Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will meet as foes for the first time in Oakland Thursday. Once upon a time, they were inseparable teammates.
“I see him more than my family, and vice versa,” Durant said last May. “It’s a special bond we have.”
"He's always going to have my back and I'll always have his," Westbrook added.
But then Durant left to join the Warriors, and there’s been endless speculation about the nature of their relationship since. Were they just work friends? Did they grow apart over the years? Were they ever close at all? Did Durant leave because Westbrook was a ball hog? Did they secretly hate each other the whole time? Do they actually still love each other and are simply posturing for the sake of the soap opera? The truth lies somewhere in the middle, but the truth can be less fun than the theater.
Each is handling the breakup in their own way. Durant has tried desperately to downplay their supposed rift, most recently in an interview with the Bay Area News Group:
I don’t have nothing against Russell. As I shouldn’t. And I don’t think he have nothing against me. I don’t think he’s taking shots at me. I don’t think he’s doing anything that everyone is putting out there. It’s for your entertainment, your pleasure, your joy. I see it all the time. They want us to beef because of the game on Thursday. They want more suspense and excitement when they turn the TV on at 7:30 or 10:30 or wherever you are. That’s what they want. But I’m not letting that get between us.
In essence, Durant is saying that Westbrook plays this conflict up for the public and it’s “fake.” Maybe he’s right.
But if so, Westbrook sure is committed to the bit. Here are all the digs that Westbrook has taken at his former teammate since Durant left.
July 4 - The cupcake photo
At the time, we assumed Westbrook was just living his life. It was July 4, after all.
But in a Sports Illustrated cover story on Westbrook, writer Lee Jenkins reveals that the cupcakes had a hidden meaning:
When Kendrick Perkins played center for the Thunder, he called teammates “cupcake” if he thought they were acting a little soft. Westbrook and Durant adopted the term in jest. Westbrook posted a bittersweet pic on Instagram: three plates of cupcakes topped by red and blue stars and sprinkles.
Coincidence? We think not. Heck, even Enes Kanter got in on the act.
Aug. 5 - “Sting for who?”
KD's departure didn’t sting at all for Russell Westbrook https://t.co/ikcNC9oYIG— The Cauldron (ICYMI) (@CauldronICYMI) August 4, 2016
Westbrook, predictably, was asked whether Durant’s departure to the Warriors “made it sting more.” Westbrook immediately turned the question back around with a quick one-liner.
The rest of Westbrook’s comments were tamer, but he did reveal that he hadn’t spoken to Durant in the month since he left. Based on Durant’s interview with the Bay Area News Group, they still haven’t talked face to face three months later.
Aug. 26 - "Some run. Some make runways."
Westbrook’s Jordan Brand commercial left viewers with a line they won’t soon forget. The commercial begins with Westbrook surging down an empty court in slow motion, as if he’s taking off like a plane. As he leaps into an empty void, a deep voice delivers the punishing line. “Some run. Some make runways.”
Gee, I wonder who that might be referring to?
Sept. 23 - “I haven’t talked to him”
During a Nike event in September, Durant again insisted that he and Westbrook are “still cool.” Someone asked Westbrook the same question during Oklahoma City’s media day. Westbrook’s response was succinct:
“I haven’t talked to him.”
Oct. 13 - ‘That's cute’
Russell Westbrook was asked about Durant's comments: "We're gonna worry about all the selfish guys we've got over here, apparently." pic.twitter.com/iZkiXu01GW— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) October 13, 2016
The contrast between the two players was obvious. Durant, in his never-ending quest to provide earnest answers, said the following to audience members at the Stanford Business School: (Emphasis mine)
“You hear family a lot. That’s just a word sometimes, but this is really a lifestyle here. You can feel it when you walk in the door, in the practice facility, everybody is just together. That’s something that I can appreciate as a basketball player and someone who values relationships. You can tell that that’s what they stand on, that’s what we stand on. I feel really grateful to play for a team like that and play with a bunch of players who are selfless and enjoy the game in its purest form. They make it about the players, they make it about the environment, so it was really an easy choice.”
A perfectly reasonable explanation ... except that it implies the Thunder didn’t provide that kind of environment, at least not enough to Durant’s satisfaction.
This got back around to Westbrook, which led to a famous line:
"That's cute, man,” he said. “It's cute. But my job is to worry about what's going on here, worry about all the selfish guys we have here, apparently. So, you know, we are going to figure that out."
Oct. 26 - ‘Now I do what I want’
Lil Uzi Vert’s “Do What I Want” became a rallying cry for Westbrook over the summer. In August, he posted an Instagram video serenading us in the car. Two months later, that song became the signature hook of a Jordan Brand commercial for the new Westbrook 0.2 lifestyle shoe.
The subtext here is a little murkier. On the one hand, this could have easily doubled as Westbrook’s mission statement even before Durant left. On the other hand, it’s easy to interpret this as Westbrook feeling liberated from having to share the spotlight with Durant. Now, he can really do what he wants with the Thunder.
(Of note: While Westbrook is a longtime Taylor Swift fan, it’s probably no coincidence that he blasted “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” on Snapchat in late August. And while we’re on the subject of Snapchat, we can’t forget about Westbrook’s laugh when a friend asked about Durant.)
Nov. 3: The photographer outfit
Westbrook showed up to the first Thunder-Warriors game in this outfit. If you look closely, his shirt says “official photographer.”
Last month I turned 27, and my friend got me a camera for my birthday — one of those big digital cameras with a nice lens. Growing up, I got cameras as gifts and I always did the same thing: take it out of the box, try it out for a couple days and then never really use it again. But this time — and I don’t know why — I started taking it almost everywhere I went.
Being behind the camera was new for me because I’m usually in front of it. I’ve already gained a lot of respect for photographers because you have to be ready all the time. You never want to miss a shot. I think that’s what I like about it.
Durant even got a media credential to take pictures at Super Bowl 50 for The Players Tribune.
Westbrook insisted that there’s no connection, but it’s hard to believe him.
Taken on their own, each individual Westbrook dig seems coincidental. Taken together, it’s hard not to notice a pattern. While Durant sincerely explains why he exercised his well-earned freedom to work in another city, Westbrook keeps dropping hints of his true feelings and letting our imagination fill in the blanks.
We can speculate all we want about Westbrook’s motives. Is he trying to gain a psychological edge? Is he legitimately aggravated that Durant would leave for the Thunder’s biggest rival? Was he hurt that Durant’s only communication after going to Oakland was a text message? Is he just trying to sell shoes?
We’ll never know. But regardless, it’s fun theater, and that’s something to celebrate so long as we accept that it’s a soap opera. Ignorance can be bliss, at least when we want to be entertained.