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(Jason Babyak)
(Jason Babyak)

Athletes on Twitter

All talk all the time Add to ...

The trade that sent Shaquille O'Neal from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the 2007-08 NBA season hasn't worked out on the basketball floor, but from a Twitter.com perspective, the deal was an unqualified success.

If they gave championship rings for "tweets," they'd have to fit the Suns. Even head coach Alvin Gentry uses the microblogging technology that allows participants to send and receive updates of 140 characters or less.

O'Neal is on the downside of a Hall of Fame career, but the seven-foot, 350-pound friendly giant had an MVP season in Twitterville tapping out pithy thoughts (with proper grammar only an afterthought).

"The season end tomorro, my diet starts friday, I wanna b a supermodel," he wrote to his 670,000 followers the other day from his Blackberry.

No Twittering athlete can claim a larger fan base.

But if O'Neal's lumbering low-post game didn't quite mesh with Suns playmaking point guard Steve Nash - another Twitter user - he at least found his digital muse in the desert in the form of Amy Martin.

Martin, a 29-year-old self-confessed techno-nerd from Wyoming, was the Suns' director of digital media and research when O'Neal arrived from Miami. She introduced him to Twitter, a hand-in-glove arrangement rivalling Lennon meeting McCartney.

"He's extremely tech-savvy and gets a kick out of engaging with fans, so it was an obvious move for him," says Martin, who taught O'Neal how to tweet in February, in part because an online impersonator had already built up a large following (hence O'Neal's Twitter handle: The_Real_Shaq).

Little did O'Neal know he was learning from the tiara-wearing Princess of Planet Orange - the Suns' online universe - where Martin had already built up a following of 100,000 on Twitter by tipping fans about everything from general manager Steve Kerr's next radio interview to ticket giveaways. Teams in all sports are now developing similar strategies to engage their fan base.

Sensing the opportunity, Martin has since left the team to start her own digital-brand consultancy.

O'Neal is now a client, having set the bar to new heights for athletes with Martin's help. It was her suggestion, for instance, to have O'Neal play Twitter tag.

The tale of O'Neal inviting any Twitter followers to come visit him while he had lunch at a diner in Phoenix may be the medium's tipping point as far as athletes are concerned. A pair of Suns fans called his bluff and were rewarded with a brief sit-down with O'Neal.

This being 2009, they blogged about it and posted pictures. Even the waitress made out well, reportedly pocketing a $200 tip on a $20 tab.

In a month, O'Neal had surpassed cyclist Lance Armstrong - who tweeted "I'm alive" upon emerging from surgery for his broken collarbone, including a self-portrait from his hospital bed - as sports' biggest Twitterer.

Along the way, the NBA has become the Twitter king of all the major sports, according to Brendan Wilhide, whose blog, sportsin140.com - I had to start a blog so I could write more than I could on Twitter," he says - tracks the use of Twitter by athletes and teams.

"Shaq's got the most followers, so that's probably influenced a lot his peers," he says.

There are Twitterers across all sports, and the athletes are what they tweet. O'Neal, after all, has been famous for short, funny punchlines since e-mail was the hot new thing. By the same token, golfer Stuart Cink has enjoyed solid career on the PGA Tour but has never blown away anyone with his charisma.

His tweets don't either.

"Tour Bible Study tonight at the house where Jonathan Byrd is staying," one read earlier this week, as Cink prepared to play in the Verizon Heritage. "Topic: Philippians."

San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito, meanwhile, has always lived outside the box, embracing yoga, surfing, punk rock and questionable public musings his entire career. He once said if he could have one secret power, it would be invisibility because "I'm a pervert, dude. I'd be in every girls' bathroom, locker rooms. All of it."

Not surprisingly, Zito's tweets cover a wide range, reflecting on methane-powered Dutch ovens one moment and more delicate aspects of the human condition the next. "Happiness is a worthiness issue," Zito wrote the other day. "Sometimes we'll ask ourselves whether it's okay to be 'this happy,' then comes the sabotage."

If there's a sport that's underrepresented, it's hockey, Wilhide says. While all of the league's 30 teams have Twitter accounts and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis uses his to alert followers to his latest blog posts, star winger Alexander Ovechkin hasn't updated his account since the NHL all-star game, when he wrote on Jan. 30: "thanks everybody - I think I take a break from this for a bit but you never know when I come back - see you then."

Hey, scoring all those goals takes focus.

Ovechkin's dormant account highlights another issue just as it appears Twitter and other social networking tools will become the dominant forum for athletes and teams to take their message directly to their fans. As in any walk of life, there are some athletes who feel another means to communicate with more people is the last thing any of them are interested in doing.

Take the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, which remains Twitter free.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," third baseman Scott Rolen says.

"We make phone calls," adds pitcher Jesse Litsch. "Phone calls and text messages."

"I send letters," outfielder Travis Snider says.

Another issue? Not all athletes, well-known for what they do at work, want to put time away from work to become even more recognizable. While Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh has been up on Twitter for months - "It fits my brand, which kind of tech savvy," he says - teammate Anthony Parker can only shudder at the thought of tweeting about his daily routine.

While starring in basketball-crazy Israel, Parker had a taste of the celebrity lifestyle when he had to send his wife to McDonald's to avoid creating a mob scene in pursuit of a Quarter Pounder. Twittering about where he's going and who he's with?

That's for the birds.

"I have a hard enough time checking my e-mail and keeping up with my text messages," Parker says. "And that's where I want to keep it for now."

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