later, I can still remember how to exhale in short bursts while pulling on my diaphragm -- that muscle in your stomach being key to holding long notes.

So, we were a pretty close-knit group by the end of the summer. One day, after practice, we were walking back toward home on an ungodly hot day. One of our members recognized a house -- the home of one of their good and close friends. We went up, about four or five of us, and knocked on the door to see if the friend was there.

No answer.

Did I mention it was unbearably hot and humid?

Someone lamented that it was a shame no one was home, because we could all use a drink of water or lemonade or tea or whatever cold beverage was available.

You know, the person who was friends with the person that wasn’t home said, they leave their windows open. She’s my friend. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we just went in and got something to drink.

At this point, in retrospect, I can only surmise that my cerebral cortex temporarily disconnected from the thalamus and basal ganglia in my head and just lay there, its various functions -- most notably, common sense -- momentarily rendered useless. I said nothing. I did nothing. I just stood there on the porch of someone’s house that I did not know, and watched my friend go through the window of the house, go into the house, and open the door of the house.

What was left of my teenage brain must have gurgled, “cool. Problem solved. Let’s get some water.”

The police later called it “breaking and entering.”

Fortunately, the owner of the house, once it was determined our collective motivation was extreme vapidity and not larceny, did not feel it worth the time, effort or cost to press charges against us. My father was angry with me, of course, but moreso, he was just stupefied, as anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex would have been. I was among the scholars at my school, a reader, someone with potential. I was neither a breaker nor an enterer. None of us were. Our choir was comprised of the geeks, the brains, the nerds, the kids you didn’t have to worry about.

What the hell were you thinking?

* * *

So, many years later, a part of me is sympathetic toward Bryan Colangelo, the president of basketball operations of the Philadelphia 76ers, whose job reportedly hangs in the balance this morning as the owners of the team decide how to resolve this … well, what do you call this, exactly?

Colangelo, the scion of one of pro basketball’s most prestigious families, remains accused through strong inference if not outright evidence of being behind several burner Twitter accounts which have, ever since he was named president of the 76ers in 2016, served to make him and his decisions look good while taking shots at just about everyone else that’s been in his universe during that time -- a list including, but not limited to, his predecessor as GM in Philly, Sam Hinkie, former Sixer Jahlil Okafor, current players Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz and Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ general manager.

A story on TheRinger.com -- Bill Simmons’ outfit -- last week connected dots supplied by an anonymous source (back to that in a minute) which tied Colangelo to five Twitter accounts with anonymous owners. One of them did not tweet at all; the other four did. Within hours of The Ringer asking the 76ers and Colangelo to try and explain this, three of the accounts went from public to private, meaning they were no longer accessible unless the owner of the account granted access. And, the team, through Colangelo, acknowledged that he did indeed run one of the accounts -- the one that never sent a Tweet.

Colangelo said he did so to monitor social media activities in “our industry,” but said he had never sent any tweets and didn’t know who had sent the tweets from the other accounts.

Subsequently, other Twitter sleuths deduced that three of the accounts had a phone number contact whose last two digits matched the last two digits of a phone number belonging to Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Colangelo. Again, the inference -- not fact -- is that Barbara Colangelo could have been the one sending the tweets that just happened to defend and promote her husband’s decisions, while lambasting other people.

There are -- at least potentially -- legal hurdles that such disclosures as those alleged to have been sent or otherwise connected to Colangelo could create for the 76ers, and thus make it easier for the team to fire him for cause. (Sources indicate the 76ers’ internal investigation into Colangelo and the accounts is likely to be completed by this Wednesday. SI.com’s outstanding legal expert Michael McCann breaks down the various possibilities here.)

The fallout was immediate, the implications obvious.

LeBron James can opt out and become a free agent and is someone of interest to the 76ers this summer. He was asked during the media availability session at The Finals Saturday (Sunday, PHL time) if he’d seen the tweets from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert before Game 1 of The Finals. In those tweets, Gilbert credited both James’ performance during the season and the trades last summer that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston and at the deadline last February that brought four new players in, as catalysts for Cleveland’s postseason run.

James paused a beat for maximum comic timing.

“It was his account, right?,” James said, laughing.

Sure that went over great with 76ers majority owner Josh Harris and the others in his circle of influence that will decide Colangelo’s fate. The next 48 hours -- this should be done, one way or another, by midweek -- will tell the tale.

Even if Colangelo broke no laws, he has a lot -- a lot -- of explaining to do. The biggest problem isn’t with other teams -- people will do what they deem in their clubs’ best interest no matter who they must work with. They’d trade with North Korea if Kim Jong Un had an extra first-round pick or a 7-footer on an expiring contract. Please keep in mind that a good chunk of the anonymous league execs you see tut-tutting about Colangelo’s alleged misdeeds would saw their cars in half with a rusty knife if they could take his job. Their tuts have to be viewed within that context.

Then there is the matter of the source of The Ringer's report. I don't know the reporter and have no reason to doubt his word that he was approached by an anonymous person who had determined that Colangelo operated the five separate Twitter accounts. But it's fair to question who that person is/was, and what their motivations were. I do not believe that this was some benign naif who just stumbled upon the similarities in the accounts by accident or happenstance algorithm. What are the odds that somebody just fishing found this by accident?

The writer himself acknowledged that he was a frequent critic of Colangelo's and thus would likely be viewed as a sympathetic media person to whom such information could be given with an expectation of follow through/publishing. So, again ... who would stand to benefit from such a disclosure? No, I don't think it's Hinkie. But a lot of people -- thousands of people -- believed in Hinkie's Process, almost religiously. Some were Sixers fans; others worked with him in Philly and left when he did or soon after; still others worked for other teams, media outlets and within the league office. I just don't believe in coincidences.

If Colangelo were to land James or, say, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard this summer, the Sixers would be set as a powerhouse for years to come and Colangelo's status as an elite level GM would be cemented as the conference finals and/or Finals appearances flowed. This was the optimal -- and, maybe, the last -- chance to take him down. It doesn't mean what is alleged didn't happen. It does mean that someone may have had an axe to grind, and as such, the information they provided needs to be vetted even more thoroughly than it would be normally.

The only salient issue will be within the Sixers’ building, and with the player agents outside it who wield the real power in this league.

Bryan Colangelo helped build great teams with the Phoenix Suns and good ones with the Toronto Raptors, for which he’s twice been named NBA Executive of the Year (in 2005 and in ‘07). That helped him land the Philly job, which came open after Hinkie’s resignation in 2016 – which in itself was forced, though everyone denies it now, by ownership’s frustration with the slow slog of the Process.

Jerry Colangelo, an eminence grise if there ever was one in league history, was recommended/installed as the Sixers’ Chairman of Basketball Operations months before Hinkie’s resignation. He brought in his son to run things after Hinkie’s departure and over the last two years, Bryan Colangelo put his stamp on the franchise.

Embiid was already in place, but Bryan Colangelo drafted Ben Simmons first overall in the 2016 Draft, even though there were questions about whether Simmons could play point guard in the pros. He signed shooting guard J.J. Redick last summer in free agency, and added veterans Marco Bellinelli and Ersan llyasova for the stretch run.

But, he also made some moves that didn’t work out. Trading up with the Boston Celtics to get the first pick in last year’s Draft to take Fultz, while the Celtics got both Jayson Tatum and another first-rounder, looks like an L after the first year. Giving veteran Jerryd Bayless a three-year, $27 million deal isn’t helping this coming summer. Bayless wasn’t in the rotation during the playoffs but will pull down $8.5 million next season.

That’s the life of a GM. Win some, lose some. But most don’t try to then win in the court of public opinion behind burner Twitter accounts.

The tweets detail disagreement, for example, with some of Coach Brett Brown’s decisions. The issue isn’t that Colangelo may have disagreed with his coach; that happens every day. The issue is if he then aired their dirty laundry in public. That will make it extremely difficult for the two of them going forward -- and Brown, who just got a three-year extension after taking Philly to the second round, is as strong within the organization as he’s ever been.

Then there is Embiid. With all due respect to Simmons, Embiid is the bell cow of the franchise. As such, he has all the juice. If he believes Colangelo really said some of the things linked to him in the tweets, Colangelo is toast. If he believes Colangelo, as he indicated in his initial reaction, Colangelo could -- could -- survive.

But … the agents.

Agents are the ultimate accelerant to or brake on their clients’ dreams. Yes, the agent works for the player. But they wield an enormous amount of influence -- on the player, on his family. And if they make it clear to Sixers’ ownership that they can no longer trust Colangelo or his word, there will be a change. There would have to be, when Philly has so much cap space and can make a legit bid on anyone it wants to go after this summer.

Their view is currently guarded. Many prominent agents contacted by NBA.com in the past few days asked to have all the facts come in before determining if they’d be comfortable working with Colangelo in the future. What he does have going for him is a body of work over the years in which he has been viewed as a tough but fair negotiator, and is liked by much of the agent community with whom he’s had regular dealings.

“I like Bryan very much and am hoping there is a logical explanation,” a prominent player agent texted late last week. “If true, would be tough to confide in him, however.”

Another prominent agent said that while he would have no problem going forward working with Colangelo, players might be a different story.

“He's always been fair and honest with me,” the agent said. “I hope it's not true. I think players will have a hard time trusting him though if it is. … I would tell [the agent’s clients] about my personal dealings with him but this issue would certainly be one of the many factors to weigh. At the end of the day, though, the players usually [but not always] choose their destinations based on the best money offer and role.”

Another prominent agent, though, pointed out that Colangelo would hardly be the only front-office person engaged in, shall we say, curious behavior.

“There are so few competent GMs and so few execs who don’t lie,” the agent said. “If those were [the] criteria we’d have six GMs in the league.”

But leaking medical information, directly or indirectly, to a reporter, a spouse or to your Twitter followers, raises antennae -- even those of agents, the most cynical creatures known to man or beast. Colangelo will be hard-pressed to survive if it is proven he either wrote or disseminated the claim that Okafor failed a physical that scotched a potential trade (as I wrote back in ’17 and believe now, Philly had a deal to send Okafor to Portland that fell through at the last minute -- and a failed physical would certainly fit as the reason).

“I think it would be difficult if it’s true” to do business with Philly, another  big-time agent said last week, “just because I think his players would have to speak up on it.”

Colangelo has some intangibles in his favor, though.

This is an enormous offseason for the Sixers. They showed they’re ready to become a power in the Eastern Conference with their run at the end of the regular season and with their playoff showing (even though their season ended in less-than-ideal fashion to Boston). They’ve prepped to be a player this summer, either through trades or in free agency. Everyone is going to take a serious look at the 76ers, whether they’re an unrestricted free agent or a disgruntled talent under contract looking for a fresh start.

Colangelo and his group did all the leg work -- with other teams and with the agents of the key players. If Philly blows him or his team out, it will be starting from scratch with less than a month to go before free agency begins. That would be a huge gamble even if the Sixers identified someone either internally or externally to take over.

Things that look disqualifying from 30,000 feet tend to get smoothed over up close, in the light and heat of real hardball, I’ve found over time. Dan Gilbert’s Comic Sans screed against James in 2010 didn’t keep LeBron from coming back to Gilbert and Cleveland in 2014, for example.

It’s not that I’m excusing what Colangelo allegedly did, or at least knew was being done in his name. It’s just that you know that’s hardly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the shady side of the NBA. There’s so much dirt, dishonesty and secret alliances -- between teams, between agents, between players, among media -- that a Twitter burner account/accounts doesn’t produce the level of bile around the league that one might expect.

What it was, like going into someone’s house without their permission, was stupid. If Colangelo survives, it will be by the skin of his teeth. If he doesn’t … the current talent bookers at what is now “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” are Elie O’Sullivan, Ashley Olivia and Katelyn Maziekien. They’re on Linkedin.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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