It was April 25, around 6:30 p.m.—the Brooklyn Nets had just been swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs. “ben simmons you shouldnt be alone tonight,” a fan tweeted at the Nets guard, before following up to inform him she would get off pottery class at 9. In a separate tweet, the fan posed a question to the nation—“will Ben Simmons ever play again?”—along with a poll offering two options: “yes” and “no but he’s cute.” Another (perhaps drunken) contribution to the Twittersphere: “Ben Simmons rail me challenge.” Within weeks, as the Phoenix Suns fell to the Dallas Mavericks, the same fan tweeted: “Devin Booker you shouldn’t be alone tonight. Let me take care of you, prepare you your favorite meal from Applebee’s, and comfort you with the warmth of my female form...” Unhinged lust, aimed at two fallen NBA princes for all the world to see.
Cards on the table: I was that fan, and that palpable horniness isn’t solely my domain. To many, NBA players are infinitely more than god-like athletes running up and down our screens; they’re real people onto which we pin our hopes, dreams, and most certainly, our desires. As such, our version of NBA fandom looks different. Instead of broadcasting our devotion through hypermasculine displays of rage—riots, looting, bonfires of disloyal players’ jerseys—we’re rewriting reality altogether, not just so our favorite teams and players can win somewhere out there in the multiverse, but to fulfill any number of earnest fantasies. And on creative platforms like Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, even Twitter, and TikTok, fanfiction is increasingly an expression of our passion for the sport that’s much healthier than lighting anything on fire.
Prolific and hilarious, NBA TikToker Zainab Javed creates fanfiction in the form of an ongoing one-woman show. In one video, she portrayed a lightly homoerotic, reconciliatory, and imagined interaction between Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden and referee Scott Foster, who is famous for his alleged grudge against Harden. Following a Foster-officiated game that the Sixers miraculously won despite Harden’s previous 1-13 record in Foster-officiated games, Javed roleplayed as Harden in a Sixers shirt, leaning in close and lip-syncing to audio that said, “I never said thank you.” Cut to Javed again, this time garbed in a referee’s uniform as Foster, lip-syncing, “You’ll never have to.”
In other TikToks, Javed, a rabid Sixers fan who tells me she’s recently become a “James Harden propagandist” since his move to her team, creates imagined scenes between Harden and Sixers president Daryl Morey, who both speak openly about their professional “mutual love fest.” A video of Morey, who coached Harden back in his legendary Houston days and has said Harden “changed my life,” greeting Harden in Philly with a firm hug went viral in February—some on social media compared the reunion to a father waiting for his son to return from war. It was among fellow Very Online Sixers fans that Javed found her people.
When one particular former Sixers player, Mike Scott, gained a massive cult following for his iconic “I ain’t no bitch” line in a 2019 press conference, Javed was one of hundreds of fans who began showing up to local tailgates in his honor, some of which Scott would also attend. She knows sports fans—particularly Sixers fans, who are famous for their, err, passion—aren’t exactly known for their compassion. (One Philly-based news anchor played a video of a dumpster flowing downstream in a flood and characterized it as Simmons fleeing town after the team’s 2021 play-offs loss, which was widely blamed on Simmons.) But Javed has had a different experience. “[Sixers fans] I met on Twitter just became, like, my everything, where my birthday party was mostly them. They’re the most supportive community,” she said.
Indeed, the range of fanfics you’ll find on platforms like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own speaks to how vast NBA fan communities extend beyond the expected. I’m hardly the only fan with some very visceral fantasies about these players. Plenty of fanfics portray torrid gay romances (LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, former Cleveland Cavaliers teammates, are a popular “ship,” as are Golden State Warriors All-Stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson). One pretty NSFW, nearly 9,000-word Archive of Our Own story is dedicated to Warriors teammates “comforting” each other after a loss to the Mavericks. Meanwhile, some stories on Wattpad are interactive fanfics that invite you to imagine yourself as Celtics power forward Jayson Tatum’s girlfriend; others are lengthy, 43-chapter sagas about Booker falling in love with the girl next door (I, unfortunately, cannot take credit for this one). There are actually a lot of stories about Booker and his fictional girlfriends, some of them more, ahem, mature than others. Of course, if you’re in the Simmons camp, you can indulge in a 10-chapter story that allows you to envision yourself as his childhood-best-friend-turned-lover.
Liah Argiropoulos, a fanfiction writer who goes by h9mie on Archive of Our Own and @lisco2000 on TikTok, notes that “fanfiction is a way that so many women and queer people have been able to experience fandom”—and now it’s “starting to finally cross over into the sports world.” She herself has been writing fanfiction since she was an 11-year-old tackling such subject matter as the Warrior Cats book series and the band Franz Ferdinand. More recently, she developed an obsession with the 2017-2018 Sixers team and their chemistry, as then-scrappy youngsters Joel Embiid, Simmons, and Dario Šarić defied all expectations in the 2018 playoffs.
To Argiropoulos’ point, it’s well-known that fanfiction is particularly popular among young women and queer people, because unlike traditional media, it often centers the non-straight, non-male gaze (nor is it defined by rage). Further, while NBA fanfics do often portray fictional queer erotica and romance, there are all kinds of different stories out there. Argiropoulos, who is asexual, centers her stories around fluffy friendships and rivalries—imagined, non-sexual scenarios branching off from real-world, real-time discourse. She’s the author of “1776ers,” a multi-chapter Archive of Our Own story that follows the Sixers’ unwitting journey to the year 1776. She first published the story last December, and it’s since been widely shared on TikTok and Reddit. A quick excerpt from the second chapter:
“1776,” Dario sat down on the edge of the bed and ran a hand through his hair. “Seventeen seventy six.” He felt the numbers out in his mouth about a hundred times, but they still never felt quite right.
“Do you think everyone else ended up here too?” Joel asked, pacing back and forth between the window and the door.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know how we would find out.”
“I think going to Philly would be a good start,” Joel nodded, finally standing still for a second, “and from there, we could ask around and see if anyone’s run into anyone, y’know?”
“Mhm,” Dario agreed, sinking back into the soft mattress of the bed. “I think I’m starting to get a little nervous, Jo.”
“It’ll be okay,” Joel tried to reassure him despite his own anxiety, sitting down next to him on the bed. “We have each other, don’t we?”
“I think a lot of NBA fans really look down on fanfiction, and I kind of understand why, because it’s about real people and such,” Argiropoulos told me. “There’s this whole notion that all fanfiction is sexual and gross, and the people reading it just have these weird fantasies about players, when it’s not like that.” She fully supports what is often perceived as perverted and juvenile by the general public. It just isn’t what she writes and reads.
Argiropoulos was particularly drawn to writing about the NBA by the league’s tendency to “push players and their narratives.” The better-known stories include the rags-to-riches journey of Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who grew up in poverty in Greece before becoming a back-to-back MVP and league champion. Per Mirin Fader’s 2021 biography of Antetokounmpo, at one point early in his career, he was running late to a game and had to hitch a ride to the stadium with fans. Then there’s a personal favorite of Argiropoulos’: the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić and the legend (and accompanying footage) of his wild times in his home country of Serbia, riding horses, drinking heavily, and playing copious amounts of video games while his brothers menacingly tweet at any player who threatens him.
The NBA lore that fanfiction writers and content creators have to choose from is endless. Simmons was crowned king of the anti-work movement for refusing to play for the Sixers lest he be traded, and he’s still yet to play for the Nets due to a widely scrutinized back injury; one topical Archive of Our Own fic details his teammate, Irving, fixing his back with a sensual massage so he can help them defeat the Celtics. The undying hatred between former Utah Jazz teammates Donovan Mitchell and noted microphone-groper Rudy Gobert has also fueled fanfics ever since Gobert’s carelessness possibly infected Mitchell with covid in 2020; a nearly 41,500-word Archive of Our Own story taps into this dynamic by casting Mitchell as a cop hunting down Gobert, a rogue Interpol agent, in an alternate universe. It’s no wonder cursory searches of NBA fanfiction on popular fanfic platforms—even TikTok—yield hundreds of results.
Molly Morrison, a Memphis-based NBA content creator known for her viral, no-holds-barred Twitter takes and fierce support for the Memphis Grizzlies, strongly agrees: The NBA, perhaps more so than any other sports league, is driven by storytelling. Morrison is an influential voice in the male-dominated world of NBA Twitter fandom, and she knows a thing or two about the power of salient, character-driven storytelling among fans of this league. It was the characters that drew her in: Dennis Rodman “changed the game by changing the way athletes are perceived, by breaking down gender norms, being bold and fearless,” Morrison said. Now, it’s players like Antetokounmpo, with “these truly beautiful stories of how they came up” who are the heart of the league. Players’ devotion to their cities and their heartfelt good-bye letters when they leave a franchise—namely former Grizzly Mike Conley’s emotional video letter—have brought Morrison to tears. And while there’s always room to improve, she appreciates that the NBA is among the more progressive sports leagues, with players like Celtics shooting guard Jaylen Brown leading the league in advocating for Black Lives Matter in 2020. Politics don’t often take center-stage in the world of NBA fanfiction, but they can certainly influence how some fans are drawn to certain players.
In any case, fans have every opportunity to become extremely familiar with their favorite—and least favorite—players. LeBron James is heading into his 20th year in the league; for comparison, the average career length of an NFL player is 3.3 years. Morrison also notes there’s a “human element” to NBA players, who are often prolific tweeters these days, and very much in on the lore about them. Their wholesome older tweets just so happen to be my area of expertise. Durant, for example, remains famously Very Online, oft interacting with fans and beefing with analysts, but his tweets from a decade ago—which are deeply horny (like, deeply horny) and tender in their earnestness—are practically scripture for NBA fans. Meanwhile, for Suns fans, Booker’s tweets from the early 2010s announcing each of the many times he frequented Applebee’s or Hooters (with the fellas) comprise something of a sacred religious text, too, inspiring many a T-shirt.
Even the most well-known NBA reporters have become characters themselves: Morrison was briefly blocked by ESPN reporter Adrian “Woj” Wojnarowski for once jokingly impersonating him re-posting a viral 2019 tweet after the Toronto Raptors’ championship: “kyle lowry has a ring and a fat ass. a lot of you bitches cant relate.” (Lowry, for those who aren’t chronically on NBA Twitter, is known for his thicker body type.)
Rich with lore, heroes and villains, high-stakes emotions, and legacies, the NBA cinematic universe is a storytelling backdrop that could easily rival Marvel, and I say that as a deeply embarrassing adult Marvel fan. “Every game, every interaction can become this hilarious call-back, whether it’s blowing the 3-1 lead, or the 27 consecutive missed three-point attempts,” Javed said. (For context, the Warriors inexplicably blew a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals, and Harden’s Rockets missed 27 straight three-point attempts in their 2018 series against the Warriors.) “You just never get a dull moment.”
I grew up watching NBA games with my mom, a very tall woman who played basketball in high school whilst living in the Philippines, and who maintains a lifelong crush on retired San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan. And while I’m familiar enough with the mechanics of the game, despite occasionally needing sports journalist friends to reiterate the difference between a pick-and-roll vs. a simple pass, I’m committed to this league for life foremost because of its characters.
Harden has been the most steady male figure in my life since I started watching him play in middle school and became enamored with his defining beard. I have since fallen in love with how seamlessly and indifferently he’s accepted the mantle of league villain for nearly a decade now. He is almost universally despised for his strategic style of play that relies heavily on drawing free throws, and large swaths of NBA fans are perennially praying for his downfall. His response? Iconic eye rolls and notoriously frequent visits to strip clubs (these visits are even the subject of exhaustive statistical analysis that attempts to correlate the ratings of local strip clubs with his average points scored in that city). Harden is an inspiration to all of us to simply not care what people think of you. Especially appealing to my misandrist soul, he makes many men very angry. In fact, it was my years of stanning and spewing pro-Harden propaganda that prepared me to become one of Simmons’ most passionate supporters. I’m drawn to the constant humiliations wrought by both Simmons’ and Harden’s careers, drawn by my desire to fix them, and more than anything, drawn to the male hatred and repulsion they inspire.
Of course, Simmons and Harden aren’t the only subjects of ire. The mere idea of fanfiction tends to elicit almost instinctive mockery and repulsion from that same demographic. Yet, at some point whilst waist-deep in particularly out-there theories and fan analysis this off-season—including speculation that a 2011 tweet from Durant about a mystery woman in Arizona means he’ll be traded to the Suns—it dawned on me: All devoted sports fans, including straight, male fans, are fanfiction writers, at least on some level, whether they identify as such or not. During the current off-season, as franchises plan their futures and backdoor deals abound, players from different teams can fuel entire news cycles of speculation just by partying together in the Hamptons or training together at the same gym. Speculation is nothing if not storytelling. Even the players themselves get in on it: Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard kicked off the off-season with a Photoshopped Instagram story imagining himself and Durant as teammates.
“The real LeBron James is not on the Indiana Pacers, but he could be in your 2K games,” Argiropoulos pointed out. An average of 1.9 million people play NBA 2K, a video game in which players compete as their favorite basketball players, on any given day. What, really, is the difference between 2K and an interactive fanfic? “That’s absolutely fanfiction right there, but in the traditional sports fandom world, people just want to ignore that, because there’s such big stigma around fanfiction, and the women and queer people writing it.”
All of this reminds me of something Morrison told me: Men often mock women and girls for “loving Taylor Swift, or One Direction, or celebrity couples,” she said. “But it’s like, y’all are watching everything Tristan Thompson does. You know all these men’s heights, James Harden’s weight, everything.” And that’s not embarrassing? (As an NBA fan, I, personally, am oft embarrassed.) To her point, there are fans who are horny to hear every move Thompson makes. Some of them are also part of a thriving, prolific community of fanfiction readers and writers that is challenging all kinds of assumptions about who the NBA’s most passionate devotees really are.