A wife appeared to care so much about her husband and his reputation that she went on social media to defend him. She used confidential information to disparage his current and former employees. She even went after people who made fun of his shirt collars. And she did it all anonymously.
All of this happened — perhaps a slightly misguided expression of love? — and blew up in spectacularly inglorious fashion, in full public view. The husband was a prominent sports executive. His employees were famous athletes. And the story ended with his resignation.
Bryan Colangelo stepped down from his position as the president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday in the wake of a soap opera that had gripped the NBA in recent days, even as the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to vie for a championship.
It was a stunning fall for Colangelo, 53, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award. After tenures with the Toronto Raptors and the Phoenix Suns, Colangelo was put in charge of the 76ers in 2016 following the resignation of Sam Hinkie, a statistics wonk who had navigated the team through one of the boldest experiments in pro sports history: the so-called “Process,” which entailed purposely losing a lot of games over several seasons to collect as many top draft picks as possible and build for the future.
The strategy irked league officials, though, and a sizable chunk of the team’s long-suffering fans. After Hinkie was essentially forced out, Colangelo was hired to lead the front office.
This season, the 76ers finally began to reap the benefits of Hinkie’s oft-maligned handiwork. The 76ers, with a core of young stars, finished with their best record since 2001 and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing to the Boston Celtics. Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-9 point guard, is favored to win the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Joel Embiid, a gifted center, has all the skills to become a perennial All-Star. And Colangelo appeared set to guide the organization for years to come.
But then, in a matter of days, in a string of developments that were almost unfathomable, Colangelo saw his career come apart, an apparent casualty of spousal support gone wrong.
“While this was obviously a mistake,” he said in a statement, “we are a family and we will work through this together.”
It all started with an investigation by the sports website the Ringer, which said it had received an anonymous tip from someone who claimed to work in artificial intelligence. This person told the site that he had used a data analysis tool to link five Twitter accounts with names like Still Balling, HonestAbe and Enoughunknownsources. They were all anonymous accounts — “burner” accounts in the jargon of social media, meaning no real names were attached to them.
But the tipster suspected that one person was operating all of them, and that person was likely Colangelo.
Why? Because the accounts at times revealed proprietary information that would have been available to only a small number of people — namely high-ranking 76ers officials. The most obvious example was a post that disclosed that Jahlil Okafor, a former top draft pick, had supposedly failed a physical that nixed a trade. Another post panned Embiid’s attitude.
“If I had a medium size ladder, I would love to knock some sense in Joel’s head right now,” Enoughunknownsources wrote. “He is playing like a toddler having tantrums.”
Another post questioned the contract extension of Masai Ujiri, an executive who had replaced Colangelo with the Raptors. And there was the now-notorious rebuttal to a fan who had critiqued Colangelo’s sartorial flair: “That is a normal collar. Move on, find a new slant.”
When the Ringer contacted the 76ers in the course of its reporting, the site told the organization that it knew of two suspicious accounts, but did not mention the other three. Colangelo acknowledged that one of them, @Phila1234567, belonged to him, but said that he had never posted any messages using the handle. He denied being behind the other account.
But shortly after that exchange, according to the Ringer, the other three accounts quickly — and curiously — switched from public to private. Who else but Colangelo, or someone close to him, would have known to do that? It could not have been a coincidence.
When the Ringer published its report late last month, it rippled across the league like a storm cloud.
“BRUH,” Embiid wrote on his Twitter account.
The 76ers soon announced that they had hired the New York law firm Paul, Weiss to conduct an independent investigation. The firm collected multiple devices, including laptops and mobile phones, and pored through text messages and emails. Above all, the firm attempted to do what it described as a “forensic analysis” of the anonymous Twitter accounts to determine who was behind them. The investigation lasted seven days.
One of the phones that the firm collected belonged to Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Bottini. But before turning it over, according to the firm, she apparently attempted to scrub it of data by resetting the device. It hindered the investigation, the firm said in a statement, but not enough to derail its findings — that Bottini had created and operated the accounts. She admitted as much to investigators, who said that they could not conclude whether Colangelo had been aware of them.
“Mr. Colangelo denies any such awareness and we have not observed any forensic evidence established that he had knowledge of the Twitter accounts,” the firm said in its statement.
At the same time, the firm said there was “substantial evidence” that Colangelo had been the source of sensitive material posted by the accounts, and that he had been “reckless in failing to properly safeguard sensitive, nonpublic, club-related information in communications with individuals outside the 76ers organization.”
Less than an hour after the team released these findings on Friday, Colangelo fired back with a statement of his own — even though he had already resigned.
“I vigorously dispute the allegation that my conduct was in any way reckless,” he said in his statement. “At no point did I purposely or directly share any sensitive, nonpublic, club-related information with her.” He went on to describe his wife’s burner accounts as “a seriously misguided effort to publicly defend and support me.”
But the damage was done.
“It has become clear Bryan’s relationship with our team and his ability to lead the 76ers moving forward has been compromised,” Josh Harris, one of the 76ers’ managing partners, said in a statement. “Recognizing the detrimental impact this matter had on the organization, Colangelo offered his resignation.”
There is one mystery that remains unsolved, however: Who was the tipster who went to the Ringer with his or her findings about the burner accounts? Theories abound. Was it really just a tech-savvy fan? Or could it have been a rival with an ax to grind? No one appears to know.
For now, Brett Brown, the team’s coach, will oversee the organization as the 76ers search for a new general manager. The NBA draft is later this month. The 76ers have more picks to make.