DeMarcus Cousins is covered in mud. Just slathered in it.
The Sacramento Kings center is standing on the edge of the Dead Sea, glistening like a waxed Sprinter van as the sun beats down overhead. He walks over to teammate Omri Casspi and slaps his arms around him in an audible muck embrace.
"Mud hug," Cousins says. Mud hug.
Here they are in a still photo. It's a mythical mean-mug shot/'80s buddy-cop movie poster that should probably be framed and placed in the Library of Congress. And it never would have existed if Katie Cracchiolo had told her boss she was tired.
Cracchiolo, a social media manager for the Kings, had just gotten home from covering the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas—hadn't even unpacked her suitcase yet—when the assignment landed in her lap: DeMarcus is going to Israel for a few weeks; who can cover it?
"The guys were just like, 'Who's available and has a current passport?'" Cracchiolo says. Hers was, and she grabbed the ball and went back in the paint.
"I took everything out of my suitcase, washed it and put it back in," she says.
And that's the life of NBA social media managers—a small, unsung community of digital professionals who work behind the scenes, taking pictures, writing tweets and crafting the GIFs that have solidified NBA Twitter as the best sports community on social media.
The reason for their success is freedom. Unlike other major American sports leagues, the NBA allows its teams to operate their social media accounts independently. In turn, the teams can step back and, well, let the talent cook.
"[Commissioner] Adam Silver and the league fully embrace, support and focus on social media," says Julie Phayer, a social media manager with the Golden State Warriors. "Having a league that is so innovative helps teams produce content that fans actually want to see."
And the engagement shows in the numbers. The league's flagship account, @NBA, has gained 5.2 million new followers in the last nine months. That's over a half-million new follows a month, for a Twitter account that's been around since 2009.
This growth has given @NBA a 3.5-million-follower cushion over @NFL—a gap aided by the NBA's growing global pull and compounded by the NFL's decision to approach social media like Obama coming to take yurrr GIFs.
While NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continues to crawl the timeline for illicit moving pictures, the NBA is light-years ahead, embracing the creativity of its employees and fans.
Because why waste an afternoon suspending GIF accounts when you can make the leader of the free world hit that Ginobili with his left hand up like wooh?
Sacramento Kings @SacramentoKings
Spa treatment at the Dead Sea today! 🌊👍🏼 http://t.co/ep2Bd897BU2015-7-28 15:52:38
The man who lovingly placed the above bundle of Drake-joy on your timeline is Doug Wernert, social media director for Palace Sports and Entertainment and gatekeeper of the Detroit Pistons' Twitter account.
Wernert stated via email that the Andre Drummond "Jumpman" video—a collaboration with the popular YouTube account BaracksDubs—pulled in over 100,000 All-Star votes for the Pistons' 22-year-old center, and a noticeable number of those votes came from fans of other teams sharing the video.
"Other fans said they were voting just because it was so good," Wernert wrote, calling the collateral votes "an added bonus."
That added bonus extended to a co-sign from Phayer via the Warriors' Twitter account, which had to give it up for Detroit:
Detroit Pistons @DetroitPistons
And now, thanks to Toronto's own @Drake, a message from President @BarackObama ... RT #NBAVote Andre Drummond https://t.co/5s0VHNI0YL2016-1-5 16:54:02
Teams tweeting each other is a hallmark of NBA Twitter.
They do it often, and it usually ends in someone getting dunked on or catching an L. It's Internet sparring, and it tends to create the illusion that the people behind the tweets are hanging out in sweatpants, surfing Giphy as they wait for the next roast.
But rest assured: NBA Twitter is not a game.
As much as it is fun and games with NBA Twitter, it is not all fun and games for the people behind the accounts. Social media managers are one part Crying Jordan scientists, two parts closers who get coffee.
"Social media is not something where you can just put it on your desk at 5 p.m. and walk away," Jaryd Wilson says over the phone. "That's just not how it works."
Wilson is a social media manager for the Atlanta Hawks. He's been with the team since 2012, and when he took the job, it was just him, himself and he. He was the Hawks' social media team. All of it.
"It's not all one person [now]," Wilson says. "But for me, it was for a long time."
Instead of being overwhelmed and succumbing to caffeine poisoning, however, Wilson thrived, turning Atlanta's account into the best follow in the NBA.
He's been featured before for his tweets from @ATLHawks—specifically for tweeting like a human (it was seriously rare at the time) and roasting Tony Romo. His tweets would set off a wave of copycats who wanted to sound like him—a guy relatable to the average sports fan.
But again, there's more to the game than being funny in 140 characters.
Here's Wilson setting up "Swipe Right Night"—an evening of love and basketball the Hawks hosted last January involving Tinder, Altoids and (presumably) copious sliding into the DMs. It wasn't all Wilson, but he played a big role in getting the event off the ground and running.
As this tweet notes, our man knew he was killing it:
@DetroitPistons alright, this is 🔥 .2016-1-6 00:07:51
Standing in stark contrast to the flower runs and chill-dude tweets is Wilson's approach to his craft.
When it comes to talking about what it takes to do his job, Wilson's voice becomes clipped and pragmatic—professorial, even.
"Social media is a 16-hour-a-day business. And that's seven days a week," Wilson says. "The only hours I would say are 'dark hours' are...midnight to 8 a.m."
And when socials like Wilson say they're on "seven days a week," they are being quite literal.
Wernert, the Pistons' Twitter guardian, affirmed this with a story about an off-day debacle he dealt with last January. Basically, it was a Twitter manager's worst nightmare.
"About a year ago, I was looking forward to enjoying a quiet Friday night at home," Wernert said. "I was posting one of our recap videos and, to my horror, noticed that our account had somehow retweeted a Twitter bot with a link that was...let's say NSFW.
"To this day, I still don't know how it happened. Obviously, I immediately deleted [the retweet], but some people noticed, and it got written about on a couple sites, so [I] had to loop in my boss and our PR guys (who also were enjoying a night off) to corral it. They think it's funny now—I still don't."
Getting called in on a Friday night to handle a flesh-cam crisis isn't an ideal way to spend an evening, and it's very much not a normal-person problem—but that's life in the tweets, a space Wernert and his colleagues navigate daily.
Another man familiar with the digital grind is Kurt Gies—a newly minted social media manager with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Gies has only been with the Sixers for a little over two months, and he's already had the honors of sitting in on a Twitter takeover with Allen Iverson (awesome) and having his head cropped out of a picture with Allen Iverson (less awesome but very, very funny):
Ben Watanabe @BenjeeBallgame
The face of a man who knew exactly what he was doing, and succeeded. RT @JarydWilson preps for #SwipeRightATL Night http://t.co/tMdSwVWPWz2015-1-8 14:05:06
As for the hours, Gies knew what he was getting into.
He'd been handling digital work for CSN Philly before applying for the Sixers job and knew that you don't work in social if you're not OK with workdays that end, well, tomorrow.
"I usually pull into my house around midnight," Gies says. "I usually need an hour or two to unwind after that...No matter what the outcome, there's always that rush of the game. You can't go straight to bed after that."
Gies says a 60-hour work week is something he "doesn't even blink an eye at."
"If it's something you really enjoy doing, you don't even think about it," Gies says.
And one of those things Gies enjoys doing is putting Ish Smith's head on Will Smith, which is indeed a fine reason to stay up another hour:
The only thing that does seem to bother social media managers about their jobs is what people think they do.
And the biggest misconception people have about their work is that social media managers are just interns who sit on Facebook.
It sounds funny, but it's an important distinction.
A lot of people have no idea who social media managers are or what goes into making NBA Twitter the online rumpus room it is.
"[People think] that we're all guys and/or interns who spend their entire day staring at Facebook," Phayer says. "[The Warriors] have more than 12 million followers across 11 platforms. That's a lot of direct communication with a huge amount of people. There's a lot of strategy and planning that goes into every social media post."
Jason Wise, the Sacramento Kings manager of digital and Katie Cracchiolo's boss, can vouch for the grand-scale planning of NBA Twitter.
He's been doing digital and social media work for the Kings since 2006, making him a decade-plus veteran in the industry—NBA Twitter's original gangster, if such a thing exists.
He was there when the Kings fired off their first tweet in 2007. Sacramento was the first NBA team with a Twitter account, so that makes the Kings' first tweet the first NBA team tweet ever.
And that tweet was definitely a sentence:
Philadelphia 76ers @sixers
#SIXERSWIN https://t.co/tuyQ1CpCE12016-1-21 02:18:19
So yeah, Wise has been in the NBA Twitter game for a minute, and he knows all the misunderstandings that circulate about the work he does. And he lays out the truth of his work in certain terms.
"The reality is we're crafting messaging," Wise says. "All of it seen by millions of people—and doing [these things] hundreds of times per day. And it is extremely challenging. There's a lot of pressure to make sure everything is correct."
While some of these messages (GIFs, tweets, etc.) can be crafted ahead of time, the trickiest ones involve covering things in real time, against the clock, as games and events unfold. If Minnie the Corgi needs to relieve herself during her Instagram takeover, Wise and his team will have to roll with it. Because it's 2016, and dogs run Instagrams now.
"We're as fluid as two to three seconds," Wise says, explaining how Deron Williams' game-winner earlier this month sent his team from celebration mode to full commiseration with a sea of crushed fans.
Fluidity is the only given in basketball, and the trickle-down effect is social media managers who have to be nimble and prepared to flex one moment and eat crow the next.
The digital ground is constantly shifting beneath their feet, and this rapidly changing, moment-to-moment dynamic seems to lend NBA Twitter its most unique quality: NBA socials respect each other while still deeply desiring to posterize each other.
All the NBA socials know each other.
They talk on Twitter, meet at games and hang out at media conferences. And the way they interact suggests socials around the NBA hold each other in higher esteem than, say, a group of journalists crowding a locker room or a crush of basketball players banging for rebounds.
"Our most important rule is to never disrespect an opponent," Phayer says. "We like to have fun and engage with other teams, but we believe that you can have fun without being disrespectful."
Socials don't take pleasure when one of their colleagues screws up and takes heat.
When the Houston Rockets' Twitter manager was fired last April for committing emoji-on-emoji crime, there wasn't any laughing in the socials' ranks at the ridiculousness of the circumstances.
That's because they knew the tweet—a toss-off shot aimed at the Dallas Mavericks including a horse emoji and a gun emoji—could've been written by any one of them. As could've been the author who lost his job less than 24 hours after hitting "send."
For news outlets, it was a funny bit of fodder. For NBA socials, it was a lesson they learned together.
"Choose your emojis wisely," Phayer says.
But while there is this sense of oneness among socials, make no mistake: NBA Twitter is a competition between teams—a fact that became apparent when the socials occasionally began talking in terms that wouldn't have sounded weird coming out of the mouth of LeBron James postgame.
"Everybody feeds off each other," says Shahbaz Khan, the Kings' lead Twitter pilot. "You kind of want to one-up each other. You want to be at the forefront of what's being talked about that day."
"The game is really quickly paced," Wise says. "The personalities are larger than life...You're not wearing helmets. You see the guy's face. You can dunk on someone and flex on them."
Reading these words, you might picture a guy in khakis and a headband rising up and dunking on a colleague at a goofy standing desk. Tongue out, (non-crying) MJ-style. Primal yawp. The whole deal.
And in the context of NBA Twitter, that scene makes sense. It's a place of business as much as it is a pickup game between friends.
Sometimes you get dunked on in the timeline. Sometimes you do the yamming. But as Cracchiolo tells me, if you love NBA Twitter, you get up, wash your clothes and go back in the paint.
"In this job in particular, you can't do it if you don't love what you do," Cracchiolo says. "We love social media. We love the Internet.”
And the mud hugs. Can't forget the mud hugs.
Dan is on Twitter. Mud hugs or die.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.