OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook is shooting alone. On a basket in the far corner of the Thunder’s gleaming, white-lit practice facility, he’s firing shots and keeping up a playful running banter with an assistant coach.
It’s hard not to chuckle at the scene. After Kevin Durant stunned Thunder fans by leaving his co-star of eight years and bolting to their biggest rival this summer, Westbrook shooting alone seems like the perfect analogy. Teammates scatter around the gym in pairs and trios after a mid-morning Sunday practice, and here is Westbrook shooting turnaround jumpers by himself.
As it turns out, this is just Westbrook’s basket. He’s always there after practice, well before talk of Durant joining the Warriors reached its highest swell. There’s no visible burden or sense that he feels abandoned, at least not at this practice. If anything, he looks and sounds more carefree than usual. His visits with the media actually border on pleasant — even a viral moment last week about a question involving Durant didn’t include a surly line back at the reporter himself.
Westbrook’s solitude isn’t about this summer at all, then, is it? Maybe it shows more about him.
Four years ago, the Thunder had Westbrook, Durant, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, a young core that looked on the verge of a dynasty. Three departed, and many Oklahomans figured Westbrook would soon bolt for greener pastures, too. But here he is anyway, thanks to a three-year, $85 million contract extension signed exactly a month after Durant skipped town.
So, why did he re-sign?
“Easy. It’s the place to be,” Westbrook said. “The people there are great. The team, the people here take care of me, and take care of my family and friends. It’s a good place to play basketball.”
He makes it sound so simple.
The perception that Russell Westbrook doesn’t care what people think of him isn’t true. Not entirely.
“Every person cares,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan told SB Nation. “I think the difference with him … is that Russell is convicted on how hard he’s going to play. He gets convicted on the intensity and the force that he wants to play with. When he’s convicted on that part, I think what happens is he just doesn’t really listen to a lot of things around him. He stays convicted on what he’s doing.”
Conviction is a great word for Westbrook’s style of basketball, a blur of hyper-athleticism and (mostly) controlled chaos that alternates between reckless tilts towards the rim and thoughtful passes that crack defenses open. “The Russell Westbrook Revenge Tour” is hyped counterprogramming for Golden State’s circus, and for good reason.
When Durant missed most of a season two years ago, Westbrook led the NBA in scoring while recording so many triple-doubles that Oscar Robertson comparisons came up daily. Love or hate Westbrook’s style, there’s no doubt what it is.
We know far less about Westbrook off the court. He doesn’t shy away from public appearances in television commercials or fashion magazines, but he’s not drawn to the fame, either. His small inner circle consists almost entirely of family, and he quietly married his longtime college girlfriend last year.
Westbrook used to ask Thunder public relations officials to get him out of media appearances and still rarely grants one-on-one interviews. (SB Nation was no exception.) You can hear Westbrook talk after games or at press conferences, but you rarely learn anything about Russell.
This is Westbrook’s prerogative. Still, it forces anyone without a personal relationship with him to fill the gaps with the only thing they know: his game.
“People see the fire, the passion, the competitiveness, and they want to correlate that to who he is as a [person],” Donovan said. “When he steps in between the lines, he’s a different person. He just is. He’s an unbelievable competitor. And he wants to win at a high level. He gets himself ready to play every single night. That being said, he is a great guy to talk to, he’s really smart, he’s bright, he’s very, very unselfish of his time, of his money, things he’s done.”
Westbrook isn’t his violent dunks or his bewildering outfits, but that’s all most know him by. There are only so many people who understand him in a deeper sense.
“He’s got a lot of perspective, he understands what really matters and what doesn’t,” Nick Collison said, who is beginning his ninth year with Westbrook in Oklahoma City. “He’s got family that’s important to him, basketball’s important to him, his team’s important to him, but he knows that other stuff is all on the outside.”
Even Donovan declined to elaborate much when asked why he thought Westbrook stayed in Oklahoma City. There are limits to knowing Westbrook, even for those around him the most.
Christopher Nolan’s cult classic Memento features a character with anterograde amnesia. The movie features two timelines: a normal, chronological story arc, and a second playing out in reverse order, scene by scene. Finally, they meet in the middle.
This is how Curtis Fitzpatrick explained Kevin Durant’s departure to me.
“When you piece it backwards, it makes sense now,” said Fitzpatrick, a morning host on the Sports Animal radio station. “Durant’s the guy who has the entourage, he has more people speaking for him. Westbrook has his family, his brother, his mom, his dad, his wife, his agent, and maybe a few friends.”
Durant’s departure shook Oklahoma City. Residents couldn’t believe he would leave after coming so close to the NBA Finals. They couldn’t believe he would join the team they nearly beat. They especially couldn’t believe he would treat the decision first with pomp and circumstance — three days of meetings in the Hamptons — and then like a high school breakup, reportedly telling Westbrook of his decision by text.
“I don’t think you would have had [people] freaking out if he went to the Celtics, or the Spurs,” said Austin Brister, who attended the first Thunder game in 2008, and dozens since. “Just not that team. This is Jordan joining the Pistons, Magic joining the Celtics, Kobe joining the Spurs after Shaq left.”
Their near-disbelief hints at something else many Thunder fans can’t believe: Westbrook — not Durant, not Harden, not Ibaka — is the last star left.
“If I went back to 2011, I’d be shocked that Westbrook would be the only guy standing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I didn’t envision what happened. I don’t think anyone did.”
Oklahoma City is a modest metroplex of 600,000 that feels even smaller than it is. On the surface, Westbrook never seemed to fit.
“KD was put up on a pedestal and could do no wrong,” Rich Taylor said. “Westbrook was this guy from Los Angeles, he had the flash and the flair and the clothing line, and he wanted to be anywhere but Oklahoma City.”
Taylor manages a bar in downtown Oklahoma City and lived across the street from Durant. Some might remember him from this video, where he planted a sign calling Durant a coward the day he declared his decision. Taylor said his perception of Westbrook was different, as if it followed the reverse Memento timeline.
“The actual people in the city who have business, and who actually hang out downtown, saw Westbrook,” Taylor said. “We see Westbrook walking around, we see him coming into the bars and the restaurants, and being a normal person. We never saw KD. KD never put himself among the people. Westbrook was embedded with the people of Oklahoma City from day one.”
That notion of Westbrook never spread — not until Durant’s announcement three months ago.
“I look now and Russell Westbrook is the guy that people love around here, and he’s the face of sports in Oklahoma,” Fitzpatrick said. “I never really would have thought that before.”
It’s astonishing that Oklahoma City even has a professional sports franchise. Among the four major North American sports leagues, it’s one of just five metropolitan markets with a population of less than one million. In the NBA, only New Orleans is smaller.
Despite a rapid ascent fueled by shrewd drafting, the Thunder have never signed a major free agent. That alone is enough to make Thunder fans insecure about its small market status, never mind the rumors that Harden was traded in the summer of 2012 because he wanted out.
Westbrook’s decision to choose Oklahoma City — not as a restricted free agent or through the draft, but out of his own free will when all his peers had left — validates a city that’s proud of itself in every other way.
It means so much to people like Brister, who have never known any other hometown professional team.
“The guy will go back to LA or New York or go live in Paris when his days [here] are over, but he went to god status pretty quick,” Brister said. “For Russ to buck that trend and stay here, he could probably run for some legislature down the road and just waltz right in.”
Durant made his decision on July 4, forever marring a day of celebration. But Oklahomans only had to postpone their celebration for a month. When Westbrook re-signed, Oklahoma City’s mayor declared Aug. 4 an official holiday: Russell Westbrook Day.
“What he said was, ‘I want to be in Oklahoma City,’ and KD never said that,” Taylor said. “The people here, they really love Oklahoma. For Westbrook to reach out, and say, ‘I want to stay in Oklahoma,’ it was a big deal. I’m telling you, you would have thought we won the championship.”
Oklahomans are aware that Westbrook’s extension doesn’t mean he’ll play for the Thunder forever. His new contract pays him more, offers him a player option on the third year, and allows him to earn the highest tier of maximum salary when he can hit the open market after the 2017-18 season.
Still, Westbrook chose Oklahoma City. That’s enough to make any departure OK in the eyes of most fans.
“When his career is over, he’ll be the guy who fans remember the most,” Brister said. “Even if he doesn’t play his whole career here.”
Who is Russell Westbrook? Only a few people really know. Even media members who have covered him for years say the same thing. He represents so many different things to the millions of people who know him, even if that knowing is just pixels on a screen.
He’s an explosive, shot-happy athlete always pushing the boundaries of “point guard.”
An eccentric fashionista whose heart still lies in Los Angeles.
A family man without a large inner circle to influence him.
A bully to the media for no reason.
A savior to the Thunder, who chose them when Kevin Durant didn’t.
An icon that a city can prop itself up by, even if they don’t truly know him.
Perhaps the version of Westbrook that stands out the most is Donovan’s. Donovan has only coached Westbrook for one season, but he can’t heap enough praise on his superstar when asked.
During a 96-second soliloquy, the Thunder coach debunked unfair perceptions and highlighted the traits that make Westbrook exceptional. He emphasized how much Westbrook does unseen for the community and reiterated the enjoyment he receives just by being around Westbrook. At one point, Donovan ran out of adjectives to express his joy.
“He’s a great, great guy,” he said. “A great guy.”
Westbrook is a culmination of all of those things, and probably more. We may never fully know.
That’s fine. Russell Westbrook is Russell Westbrook, and you can fill in the rest.