How Instagram Expanded The NBA’s Push For Sports World Domination

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On March 24th, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker went Super Saiyan on the Boston Celtics. He held a grudge with the hoop all evening, pouring in 70 points, becoming the youngest player ever to score 40 or more points in a game and setting a Suns franchise record for most buckets in a single game. The Suns wound up losing the game, on account of being the Suns, but the team didn’t care. They weren’t making the playoffs, another unbearable Arizona summer was looming, and life is too damn short.

So the team gathered for a group photo, baby-faced Booker beaming in the middle, his hands clasping a white sheet of paper with the number “70” written in black ink.

The flick was posted to the NBA’s official Instagram account, though Booker’s statline quickly became the second-most interesting thing about it. Thanks to what was then a recent update to the app, any comment left by a verified or popular user got featured for all to see, plucked from a wasteland of thousands and given top billing. On this particular photo, as your eyes moved from Booker’s grin south to the comments section, a retort from @bossman99 hovered above everyone else’s.

“NEVER SEEN SO MANY GUYS HAPPY AFTER AN L,” wrote bossman99, aka Celtics guard Jae Crowder, who, in order to be the boss, apparently needs to type in all-caps.

A few minutes later, Booker fired back.

“You can’t guard me.”

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The exchange played out in real time, visible to any of the 25.3 million people that follow the NBA’s IG account, like an unintentionally hilarious premiere of “The Walking Dead.”

Over the past year, Instagram has not only filled the NBA social media void that opened when Vine was unceremoniously taken out to pasture back in January, but made it infinitely more fun. Being a part of #NBATwitter when Vines of ruthless dunks or disrespectful crossovers were getting posted before the local broadcast could even run them back as replays was like getting past the bouncer at that exclusive club but still gazing at the VIP, wondering what things were being whispered between famous patrons.

With NBA Instagram, you’re there, and that obnoxious bottle of Grey Goose with a sparkler in it is coming right toward you.

Instagram has not only peeled back the curtain on the thoughts, opinions and quirks of NBA players, it’s ripped it down completely and shipped it back to the store. And if there’s one thing that reveal taught us, it’s that the NBA circle is filled with shade.

It’s March 31st, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are going through one of their trademark “actually we might be bad whoa the Celtics could win the East” stretches of the season. LeBron tells the media “we’re just in a bad spot,” a quote that’s then slapped across a photo of LeBron looking frustrated and posted to Bleacher Report’s Instagram account. Stephen Curry, somewhere in the bowels of Oracle Arena or floating in a salt bath, double-taps it.

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Curry’s “liking” of his rival’s struggles got so much attention that he was asked a question about it during practice that same day.

“Total accident,” Curry would respond, as if he were a member of Donald Trump’s social media team scurrying about at 3 in the morning.

Washington Wizards point guard John Wall doesn’t prescribe to Curry’s choice of Instagram subtlety. He’d rather throw down the digital gauntlet directly. As superstars changed teams quicker than cash in a drug deal this summer, Wall was visibly irked. So he hopped on the ‘Gram, threw up a picture of himself and running mate Bradley Beal, and captioned it with this:

“Aye @bradbeal3 I wonder who else gonna team up next to try and win a ship this year. but who cares cause we all we got bro…DC or Nothin !! #WizGang.”

If true, unadulterated pettiness is what you’re looking for, then there’s been no greater addition to the world of NBA Instagram than Russell Westbrook. The man is a shade savant, and Instagram is his canvas. When Kevin Durant jettisoned Oklahoma City for Golden State without so much as a “hey, u up? I’m dipping” text to Westbrook, the point guard took to his phone to hit KD with a silent uppercut.

On July 4th, 2016, the very same day Durant announced his decision to join the Warriors, Westbrook posted a seemingly harmless photo of a few America-themed cupcakes to his Instagram account. Except, according to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, “cupcake” was slang for “soft,” terminology brought to the team by Kendrick Perkins and then utilized religiously by both Durant and Westbrook.

There’s levels to this, and Westbrook is the architect.

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So synonymous has Instagram become with NBA culture that Kyrie Irving’s unfollowing of LeBron James on the platform became a stronger sign of truthfulness to the the point guard’s alleged trade request than the actual trade itself. The man Irving was traded for, Isaiah Thomas, buried a shot at his former employer in an Instagram story, posting an image of a motivational whiteboard at the Cavs’ practice facility and circling the last phrase, which read “Loyalty is Returned.”

While the Vine-era prized the NBA’s penchant for plays that sent you sprinting off your couch in exultation, turning any night Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers were playing into a two-hour Twitter session, Instagram has expanded that universe. If #NBATwitter was your run of the mill superhero movie, then NBA Instagram is “The Dark Knight,” giving its subjects depth, complexities and motivation. The app is the first thing players open on their phone after their game ends.

After an opening night loss against his former team, Kyrie Irving sat at his locker, buried in his phone for a good 10 minutes before he hit the showers (though, to be fair, he could’ve been researching photos of the Earth.) After a recent loss, LeBron James could be found gazing at a teammate’s phone opened to Instagram, replaying a video of Miami Heat forward James Johnson’s vicious dunk over Curry.

Sometimes, though, you simply want some juvenile pettiness. And in that regard, may the NBA’s relationship with Instagram never, ever end.