NEW YORK — Before the NBA MVP was announced, my heart suddenly started beating faster. I was anxious. My fear was that Adam Silver would pull out the card in the envelope, look hard at the name, look up in confusion, and gesture at someone off-stage to signal that there had been some mistake. He would come back to the microphone, pull out the card, and say, almost reluctantly, that the 2016-2017 KIA NBA MVP was someone other than Russell Westbrook.
Silver did say “Russell Westbrook,” but my Russell Westbrook didn’t go up to accept the award. In his place went another one. A Westbrook dressed unusually. He wore a white collared shirt with a long, skinny tie, tinted glasses, and dress slacks and shoes.
When this Westbrook got to the stage, he didn’t resort to pettiness. He didn’t lash out at everyone who had derided him the entire season and throughout his career. He said nothing about those who saw themselves as his enemies. Instead, he invited his teammates to the stage and thanked every one of them. He turned to the microphone and thanked the media as well — those whom he had been at war with all season.
As his teammates stood behind him, Westbrook’s attention turned toward his family. To his mother and father, he said, “You guys did any and everything to make sure me and my brother had anything we wanted. I told myself I wouldn’t cry …” and then Russell Westbrook took off his glasses and put his head down.
For a few moments, he said nothing. The audience filled the space with applause. Westbrook needed all of his strength and their support to hold back the tears and finish his speech. When the ovation died down, he continued, “I can’t say thank you enough …” By the time he reached the end of his dedication, he could no longer deny his emotions. He was crying.
After multiple breaks to compose himself, Westbrook said of his little brother, “You mean so much to me ... you’re my role model. I look up to you, man. I truly look up to you.”
Lastly, he addressed his wife. “You make me go. You hold me down. You keep me in check, through good and through bad. You make sure that I’m on the right track, and I’m so so appreciative of you because you sacrificed so so much for me ... You’ve blessed me with a beautiful son that I’m so thankful for.” Then he thanked everybody who helped him along the way — those in the audience and those who were watching from home. “I appreciate it,” he said as he raised his glasses, and then Russell Westbrook left.
In Portrait of Fryderyk in Shifting Light, Richard Siken writes:
“It isn’t fair, the depths of my looking, the threat of my looking. It’s rude to shake a man visible and claim the results. This side of his face, now this side of his face ...
“He didn’t expect to be handed over, to be delivered. To be tricked into his own face. Anyone can paint a mask. It’s boring.”
Russell Westbrook is many different Westbrooks to many different people. He’s been my Westbrook, the all-conquering ball of energy who told Kevin Durant, in the first game between the Thunder and Warriors after the former’s departure, that he was coming for him and then proceeded to score on his old friend repeatedly while trash talking him.
There’s the Westbrook who is the hero of Oklahoma City; the one who signed an extension and chose to lead the team when all reason said that he should leave. There’s the villainous Westbrook; the one who refused to change his playing style for the benefit of the team — the selfish ball hog who was ultimately at fault for the departure of Durant. The enemy of analytics. An evil so absurd that his detractors argued that averaging a triple-double for an entire season was no longer an impressive feat.
There are other Westbrooks as well, as many as there are people who watch him: the fashionista, the friendless recluse, the tragic hero, and so on. In the end, we all created our own versions of him to fit whatever narrative suited us best, and the person got lost in the midst of the forgeries. Westbrook stopped being Westbrook a long time ago and became a mirror.
When Westbrook gave his speech, it felt as if — away from the season and the arguments that became so extreme that they engendered personal dislike or devotion toward him, a man who few of the people who took part in the debate have ever met — the watching world was given a glimpse into his person. He was warm, open, and grateful. He cried. He thanked those who had helped him and even those who had been against him.
Siken also writes:
“What can you know about a person? They shift in the light. You can’t light up all sides at once. Add a second light and you get a second darkness, it’s only fair.”
He gave us a glimpse, but we may never know who the real Russell Westbrook is. What we have now is new evidence to add to all of the other versions of him that we’ve created. All we can do is put them together, hold them up to the light, and try to see as much of the man as we can. Yet, we must understand that what we are seeing most of the time is a person of our creation, the truth that we want, hardly the truth of the man himself.
When Westbrook came to the press room after his speech, he talked about dreaming of winning MVP when he was a child playing basketball video games. He became emotional again as he thought of what his deceased friend, Khelcey Barrs, would have thought of how far he’s come. When asked how he could improve for next season, he said that he asks himself that every year. — and that he tries to just do his best.
Most of the people who won an award Monday night came to the press room and were quietly congratulated after a series of questions. When Westbrook was done, the writers in the room couldn’t help but abandon their professionalism and clap for him. I clapped like an excited seal. This was the deserved ending of a wonderful season. We saw Westbrook make history. He had one of the most spectacular offensive seasons ever and is now the most valuable player in the NBA.
Yet the bigger event might have been the feeling that we saw, for a moment, Russell Westbrook’s version of himself. We got to see him as he wanted to be, not as we wished he was.