There were a few emotional seconds where the processed cheese product had me on the verge of tears. We were talking about the scrutiny of stats, their often one-dimensional interpretation in sports, and how quickly they can be turned against their wielder. As a woman in sports, I confessed, I triple-check whatever metric I use in a story, no matter how sure of it I am, knowing that if there’s anything that’s going to be blown apart and used against me it will be the numbers, first. It was a weird feeling to align with cheese, but I suddenly felt a bizarre camaraderie, two perceived outsiders in a space so largely male and occasionally archaic.
Where I wavered was when the realization hit me, that it’s ok — celebrated even! — for a cheese product to boldly say these things while a woman sportswriter still hesitates.
“In the reply guys, if you’re in sports media, and you’re blessed to not be male, it’s a nightmare,” the cheese consoled me. “It’s just ‘well actually’ people.”
Let me back up a bit.
Velveeta, as far as brands existing online go, has been sentient for a while now. But this week, in a flurry of emphatically delivered takes on player +/- ratings and Rudy Gobert, it reached basketball sentience. I’d had my own “huh” moment with the lambent orange product some weeks prior when it replied to a Fred VanVleet tweet of mine with a string of gold hearts and basketball emojis. It was all emotional Raptors fans in there for the most part, this wasn’t mainstream stuff. The more recent tweets, though, were nuanced inside basketball stuff. What, or more importantly who, was this? And what did they know of undrafted point guards relentlessly betting on themselves?
Even if the brand as an entity — a big rectangular block of cheese product — can’t Google, the people behind it can, so there was skepticism. But then came VORP.
In what surely was meant as a smug “gotcha,” the cheese was asked its opinion on Value Over Replacement Player as a metric. Velveeta, for the first time in its history, didn’t melt. And while VORP honestly sounds like it could be the name for a rival cheese product, the creator of the metric soon chimed in:
As creator of VORP… Velveeta brings more nuance to the discussion than I imagined a smooth cheese food product would bring. https://t.co/DT63Vfd8FO
— Daniel Myers (@DSMok1) November 3, 2020
It turns out a smooth cheese product’s day can be made, and the creator of VORP saying it brought nuance to the discussion was what did it. The reply guys came for Velveeta, which is how I wound up commiserating with cheese, but the cheese was unbothered.
“It’s great because I’m sure we’ll be wrong because everyone’s wrong,” they said. “Velveeta’s probably going to be wrong a lot. Anthony Bennett went number one in the draft. Everyone was wrong on that. So if they’re wrong, cheese will be wrong.”
Before we get to who is cheese, let’s get to what is cheese, specifically this cheese, and what it is doing in basketball.
As a product, Velveeta is bright, a toxic meltdown shade of yellow-orange that essentially needs to be destroyed for the process of consumption. It’s indulgent, there’s a comfort to its uniformity as much as its end result, its unapologetic. Some of this comes through just staring at a brick of it, but the online voice of Velveeta helps, a voice made ostensibly louder — probably like yours does — when it comes to basketball.
“I would say 80 percent of the time it’s in all caps, and that’s just cause we’re enthusiastic,” they said. “We’re just happy to be there. If someone’s talking hoops with us, oh my gosh, what else is the internet for?”
It’s become less strange to witness the way brands engage online because by now we’re immune as much as we understand the people behind these accounts by and large become their voices. There are still off-putting moments where engagement breaks the fourth wall and becomes uncomfortable or cringeworthy, but Velveeta’s figured out a couple workarounds. For one, NBA Twitter is a place that implodes and combusts daily, a strange and nebulous vortex that forever swirls with joy and drama, riptides of self-derision and solar flares of grief. It is at once self-serious and totally not. It is weirdly the perfect place for Velveeta.
And second, it all happened pretty slowly.
There were some early basketball adjacent alignments, demure compared to the product itself. Velveeta has been involved with the SEC and a Q&A series of videos for The Player’s Tribune that featured Grizzlies standouts Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. with a dip of Velveeta queso nestled between the two, from which they would occasionally dunk a chip. But the Twitter stuff, as with all Twitter stuff, was its own strange echelon — “Usually it was if someone from NBA Twitter followed us, or if they engaged with us, if they were a verified NBA Twitter person, [we] would follow them. Except for like, Woj and Shams, they don’t follow Velveeta.”
Its fan allegiances developed in the same way, with Velveeta having become such a staunch Oklahoma City Thunder supporter that the Mayor of Oklahoma City and several state legislators now follow the account.
“Someone from an OKC blog tweeted they liked Velveeta, and I just responded not realizing what it was. But then I realized it was OKC and replied with a bunch of Nick Collison and Robert Swift references,” the sentient cheese product recalled. “It’s the only professional team in the state, so they’re die-hards, and they just wanted to ask us questions. And then the Reddit people reached out to us and said would you do an AMA and we were like, as a cheese?”
Velveeta assumed it would get “like five people” but ended up doing all three hours. “It was really, really wonderful. We’re hoping to name the arena, the Chesapeake Energy Arena is losing their rights to that, and we’re trying to name it the ‘Liquid Gold Thunderdome’. If anyone has $1.2 billion lying around, let us know.”
Despite having settled into a fairly niche space in the hearts of OKC fans (“We love Dort. We tell people that the password to our Twitter account is ‘dorthalloffame’ — don’t test it. On Game 7 of the [sic] Finals, Velveeta tweeted something about Dort right at the beginning and then he went on to have a 30-point Game 7, and we were like, ‘We did that!’ We didn’t.”) and NBA Twitter, basketball doesn’t love Velveeta all the way back yet. The brand’s “Shells & Cheese” product was included in a welcome bag with other snacks for players upon arrival in the Orlando bubble and J.R. Smith hopped on Instagram Live for some fairly incredulous unboxing commentary.
Smith’s concerns were overall about nutrition, noting, “if you want a Ferrari to run like a Ferrari” you had to fuel it accordingly. But remember how much anxiety there was about the quality of food in the bubble at its onset? Retrospectively, it is easy to see how a simple snack basket became loaded, but not every player hated it, “Terrance Ferguson had it for the first time,” the cheese recalled, “and he really liked it.”
So probably you are wondering who is this amorphous cheese, melting over all the best parts of basketball and the subsequent engagement it yields from fans. But in a way, wouldn’t you say we already know the identity of the cheese product? That when it casually dips in and out of conversations offering some game insight, a passing player theory, as if these were personally learned and heartfelt opinions signaling a rich inner ball-is-life life, we feel a glimmer of recognition? You do, because the cheese is us.
There are so few good surprises unfolding in a year where time has completely swamped us. Whether you feel it’s funny or completely depressing to give credible stock to a brand’s online persona is completely your call, but there is a delightful and maybe gross little mystery in keeping this one housed in the safety of imagination.
What I will tell you is that Velveeta could be — probably is! — somebody you know. They really are a fan, they’ve melted through multiple cities and their subsequent markets but love basketball and its universe because it’s so vibrant, a permanent bright spot. They really do love Dort and did have an alert set up for VanVleet. They think “people fight too much on the internet about stats” and that “we should just be ok with saying we don’t know more … NBA Twitter needs to figure out how to talk better. If cheese can help it be more responsible, that’s a win.”
“Also, stop ranking. Velveeta wants people to stop ranking players,” they said. “Do a tiered system like it’s a queso dip. It’s not all-time, it’s what are you in the mood for? Make it a buffet.”
2020 is grotesque, throwing us for loops we’re hanging in a permanent state of suspension from with no real indication of when we’re going to come down. It makes sense, when you pile it all up, that a cheese made me cry or gives you a strange little vibration of recognition down your spine with how much like you it approaches stats, how unhinged it can be about a game. Melting your fear and eating it seems a good enough approach to life as anything.
But if you still want more I made an NBA Proust Questionnaire and asked Velveeta — the entity, the sentient basketball cheese — to do it.
What is your idea of perfect basketball happiness?
Eating queso, watching Dort hit a game winning three in the Liquid Gold Thunder Dome
What is your greatest fear — not enough cap space or a bad draft decision?
A bad draft decision is an act of villainy. Fools get forgotten, villains never die. We remember Darko we don’t remember a team that had no shot at Lebron not having the cap space.
What is the trait you most deplore in modern analytics?
Which living person does Kawhi Leonard most admire?
Probably like an awesome tree he saw once.
What player would you go into the luxury tax for?
Most! A GM getting his owner into the Luxury Tax is an act of resistance.
What is Sam Presti’s current state of mind?
Like a kid playing UNO holding a bunch of “Wild Card Draw 4”’s
What do you consider the most overrated stat?
Steals. It’s worthless. It’s either a Turnover or a Steal it can’t be both.
On what occasion does the ball lie?
Goaltending. Or if a Ball says it doesn’t like Shells and Cheese.
Which living person does Chris Paul most despise?
What is the quality you most like in a modern stretch 5?
Mobility. And a positive attitude.
When and where was Rasheed Wallace happiest?
That one game he played for Atlanta.
Which NBA talent would you most like to have?
Dort, Luka or our son Fred Vanvleet.
If you were to die and come back as a mascot, which mascot would it be?
Our brand playbook probably would say a Liquid Golden State Warrior. Our heart says Seattle’s Squatch.
In which NBA market would you most like to live?
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery in a regular season?
Second Week of March.
What is your most marked statistic/what statistic best describes you?
VORP, Velveeta Over Replacement Pasta
What are your favorite player nicknames?
What is it that you most dislike about the modern NBA?
When people preface their statement “In today’s NBA, because it’s like oh you mean we’re not time traveling?” Also not enough Queso in Stadiums.
What do you most value in a lineup?
What is Steve Ballmer’s greatest dance move?
Windows 95 Launch, no question. It was perfect. It was primal. For a glorious moment the gates of Valhalla opened and we basked her in creamy golden goodness.