As an athlete, I've heard the story of the scorpion and the frog on many occasions. It's in some ways a relevant parable for those who play sports, so it's come up at various points in my career. I happen to love this tale, probably because I learned it from someone who heard it delivered in person by Pat Riley, then the coach of the New York Knicks, during a pre-game speech. I always think about this story in that context -- as a tale propagated by Riles himself -- so it automatically has a type of slicked-back authenticity that I just can't find anywhere else on the fable market, Aesop be damned.
Here's a basic rundown: There's a scorpion on the bank of a river, and he wants to get to the other side. He sees a frog, so he naturally asks if the frog will transport him across. The frog is skeptical, which should be expected, because while frogs might not be the brightest amphibians in the pond, they are nothing if not a street-smart and savvy bunch. So, the frog expresses his concern to the scorpion. "What if you sting me?" he asks. The scorpion assures the frog that this won't happen. "I won't sting you," he says, "because if I do, we'll both sink to the bottom of the river and die." Eventually, the frog agrees and carries the scorpion into the water. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, embedding his deathly venom, and as the two of them are sinking, the frog, shocked by what has happened, asks the scorpion, "Why?" The scorpion just smiles and says, "Because it's my nature." Then they drown and die, ending the story rather abruptly.
Obviously, the nature of a scorpion is to sting a frog when it has the opportunity, and even though it cost this particular scorpion his life, he still did it willingly, because that is just what scorpions do. In relation to sports, this story matters because of the concept it illustrates: Ultimately, some people just are the way they are, and we shouldn't expect them to be anything else.
It's a great lesson, both for sports and for life, and I've thought about it often during these NBA Playoffs, especially in relation to the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook. Russ has become an incredibly polarizing figure in the NBA lately, one who both mesmerizes and frustrates the public with his abilities, decisions and dress code, and it's garnered him a great amount of backlash. Even though he says the right things and plays his tail off, he has become the target of much criticism. He's the mini-LeBron of the NBA, and not just because of his out-of-this-world combination of speed, power and agility, but also, because everything he does is now under a super-intense microscope.
His shot selection is critiqued, his decision-making is questioned, and his occasional tendency to take more shots than Kevin Durant is often blasted by gentlemen in suits on television. Since the NBA Finals rolled around, Russ has been a central storyline: Is he a true point guard? Does he get Durant and the other guys involved enough? Is he too out of control? Can the Thunder win with him? Can they win without him?
Lately, it's been all Russ, all the time, and I'm not saying that these concerns are completely off-base, because they're not. There's some truth in all of them, because he does take some bad shots and make some bad decisions. (The foul at the end of Game 4 was a bummer.) Also, without a doubt, KD has to be the Thunder's primary offensive option, and it's Russ' job as the point guard to make sure that's so (which, I'd argue, he does). Yes, these issues are all valid ones, and honest discussion is always a good thing. But what's more important, in my opinion, is that amidst this raging river of analysis, people should not lose sight of the special type of player that Russell Westbrook really is, as opposed to the type of special player that some people really think he should be.
Basically, Russell is a scorpion. And how can anyone expect him to be anything else? Sure, his shot selection, decision-making and overall command of the game should and will improve over time, but if people want the Thunder to be led by a point guard who is methodical, meticulous and who distributes the ball with surgical precision, then Russ is not the guy for that job. Instead, he's energetic, aggressive, unpredictable, outrageous, freakishly athletic and in every way one of the most dynamic guards in the league, as evidenced by his two-time All-NBA status. Quite frankly, it is not his nature to play any differently -- like a traditional slow-it-down and set-it-up point guard, for example -- so to ask him or to expect him to be that kind of player is both unfair and unproductive. He could undoubtedly do a better job of managing himself and his teammates (like almost all NBA point guards), and I bet he will find a slightly more appropriate balance as the years progress, but he'll never really change who he is, and truthfully, he shouldn't, especially since he's an amazing competitor and an established winner as is.
The irony is that he's helped his team win at an elite level for three years in a row precisely by being a scorpion, and not just in the allegorical way mentioned above, but also, in the literal sense. On the court, Russ plays like a scorpion. His game is to attack. His strength lies in his ability to be dangerous at all times and to use his considerable weapons to keep his opponents off-balance, physically and mentally. He's frenetic and fast-paced, and while that occasionally causes him to get out of control, his pull-up jumper is still cash money, and I bet that KD doesn't mind the fact that the defense has to be über aware of a Thunder player other than himself. I can say firsthand that it's extraordinarily difficult from both an individual and team standpoint to defend someone who is always looking to attack, especially when they're as insanely gifted and ridiculously athletic as Russell Westbrook, and I think all the Thunder players benefit from the offensive pressure he applies.
So what's with all the ire that's getting thrown in Russ' direction? For me, a lot of it results from the fact that he plays beside a transcendent scorer like Kevin Durant. Because Russ has the ball in his hands a lot, and because he's a scorer who distributes and not the other way around, it becomes particularly frustrating for viewers and critics when Durant is playing second fiddle to anyone. I get that, and I also find myself noticing it at certain times, but the fact of the matter is that KD has led the NBA in scoring for three straight years with Russ at the helm. Durant is the obvious No. 1 option on that team, and he produces accordingly, but sometimes, the point guard has the ball in situations that require action (like when Durant is denied), and Russ certainly capitalizes on those opportunities to be aggressive. If I were the Thunder, I'd want it that way, too. Just because they have KD, it doesn't mean they don't need someone else to soften things up for him.
Russell Westbrook is that guy, and he's a huge reason why the Thunder have rolled through the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs en route to the NBA Finals. He's largely been great, and accordingly, so has the scrutiny that's been directed his way. Truthfully, I wonder what Russ would be thinking if he were in the locker room before Game 5 of the Finals, sitting on his current finals averages of 29 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 6.8 assists, listening intently as a great basketball coach told him and his teammates about the scorpion and the frog. How would it resonate with him, as a top NBA point guard on an elite team, as a 23-year-old star who busts his ass every night, as a fierce competitor who has never missed a game in his career, as a blossoming ballplayer and a willing teammate trying to find a delicate balance between his own considerable abilities and those of his teammates?
I don't know Russell Westbrook at all, but I know what it's like to be a player, and if I were him, and I heard the scorpion fable right now, it would send me a message that would ring loud and clear: Do what you do and be who you are. That's not to say that there shouldn't be an emphasis on improving and refining your game, because there always should be, and change is certainly possible to some extent. At the end of the day, though, Russell Westbrook is what he is. He's a scorpion, and that's not changing. Nor should it.