The Big NBA Mystery: Did A Philly Exec Use Burner Accounts To Trash His Players?

Or did somebody else burn Philadelphia 76ers president Bryan Colangelo?
Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers' president of basketball operations, is accused of anonymously slamming his players on Twitter.
Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers' president of basketball operations, is accused of anonymously slamming his players on Twitter.

Forget the NBA finals. The biggest story in basketball right now is whether Bryan Colangelo, president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, has spent the past two years using burner Twitter accounts to roast his own players, including superstar forward Joel Embiid and point guard Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s NBA draft.

On Tuesday night, The Ringer strongly suggested that Colangelo secretly operated a series of sock-puppet accounts that pumped up his role in turning the Sixers into a playoff team, disclosed medical information about players whom the team was trying to trade and trash-talked current and former players. The accounts interacted with reporters who cover the NBA, bloggers who cover the Sixers and other random Twitter users.

The sports website’s report drew links between Colangelo, who took over the 76ers in 2016, and at least five burner accounts. Colangelo has admitted, via a statement from the Sixers, to controlling one of them. He used the account “phila1234567” to “monitor our industry and other current events,” he said.

But Colangelo denied any involvement with the other four accounts unearthed by The Ringer’s Ben Detrick and said he didn’t know “who is behind them or what their motives may be in using them.” The story’s publication set off a furious round of internet sleuthing, which has only deepened the mystery.

The funniest of the accounts’ tweets defend Colangelo’s preference for high-collared dress shirts, with one such post coming from the account “Enoughunkownsources.” 

If the tweets had stopped there, the story might be little more than a larky addendum to Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant’s use of burner accounts to defend himself from critics.

But the accounts that The Ringer linked to Colangelo routinely criticized current and former Sixers players and the team’s former general manager Sam Hinkie. Hinkie was the brains behind the organization’s burn-it-all-down rebuilding strategy whereby the team lost a lot of games for a few years in the hopes of securing high draft picks. He left the franchise shortly after Colangelo arrived.

The accounts accused former Sixers player Jahlil Okafor, for instance, of failing a physical, thereby scuttling a potential trade to the New Orleans Pelicans in 2017. Amid criticism of the botched trade, an account known as “Eric jr” urged Sixers bloggers and beat reporters to ask the team ― and Okafor ― about the allegedly failed physical.

It has never been reported that Okafor failed a physical. If the Twitter accounts do indeed belong to Colangelo, that would mean an NBA executive had disclosed sensitive medical information about a player via social media. (The Sixers eventually traded Okafor to the Brooklyn Nets.)

The accounts repeatedly took aim at Embiid, drafted third overall in 2014, who has become one of the Sixers’ brightest stars over the past two seasons. Enoughunkownsources accused the center of “playing like a toddler having tantrums” in November 2017. The Eric jr. account tweeted at a national NBA reporter that Embiid “should be called out” over his behavior. 

The accounts also criticized Fultz ― who missed all but 14 games of his rookie season amid shooting woes and a mysterious shoulder injury ― for relying on his own shooting coach outside the franchise.

Former Sixers player Nerlens Noel, who was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in 2017, was another frequent target. The accounts referred to Noel, a former NBA lottery pick, as a “selfish punk” and a “vulture” whom coach Brett Brown wanted to trade. 

Colangelo’s alleged burner accounts also had a habit of pitching trade ideas to basketball reporters and bloggers, suggesting that the executive may have been sharing his team-building and business strategies with the public.

Embiid told ESPN that he talked to Colangelo on Tuesday night after The Ringer story was published and that Colangelo denied posting any of the critical statements about him.

“If true though, that would be really bad,” Embiid said.

Embiid, a prolific Twitter jokester, made light of the story on his own account, before adding that he didn’t believe Colangelo was behind the accounts.

The Sixers announced Wednesday that they would launch an investigation into the accounts and whether they were linked to Colangelo.

The Ringer’s story makes the case that all five accounts were tied to Colangelo. The website reported that it was tipped off by an anonymous source who claimed to have used a data analysis tool to link all five accounts “through commonalities including similarities in who the accounts followed and linguistic quirks.”

For example, the source explained, all five follow accounts tied to Sixers players, members of the Philly front office, and beat reporters who cover the team; Toronto Raptors writers; Canadian high school basketball; and University of Chicago basketball. 

Colangelo was previously general manager for the Toronto Raptors and his son plays for the University of Chicago basketball team.

The Ringer continued:

They discuss the same topics, use strikingly similar phrasing, and, at times, have tweeted out identical media images.

But not all of the accounts used similar language or covered the same topic areas. The phila1234567 account ― the one that Colangelo acknowledged was his ― “never tweets,” as The Ringer’s story acknowledges. 

This distinction between phila1234567 and the other four accounts mentioned in the story became more pronounced as internet detectives arrived on the scene following The Ringer’s post. A few Twitter sleuths attempted to change the passwords for the accounts, in the process learning that three of five accounts were linked to a phone number with the last two digits of 91. The phone number attached to the acknowledged Colangelo account, however, ends in 75, and Bucks County Courier Times sports columnist Tom Moore said those are also the final two digits of the number he has for Colangelo

The Ringer admitted in the story that it couldn’t verify the identity of its source. So as it stands, the only evidence linking the five accounts are the accounts they all follow, the word of an unverified source and the curious fact that three of them went private after The Ringer inquired about the other two, phila1234567 and Eric jr.

If you’re confused, that means you haven’t spent the past 12 hours thinking only about this.

It’s possible the source account that tipped off The Ringer is one that goes by the name “Enough Sixers” and counts Detrick, the story’s writer, and Chris Ryan, The Ringer’s editorial director, among its handful of followers. The egg account ― one that still uses Twitter’s default profile picture ― has tweeted just once, to ask Detrick to follow it back so they can direct-message each other about an article. 

The owner of the Enough Sixers account didn’t immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for an interview, sent to an email address apparently linked to the account. 

UPDATE: On Wednesday night, the popular @DidTheSixersWin account unearthed a new tidbit: that a listed phone number for Colangelo’s wife ends with 91, conjecturing that that potentially links her to at least three of the burner accounts included in The Ringer’s story.