Sometimes, it only takes a split second for a revolution to start.
The Boston Celtics were less than a minute away from being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 2015 playoffs when LeBron James became upset at an obvious, uncalled foul against then-Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. A quick cut to Thomas’ mischievous grin upon getting away with the contact began making the rounds on basketball Twitter, where memes can become legends in an instant.
The image, known colloquially as “The Isaiah Pic,” became ubiquitous in certain corners of Twitter for the rest of the playoffs and beyond. This was thanks in large part to the Twitter user @HebertofRiffs, a diehard Celtics fan whose many aliases include The Riffs Man and The Cool Guitar Man.
Hebert’s own Twitter following hovers around 2,500 people, but his influence is far-reaching. His idiosyncratic tweeting style, which consists largely of calling players “Insanely Erotic” and writing their first and last names together with no spaces to make it harder for them to name-search, has become the standard language of Celtics Twitter, the goofiest and most entertaining NBA Twitter subculture. His takeover started with the Isaiah Pic.
“It’s the end of a wholly irrelevant four-game series against the Cavaliers, who have roughly 8 All-Stars,” Hebert writes via email. “Like, the game and series are a wrap and they honestly should have just simmed the series in 2K, but the play still managed to evoke complete outrage from LeBron. At this point the camera is drawn to Isaiahthomas, who is sporting a Supernaturalshiteatinggrin, and everyone on Celtics Twitter loses their minds over it.”
As Thomas subsequently blossomed into an All-Star, fringe MVP candidate and legitimate Boston folk hero, the legacy of the Isaiah Pic grew. The 2015 Celtics were a rebuilding group that didn’t go into the season expecting to compete for a playoff spot. When a team overachieves unexpectedly like that, especially in a massive media market like Boston, it creates a special connection with the fanbase.
Everyone loves an underdog story, and that mentality has carried over even as the new-look Celtics have seen increased success. The Celtics moved on from Thomas over the summer in the Kyrie Irving trade (more on that in a minute) and have become a contender in the East on the backs of Irving, Al Horford and promising youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Although Thomas himself is gone, the spirit of the Isaiah Pic lives on.
“[The Isaiah Pic] became emblematic of our struggle to keep posting and owning people despite being in a rebuild where most Teams that were Good at Sport were going to splatter the Celtics,” Hebert says. “What we didn’t know is that insane breaks and best-case scenarios would be coming the Celtics’ way, and suddenly that picture embodied looting the Nets, getting Horford and [Gordon] Hayward and making it to the Conference Finals with a backcourt that couldn’t board most rides at Disneyland.”
With Thomas gone, Celtics Twitter has leaned on an ever-expanding cast of characters for content. Horford is “Papa Sportif,” a nickname Hebert made happen through sheer attrition. Guard Marcus Smart is “Smarf,” an autocorrect error from Hebert’s phone during a heavy Too Many Cooks phase. Brown’s explosive athleticism and uncommon intellect make him a “Smoothpimp at Sport.” Rookie Guerschon Yabusele (“Yabu”) has an adorably childlike spirit and earnest social media presence that’s made him a cult favorite, even if he doesn’t play much.
“Right now, we really enjoy our young guys,” says Coley Mick, a blogger for Barstool Sports and co-host of the popular Mickstape podcast. “Most of us are realistic enough to know we can’t beat the Cavs right now, so I think most fans are just trying to have as much fun with this as possible until it’s time to really be competitive in a few years.”
What Celtics Twitter has morphed into is a combination of late-2000s eccentric basketball internet forbearers, like FreeDarko and Hardwood Paroxysm, and leftist “Irony Twitter,” full of inside jokes, absurdist political commentary and a dialect unlike anything else.
Improbably, team officials have noticed. Third-year guard Terry Rozier is famously fond of spaghetti, ranch and sugar sandwiches and his tweets fit perfectly within the aesthetic of Celtics Twitter. He was christened “Tito” by some fans, and it became so widespread that Celtics player personnel director Austin Ainge had to denounce the nickname in a now-deleted tweet.
“It’s totally bizarre how aware the Celtics are of this,” says Sam Packard, who co-hosts the Locked On Celtics podcast. “You had Austin Ainge tweeting about Tito, which is just a nickname that we started calling [Rozier] basically because his name started with a T. The Celtics have been very good facilitators of the weirdness surrounding their team. I guess the ‘all press is good press’ mentality has worked for them.”
This year’s most notable addition to the lexicon has been the Ojeleye Factory, where rookie forward Semi Ojeleye and others put in long, grueling hours honing their physical strength (or “combat muscles”). That one was born out of Hebert’s amusement with the absurdity of the terms draft pundits use to describe prospects.
“DraftExpress had a graphic about Ojeleye’s ‘Thick, Jacked Frame’ and that he ‘Powers His Way To The Rim’ that nearly gave me a stroke when I saw it on draft night,” Hebert says. “The way body types have come to be described with buzzwords had always been absurd to me and this video breakdown was the greatest iteration. From then on, The Ojeleye Factory became the place you go to cultivate your Combat Muscle and hone your craft as a Strong Man of Sport.”
Several other Celtics, including Smart and big men Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, are also renowned for their combat muscles. Max Lederman, a producer at NBC Sports Boston, referenced Smart’s combat muscles in an infographic on a recent episode of Celtics Post Up, which served as something of a coming-out moment for the movement. Lederman has been quietly responsible for bringing a lot of the terminology into the mainstream using his position with the team’s television affiliate.
“You definitely see personalities within different fanbases,” Lederman says. “There are different characteristics. Celtics Twitter didn’t really have an identity until recently, at least in the mainstream. It’s got to be because of the success of the other franchises in Boston. Celtics Twitter was kind of just left to its own devices, and now that the team is starting to become more successful, people are starting to notice it. Maybe it just got boring to tweet factual things about sports.”
It helps, too, that the NBA is the major professional sports league that is by far the most conducive to weirdness and absurdist running gags. This is a league whose best player regularly subtweets his teammates with Arthur memes. Just last week, Cavs guard J.R. Smith was suspended one game for throwing a bowl of soup at an assistant coach, and no one blinked. It might not even be the craziest story of the season — that honor still goes to several Rockets players attempting to enter the Clippers’ locker room through a back hallway at Staples Center in January.
With that kind of penchant for unpredictability, a joke about combat muscles that makes it to the team’s official channels seems utterly normal.
The addition of Irving, while initially polarizing, has been a boon for Celtics fans. On the court, Irving has been fantastic, stepping out of LeBron’s shadow and delivering a series of incredible crunch-time performances. Off the court, the self-proclaimed flat-earth truther has been everything Celtics Twitter could ever want from a franchise player. You couldn’t dream up a better match for this fanbase’s newfound embrace of the absurd than a superstar point guard who’s currently going through every eighth-grader’s Jim Morrison phase.
The Riffs Man, in particular, has found Irving a fruitful new muse.
“I did not know what to expect when the Celtics traded the most popular player since Bird,” Hebert says. “Kyrie had a Kobe-esque reputation as a disconnected gunner. I did not understand that Kyrie is a Spiritually Enlightened Pimp. He follows an Instagram page about Anarchist Farming and Chemtrails. He believes that an NBA season is not 82 games, but instead one Ultimate Game that lasts in perpetuity and that he is playing all games simultaneously so long as he doesn’t overreact. He’s Profoundly Funky. He is the prophet promised to Celtics Twitter in the Scrolls of Old and I am his MIND SHERPA, showing him the way of the riff and the shades and the cigarette.”
The 2017-18 season has seen the emergence of a new Celtics Twitter hero of unknown origin. Janos lives somewhere in the Baltic region, tweets about the Celtics (“best team most titles”) in broken English and has been acknowledged by Danny Ainge. He’s essentially Celtics Dril, and he seems a little too perfect to be real, but there are records of comments he left on CelticsHub articles as far back as 2011.
“It’s clearly not a dude in the Ukraine posting,” Packard says. “It’s clearly a guy doing a bit online. I’m not sure why it took off this year. It may just be that people are more open to ridiculous shit, and he’s got a pretty good schtick going right now.”
If Janos isn’t real (Hebert adamantly denies it’s him; Mick believes it’s Ainge’s burner account), it’s been an impressively resilient bit, toiling in obscurity on message boards for close to a decade before finding newfound notoriety among a fanbase going through a much-needed refresh.
Realistically, the Celtics’ title chances ended five minutes into the regular season, when Hayward suffered a horrific season-ending ankle injury in an opening-night loss to the Cavs. But freed of the expectations of contending, Celtics fans can simply enjoy their most likeable (and memeable) team in years.
In a way, this season has given fans of a historic big-market powerhouse the chance to experience how fans of small-market teams operate every year.
“I’ve never enjoyed a team that I knew wasn’t going to contend like this one,” Mick says. “It’s a strange feeling, especially for someone my age who grew up with Boston sports, where it needs to be a championship every year or it’s a bust. I haven’t felt that at all this year, and it’s been a truly refreshing way to watch Boston sports.”
But even outside of Boston, Weird Celtics Twitter has resonated. In a social-media climate rife with tired arguments and vicious name-calling, this corner of sports Twitter has hit on something utterly unique and, more importantly, genuinely fun. With so much heaviness in the world, sometimes the only way forward is to embrace the ridiculous.
“At some point in 2016, the absurdity of our present moment broke everyone’s brains,” Hebert says. “So I think posting like dumbasses during games became a coping mechanism of sorts. It’s also been a way to retake the fanbase from hot-take chuds and make following the team more about having a Real Cool Time like IggypopfromRealCoolTime in the song ‘Real Cool Time.’”