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#FireKidd And The Power of Fandom

How a hashtag, and an avatar designed by a high schooler, took over Bucks fandom.

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By mid-January, the boos in the BMO Harris Bradley Center were cacophonous. From game to game, they echoed through the rafters at the BC. Their ire was not (usually) directed at an underperforming Bucks team, but for the leader at the helm of that mediocrity.

Jason Kidd, in his fourth season as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, was still largely surfing upon the wave of youth that plastered the franchise’s marketing for the past several years. “Own The Future” stood primarily on the broad shoulders of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s limitless potential, a wagon to which Kidd would desperately hitch his horse leading to his abrupt exit from the Cream City. Indeed, Kidd’s departure was celebrated by seemingly all of Bucks nation. For a particular contingent of fans, the move was a sigh of relief so deep it tested their lung capacity. It appeared that an online movement that started as an innocent hashtag had taken root so deeply, the organization finally seemed to answer its cries. It seemed that #FireKidd had actually won.

While proponents of the malcontent movement would agree they achieved the outcome they wanted, that doesn’t mean they necessarily believe they were a primary, or even tertiary component of Kidd’s eventual firing. Professional sports franchises pride themselves on operating with their own organizational autonomy. Decisions are made within the executives’ office walls, the barrier serving as a lead shield against the nuclear reactions that ripple across a fanbase.

This season, with their star player ascending to MVP status but their coach persistent on sticking to outdated and overexposed ideas, the demand grew louder. Nearly every decision the Bucks made seemed to draw the ire of #FireKidd proponents. From irregular minutes distributions, to erratic substitution patterns, to his refusal of expectations he, himself stated in the preseason, the marks against him could fill up an entire whiteboard. Advocates for his firing came in droves on a nightly basis, but opinions differ on exactly what part the movement had to play in the ultimate decision. Before analyzing that, it’s instructive to return to Kidd’s beginning.

FireKidd is not a novel notion. In fact, it had taken root within Nets’ faithful by the end of his ignominious (and short) tenure in Brooklyn.

Outside of a few jokesters, FireKidd wasn’t that applicable in his first season with the Bucks. Their surprising success garnered a considerable amount of goodwill, in particular his helter-skelter defensive scheme (built on what proved to be a house of cards). There were nitpicks, including his gruff, barely-audible tone during media sessions and the unannounced benching of Giannis Antetokounmpo in an April matchup against the Cavaliers. Later, it was revealed as a “breach in practice” according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, clarified in impending months as Giannis allegedly being “lazy” and called out by Jabari Parker, which was compounded in another Lowe article during Kidd’s second season. This was a bizarre underestimation of a key player’s ability and implied his reticence to embrace the modern emphasis on the 3-pointer.

“Jabari will be a really good stretch four in three years,” Kidd says. “Right now, he’s not that. And that’s OK. He’s basically a rookie.”

During that year, the dominant defense quickly crumbled as Jason Kidd struggled to integrate Greg Monroe into the squad and they fell far short of expectations. At that point, the transgressions are starting to pile up, and a more vocal component of fans are starting to state their displeasure with Kidd’s meddling. There were already rumors that he was dipping his fingers into John Hammond’s house, treading on his personnel turf and reportedly tipping the scales towards picking flame-out Rashad Vaughn over apparent Hammond preference, Bobby Portis.

It’s unclear if that personnel narrative ever had as much truth to it as some claimed, but for a time every roster decision was placed into two categories: a Hammond move or a Kidd move. There’s no need to re-litigate the multitude of front office choices made during that time, but even after Coach Kidd seemed to have lost his grasp on that facet of the organization, Milwaukee’s putrid play on the court continued to implicate him.

Fans continued to beat the drum for his exit late in the 2016-17 season, when the Bucks fell to 22-30 and looked in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in two years. Only a miraculous comeback, loaded with a heaping helping of luck in the clutch, saved his job for the 2017-18 season. By this season, too little had changed despite the promises to “tweak some things” reportedly made to the owners in the offseason. Milwaukee’s offensive philosophy still treated elbow post-ups like basketball panacea, while their three-point propensity struggled to even reach league average. Individual talent carried the team to above-average offensive ratings the past two years, but the defense remained in the muck. Even after a promising shift in philosophy, briefly backing off the aggressiveness in his defensive scheme, he scrapped the promising changes and reverted to his tried and true trainwreck.

Between heightened expectations and a ticking clock on ownership’s patience with a merely average product, this season felt like a culmination of everyone’s grievances reaching a crescendo against the snowbanks on the corner of 4th and State. As the issues expanded, so had the chorus of voices demanding Kidd’s departure. #FireKidd became a placeholder for anyone wanting to join the movement against Milwaukee’s head coach, or protest the Bucks’ continued inability to appear competent on a larger stage.

Fan outcry doesn’t often grow to this level, particularly ones that start primarily on social media. Bucks fans have experience bringing their grievances public though; look a few years back when the Save Our Bucks movement highlighted the monument of mediocrity Senator Herb Kohl built during his ownership. While that was a layered argument, aiming to drum up interest in a dormant franchise that evolved into a political advocacy group, it still contained the passion of the #FireKidd movement on a smaller scale according to PaulPressey25, moderator of the Save Our Bucks site.

PaulPressey: “The SOB movement related to larger issues. Would Kohl change in how he structured the front office? Would the team become so irrelevant that no local buyers would step up? Would the local media finally cover what was happening and finally could the political community come together on a funding plan. There were layers of themes involved that took two years to play out. SOB tried to begin and then contribute to those discussions. That said, #FireKidd relied on that same reservoir of fan discontent and energy as SOB.”

Save Our Bucks garnered national attention, featured prominently in this Amos Barshad Grantland piece detailing the Bucks’ franchise predicament in Giannis’ rookie year. Part Giannis profile, part peer through the looking glass at the Bucks’ pit of apathy, it laid out SOB’s primary goals as both improving the on-court product and assuring the franchise didn’t depart for rainier pastures in the Pacific Northwest.

The group’s (in)famous billboard near I-43 prominently displaying “Winning Takes Balls” was the public culmination of the faction’s primary motive: finally acquire the vaunted high lottery pick (which became Jabari Parker) that had eluded them with Kohl’s persistent pursuit of the 8th seed. Here was a symbol – cheeky and lewd in a way befitting a group birthed from internet discontent – that manifested what they hoped to achieve. SOB evolved into an advocacy arm as arena negotiations continued, but the billboard’s memory remained. Several folks approached PaulPressey25 about starting another billboard to promote #FireKidd, but he said that had run its course and would remain a virtual movement. Meanwhile, a 17-year-old Illinois high school student was preparing the perfect symbol for fans to rally behind.

Twitter user Yunsik57 had a similar mindset to the rest of the FireKidd hive. His issues with the Bucks’ head coach didn’t stray far from those laid out above. The difference was he wanted to create something to epitomize the feeling. And so the infamous FireKidd emblem was created.

Using his graphic design experience, he crafted the cartoony look to model it slightly after the animated look of the Bucks’ own logos. Whatever people thought of the imagery of the goateed mug of Milwaukee’s coach foregrounding flames, it accomplished what Yunsik wanted:

Yunsik: “In the design itself I tried to make it clear that firing Kidd IS the solution through putting his animated face and fire behind it.”

There was no mistaking the message behind the symbol, and it caught on like wildfire (get it?) among the FireKidd faithful. Eventually it reached the point that Yunsik’s symbolism was cluttering everyone’s Twitter mentions like an invasive species.

The high school student was surprised his avatar had taken hold so deeply within Bucks fandom. With a clean image to match the hashtag message, it was practically impossible to escape their appearances during any game on Twitter. As Yunsik’s creation started to take off, the specter of Bucks Twitter even hit the mainstream, as Zach Lowe discussed the dark state of the social sphere on a podcast with Bill Simmons.

Zach Lowe: Milwaukee Bucks fans continue to lead the league in anger [...] I don’t know what happened in Milwaukee. Like 18 months ago they crossed a line, from “We’re just so happy to have Giannis on our team, this is amazing!” to “We hate everyone, we hate everything, we hate you, we hate our coach, we hate our team, we hate everyone!” It’s just a lot of anger.

Bill Simmons: I had no idea Bucks Twitter is such a dark place. It really is dark, and they’re just so mad at Jason Kidd, they’re angry at everyone.

Some backers understandably took issue with the characterization, chalking it up to ignoring the obvious issues with Kidd staring media members in the face. Quibbles aside, the recognition acted as a greater mainstream acceptance of the mission. If nothing else, the narrative had reached a point where it was impossible to ignore any longer. And it wouldn’t be long at all, as Kidd’s tenure in Milwaukee ended on January 22nd, just five days later.

Kidd’s exit came as a surprise, delighting the legion campaigned so passionately for his firing. An impromptu press conference from Jon Horst came swiftly, but also seemed to tacitly acknowledge the lack of impact fan discontent had with the decision.

In the aftermath though, many FireKidd devotees claimed victory. And why not, since Jason Kidd was fired? Their mission now accomplished, the barrage of FireKidd avatars that had littered Twitter for months disappeared, though debate continued on how integral virtual movement was on the decision. For their part, most of the people I talked with viewed it as having a limited impact, at best. PaulPressey thought Kidd did himself in with his coaching shortcomings, but that the torrent of Twitter replies helped accelerate the decision.

PaulPressey: “I give the folks who created and participated in this credit. The NBA is a sport that really relies on Twitter. This no cost method of fan protest disrupted that chain of communication. Was Kidd going to be fired eventually? Of course. But I have to feel there reached a point where these avatars played some small role in the decision.”

Ben Thompson, creator of Stratechery and another fan whom many know as @NoTechBen, viewed it as incubating a culture whereby firing Kidd sooner wouldn’t result in significant backlash.

Ben: “I certainly wouldn’t overstate the “Fire Kidd” movement. Joel Embiid’s Instagram post about “Results” was probably as impactful as anything. I do, though, give the “Fire Kidd” movement more credit than most for creating the possibility and environment where making the final decision felt more inevitable and correct than it would have in a vacuum, which by extension means it happened sooner than it might have.”

For Ben and others that share his opinion, the persistence of the message was central to its success. While he still believes the largest organizational issue is a lack of long-term vision, for him, the case to fire a problematic coach was clear. That disillusionment seemed to have bled into the mainstream too; the boos that became commonplace by the end of Kidd’s run were reflective of a pervasiveness of disappointment in Kidd among both casual and hardcore fans. Paul Henning, part of the Save Our Bucks movement, saw FireKidd as representative for how much of the fanbase was feeling, and they just happened to be a contingent that were more vocal than others.

Paul: “What surprised me, and I talk to people around me at games, every time I go, was how many people disliked Jason Kidd and his coaching shortcomings. From casual fans to hardcore fans, he had alienated almost the entire fan base. So, I’m not sure how much it led to his actual firing because the behind the scenes conflict of power had existed for a few years now. But, I think it helped to bring to the forefront on a national level through sports writers, how much of the fan base had become disillusioned to Bucks basketball once again. That had to play a part of the decision as the front office began to roll out season ticket plans for the new arena.”

If those specific ramifications were in mind, the team was still publicly saying all the right things about an improvement in season ticket sales. They sold 2,600 season ticket packages heading into this season and over 300 were sold in the first morning they went up for the general public on January 5th. Still, they previously reported that their lofty goal is 10,000 sold before they transition into the sparkling new arena. What number they’re at now is anyone’s guess, but the financial argument is one that makes Eric Nehm, writer at ESPN Milwaukee and Locked On Bucks co-host, dubious that Twitter badgering had any discernable impact on the decision.

Eric: “An organization is only worried about the bottom line. I’m not sure they care the tiniest bit about their fans thinking their coach is bad, but rather just whether or not their coach is actually bad. The only way fans can make an impact on an organization is by purchasing fewer tickets and less merchandise. So, if the coach is so bad that they’re losing games and people stop showing up? That would make an impact. If they boycott the team? That would make an impact. Some tweets and an avatar won’t do anything.”

Milwaukee may well fall short of expectations this year, but it hadn’t stopped fans from filing in. The Bucks are averaging approximately 500 or so more fans per home game this year than last, according to ESPN’s attendance logs.

So how can we really gauge the impact of FireKidd on the coach’s ouster? The reality is impossible to know, but it speaks to the evolving nature of fandom in today’s increasingly interconnected online world. In some ways, fans have greater access than ever to players and organizations through platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. We see their daily routines, bits of practice walkthroughs, what they’re making for dinner (RIP Chef ‘Shad). At any time, I could rifle off 20 tweets at the Bucks Twitter account declaring how they should fire this person or release that player until I was blocked. However, that access often feels perfunctory at best. It can take months, or even years, before the true motivations behind a coaching or franchise decision comes out.

Overreaction is an implied component of fandom, but so is a sense of communal spirit. Both were present in the FireKidd movement, a faction of Bucks Twitter that admittedly grew exhausting for me at times. Every game felt like a litmus test, where the results were consistently acidic no matter the outcome. The opportunity to move beyond that simple statement felt like a breath of fresh air, a chance to discuss the franchise in terms beyond the shortcomings of a failed coach.

What felt like an echo chamber at times to me expanded far beyond what I thought possible. I never engaged in the sentiment vociferously if only because, in my heart of hearts, I didn’t think an organization ran by multi-millionaires would really care. Perhaps it did play some minor part, and for those that were vocal proponents I do think that’s a valid position.

What I do know, is that it became clear by the end that the vast majority of Bucks fans were unhappy with Jason Kidd’s coaching. FireKidd was both the noisy minority and silent majority. Whether someone repeatedly shouted it online or offered more measured coaching critiques, practically everyone agreed firing Kidd was the right move. Ultimately, the organization agreed. In the infamous words of Wes Edens, “I’d rather talk about the results.”

Whether you want to take credit or not, in this instance, we all got the result we wanted.