Let me share a secret with you — a little bit of insider knowledge I gleaned from a savvy, well-sourced reporter. A scoop, if you will.
The Golden State Warriors championship dynasty collapsed because of Twitter.
Pundits and partisans will tell you different. They’ll blame a ligament in Klay Thompson’s left knee, which tore during the decisive loss to the Toronto Raptors in last year’s Finals. Or they’ll pin it on a tendon in Kevin Durant’s right calf, which ruptured earlier in that same series. Maybe they’ll even indict Durant himself, for abandoning the team not long after by orchestrating a trade to the Brooklyn Nets.
And sure, I’ll concede that these and many other factors contributed to the team’s downfall. But allow me to explain why we should scrutinize social media when we think about the Warriors crumbling empire, or at least allow Ethan Strauss to explain it. His new book, The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty, spans their boom-then-bust years through the 2010s.
The book begins with the sale of the franchise, which the incompetent former owner Chris Cohan sold in 2010. A former Warriors beat writer for ESPN who now covers the NBA for The Athletic, Strauss dedicates much of his slim volume to Durant’s three-season tenure, focusing closely on the superstar’s uneasy sense of belonging within the organization.
This is where the Twitter part comes in.
The deleterious effects of social media serve as a key theme throughout The Victory Machine, which presents the case that much of Durant’s restlessness can be traced back to an unhealthy relationship with the internet. While the book documents how various tensions threatened Golden State’s status atop the basketball world, it makes a compelling case that online toxicity had a sneaky role in prying the squad apart and compelling its best player to leave.
The Victory Machine portrays Durant as curious, intelligent, and occasionally friendly, but also extremely insecure — a quality that leaves him vulnerable to cyber commentary. As Strauss writes, “KD was, embarrassingly, caught defending his own honor via burner accounts on social media. He frequently lashed out at critics on Instagram. I know fans who received his wrath in their Twitter direct messages. In the locker room … he’d often be bitching about something a random Twitter user said.”
The tendency to get bent out of shape by inconsequential tweets highlights Durant’s obsession with what the internet has to say, an obsession that undermined his relationships with teammates and the media. He appeared jealous when other Warriors received praise, and frequently disparaged reporters for real or perceived criticism against him. He had a bizarrely fraught relationship with Strauss, who recounts in fascinating detail their contentious interactions during early 2019, when speculation about Durant’s potential departure had reached a fever pitch. In one exchange, the multimillionaire rebuked the scribe by declaring, “You don’t know me! You don’t know what makes me happy!”
Whatever they might be, sources of happiness seemed in short supply around Golden State for the future hall-of-famer. And while Strauss had a front-row seat to one marquee player’s discontent in Oakland, his book also demonstrates how a similar digitally-laced malaise has begun to creep across the league.
He digs up various quotes as evidence, perhaps most notably NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who observed that “we live a bit in the age of anxiety. I’ve read studies on this. I think part of it is a direct product of social media. I think those players we’re talking about, when I meet with them, what strikes me is that they are truly unhappy.” New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick sounds the same warning about social media, asserting that “it’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego if we’re talking about some Freudian shit. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”
Closer to home, Strauss points out that a delightful internet sensation spawned during the 2015 Finals has lost its luster, at least in the eyes of one Warrior. He notes that Steph Curry now regrets bringing his then two-year-old daughter Riley up to the podium during press conferences, given how the experience could have affected her mindset. The level of attention she received certainly did not advance Curry’s parenting goals of keeping his kids from “getting too big headed and feeling like everything’s about them.”
Strauss sums up the whole worrisome situation when he writes, “Honestly, in the modern social media-driven NBA, you’re lucky if the soft-spoken rookie you drafted doesn’t turn into Howard Hugues with a handle. ‘They’re all fucking crazy now,’ one NBA coach said to me, when lamenting how his profession had changed. ‘All the superstars are fucking crazy.’”
Speaking to SF Weekly while sheltering in place with his family in Oakland, Stauss mentions that this facet of the Warriors saga drew him in, and not only as a basketball fan.
“When I knew that Kevin Durant was leaving,” he says, “it seemed like a good time to capture some of that particular ennui, and also capture how it dovetailed with a broadly felt ennui in our culture, where social media seems to have permeated the brains of everybody in the public eye and made them miserable.”
The Victory Machine thus has a more universal lesson to impart about the perils of a life lived online. “We have welcomed a lot of this technology into our lives and welcomed social media as this great, grand thing that will connect us — and we never really considered the downsides before we invested so heavily in it,” Strauss says. “And now we’re performing an experiment on ourselves and on our brains … and not all the results are encouraging.”
A figure of KD’s stature is therefore ripe for examination. “Celebrities might be canaries in the coal mine, because everything they’re experiencing about social media is what a regular person would experience, but scaled up by so many orders of magnitude,” Strauss hypothesizes. “Considering that we are making more and more of our lives like this — especially now in our current atomized state — you wonder if we’re traveling down a path where they already are. And if they’re incredibly unhappy living his way, maybe it’s not the best path.”
These are important issues to confront, and Strauss does so skillfully, with eloquence and humor. However, whether such a tale of woe can find an audience remains a looming question. Books about sports typically fall into two categories: hagiographies that glorify champions, or inspirational titles that draw on athletic success stories to offer counsel on personal growth or business strategy. By blazing his own trail in the publishing market, Strauss is taking a gamble. It’s a necessary one, though.
“I just have to write what I’m interested in and what’s happening, and hope that other people will be interested,” he says. “If I go about it the other way, and I talk about something that’s not that interesting to me, the reader smells it. They know, they can feel it.”
When considering how the book will be received, Strauss realizes he will likely be hit with the kind of vitriol that Durant must deal with every day. As he prepares to enter The Take Zone — a lighthearted phrase from The Victory Machine — he sounds relaxed and upbeat. “Nobody really cares about you and your feelings, so you shouldn’t have extended arguments over social media where you’re defending your reputation,” he says about any forthcoming public debate, adding that media consumers are “not in it for you to be happier.”
No matter what, he’s just planning to roll with the punches. Who can get worked up about Twitter trolls when there’s a global pandemic going on? Strauss keeps it all in perspective.
“It’s surreal to put out a book right now, but everything is surreal right now, so this is just one extra layer on top of it,” he says. “I look forward to the book coming out. I look forward to reading what people say, good or bad, praise or criticism, whatever it is. I’m thankful for the distraction. I’m hoping that I can help some people be entertained in quarantine right now in some small way.”
The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty by Ethan Strauss publishes Tuesday, April 14. Learn more about the book here.