Growing up in Queens, New York, Knicks big man Kyle O'Quinn spent his after-school hours the way many kids his age did: fighting with his older sister over access to the desktop computer they shared. If he felt she was hogging the screen, he'd follow the phone cord that snaked from the computer down the stairs and into the family's kitchen and cut off her internet connection by yanking it out of the phone jack.
Evenings, after all, were for logging onto America Online's Instant Messenger service, the chat program that rose to prominence in the late '90s and early 2000s. O'Quinn had no intention of allowing his sister to keep him from a night of connecting with crushes, scanning his buddy list and reading away messages.
"AOL definitely controlled six hours of your day," O'Quinn, 27, recalls, expressing a sentiment shared by an entire generation that spent its nights tying up the family phone line and dialed into AIM, as it was known.
But over the years, AIM, which has been running since 1997, has been replaced by other messaging services, from text messaging to Facebook to Gchat to Twitter to a host of other social media platforms. The days of paying for AOL, installing its internet via CD and then spending hours contemplating a screen name have also faded. So in October, the company announced it would discontinue AIM and wipe all its data December 15.
Few still use AIM, but the announcement that the service would see its official demise has been met with grief by those who grew up hunched over desktops typing acronyms like "gtg" and "lol."
That generation includes much of the NBA's current player base. Considering the league has embraced social media so enthusiastically and to such great effect, B/R unsurprisingly found in a recent survey of NBA players that many were both saddened to learn the news and eager to share their AIM memories.
"You get home from after-school hoops, and while Mom cooked dinner, you hoped that she wasn't on the phone so that you could dial up," Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes remembers.
Others, such as Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, share similar routines.
"As soon as I finished my homework, I'd get on," Love, aka "ballaboveall" (he couldn't remember which numbers punctuated the screen name), says. "Then I'd put on away messages that would have like some sort of deep"—Love makes a quote sign with his fingers—"quote. I thought I was so smart."
Away messages, a precursor to tweets and Facebook status updates, were a key aspect of an individual's AIM presence. They were a user's chance to broadcast to the world—or at least their buddy list, which to most AIM addicts was as far as the world extended—his or her personality. Song lyrics were a popular route. "I'd put, like, a Lil Wayne line or something in there," O'Quinn, aka "tmac3269," says.
Others preferred a basic and more mysterious "brb"—be right back—without any additional thought or explanation.
Such behavior, to Knicks guard Ron Baker, was a violation of the unofficial AIM code.
"Bulls--t, you're there—don't give me that BRB s--t," Baker says. "I know you're there; you just put on a BRB. If the right person messages you, you're going to respond."
For Baker, a multisport athlete whose screen name would alternate every season, that right person meant a girl from one of the towns adjacent to minuscule Scott City, Kansas.
"I've just seen the girls from my hometown all day," Baker says. "The girls from other towns are exciting."
Being the oldest of three siblings, he says, he'd be given access to the family desktop late at night, "when all the good stuff is going on."
Baker then provided an example of what his typical AIM back-and-forth would consist of.
"You'd write, 'what's up?' and she'd say, 'nm (not much), u?' and then you would just say, 'same,' and the next day in school you'd be, 'Yo, I talked to so-and-so last night,'" he recalls. "And of course if you saw her in person, you wouldn't speak to her, but you were best friends over messenger."
It's a plight many children of the new millennium can no doubt relate to. But other NBA players claim to have had no such experience with shyness.
"I never really had that problem," Cavaliers guard JR Smith says. Neither did Baker's Knicks teammate, center Joakim Noah.
"Nah, I was better than that," Noah says. "That's on you. At the end of the day, AOL did its part. The rest is on you to show you've got some G."
For Noah, AIM was an integral part of childhood in France, where he attended a United Nations school. He'd dial in on a Compaq desktop computer, but being the son of star tennis player Yannick Noah had its perks. The house had two phone lines, meaning Noah could stay logged in as long as he liked.
As for his screen name, Noah is at first reticent to share.
"Damn, that's personal," he says before acquiescing. "It was actually 'Doggystyle.'" There were some numbers tacked on at the end of the screen name, but Noah won't share those, citing privacy concerns. He insists the moniker was not chosen for sexual reasons.
"It was because of the Snoop Dogg album. That was my favorite album," Noah says. "I mean, I was so young that I don't think I or other people my age knew what doggy style was. And anyway, I was in France at the time. There you call it 'levrette.'"
Of course, there's a reason AIM—once the centerpiece of an AOL company valued at $224 billion, according to Tech Crunch—is no longer financially worthy of being kept afloat by Verizon, which purchased AOL for $4.4 billion in 2015.
"What's that?" 21-year-old Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis asks when probed for AIM memories. Only after a more detailed explanation does Ulis recognize the product he's being asked about.
"I just remember that old-ass computer we had in the basement and the dial-up," he says, pantomiming the scratch beeping that would fill the room anytime AOL clicked on. It's a reaction the majority of younger millennial children no doubt share and a memory future generations will never experience.
"Kids today get phones with internet when they're like eight years old," Baker says. "They don't need AIM."
As Cavaliers big man Channing Frye, aka cfrye45, puts it when informed of AIM's impending demise, "That's a shame."
Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.
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