Eight years ago I lost two very important people in my life at nearly the same time. My Grandmother passed away July 20th, 2007 at the age of 90. She was but a few miles away from the hospital my Dad lay in, clinging to life in an induced coma, after a radical operation called the Whipple Procedure. Dad didn't make it, and he passed on August 11th, just 3 weeks later. Life throws curves to us all and Dad was always my rock; he always gave it to me straight. Nan was my pillow, she would tell me I could do it because she had faith in me. In that three week period, life threw a nasty change up, pulled my crutches out from under me, both of them, and I whiffed on it.
In the years before he passed, my Dad had become my best friend. We always had something to talk about. If it wasn't family or life, we could always talk sports. He was an avid OSU fan, and I'm a Sooner. He was a Dallas Cowboy fan; I love the Steelers. One would think our discussions on sports would have always been limited by those differences, but we looked for and found common ground by approaching those delicate subjects with an open mind. I miss those talks. Something will happen on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and I still have to catch myself before I pick up the phone. For a year, I avoided sports like the plague, it seemed pointless and painful.
During my sports hiatus, the only thing that vaguely registered on my radar during that time was regarding Clay Bennett buying the Sonics. I could not have cared less. I rarely picked up a sports page, but when I did, that story line lingered forever. Bennett had to wait a year to move the team...Bennett had to lobby for a new stadium...Seattle voters don't approve new stadium...Bennett tried to get out of the lease with Seattle...blah blah blah, OKC would be getting team for the 2008-09 season! Whoopee...Bennett names team the Thunder.... whatever. I'm not kidding, I was totally apathetic about this circus and didn't want anything to do with it. I tried as best I could to avoid the story.
I was sitting at the kitchen table one morning, bored to tears, still wallowing in self pity, thumbing through the Oklahoman looking for the crossword puzzle to pass the time. I don't know if it was my Dad's spirit pushing me to snap out of it or just dumb luck, but fate sort of poked me in the eye. I didn't find the puzzle the first time through and had to look a second time. While searching the paper more closely, a headline and a photo of Scott Brooks caught my eye. Apparently the new Thunder had fired P.J. Carlesimo and named Brooks as his replacement. I had not read an article about the Thunder since the day after Bennett announced their name, and the first thing I read about them in a year was for firing their big name coach just 13 games into the season. Oh yeah! This is going grea-a-a-at! The paint hasn't had time to dry on the center court logo and some nerdy looking assistant is already running the show for a lottery team.
For some reason, I really don't know why...curiosity maybe? Nah, it was cynicism...that article prompted me to watch my first Thunder game on November 22nd, 2008. The Thunder had lost by 25 in PJ's last game at home, and now they were playing the same team on the road with Ramjet the Rookie calling the shots. As expected, the Thunder got creamed by double digits. My best friend from college had a term for it: they got skulldrug. But something intriguing caught my eye. Against all odds, they never quit. Especially this one maniac kid that came off the bench. He looked like a baby, and my first impression was formed by his number, and it wasn't a good one. There has to be something seriously wrong with any player worth his salt that would choose to wear a '0' on his jersey.
Yet I couldn't take my eyes off him, and it wasn't because it was easy to. He was a blur most of the time, wild as a feral cat with its tail on fire, yet completely fearless. He was flying pell mell into the land of the giants, firing up wild shots, passing to spectators, and I'm honestly thinking to myself, this kid is nuts, he's going to die, and he doesn't care if he does.
He also made me think of my Dad.
My Dad's motto in life was, when in doubt, just do it, even if you do it wrong, at least it's a moving violation. Dad would have loved Russell Westbrook, and Russell Westbrook changed my life.
I've been hooked ever since. The first Thunder win I saw was four games later, the night Brooks gave Russell his first start.
Watching Russell play is like .... it's like... well.. ummm...there just isn't a single word or analogy that describes it. He's the Flash and Spiderman mixed together in some freakish lab experiment. One minute he's a runaway freight train, and in a wink he is as light on his feet as Fred Astaire. Then he's an F3 tornado destroying everything in his path, immediately followed by a trapeze artist attempting the triple flip while jumping blindfolded without a net. You love him, then you hate him, then he thrills you, then he exasperates you, you cheer him then jeer him, it's up and it's down, it's all around and all happening at the speed of sound, an emotional roller coaster THERE SEEMS NO GETTING OFF OF AND THEN.... the 2nd quarter starts. It's exhausting and exhilarating and I love every single second of it. One thing is guaranteed when one watches Russell Westbrook play basketball. if you have a pulse, it rises.
He roars, he screams, he scowls, he flies, he crashes and it doesn't matter if it's the NBA Finals or a preseason game, whether the game is close, a blow out win or a hopeless cause. Russell only plays the game one way... pedal to the metal.
"I sit here as a former point guard that used to play in the league and I can tell you, out of all the point guards out there playing, (Westbrook) is the one that none of them want to play against," Thomas said. "There’s not a point guard at home sitting there saying: ‘I can’t wait to play against Russell, I got Russell coming in here tomorrow.’ No, no, no, no, ain’t nobody saying that. There’s great competition out West, there’s great competition in the East at the point guard position, but I guarantee you no one is asking to play against Russell Westbrook."
Many moons ago, I was a Bad Boys fan so when Isiah says something, I pay attention. But if I'm gonna listen, I want to hear it all.
In the same article Thomas tempered his initial quote with this:
"I wouldn’t have been able to stop him defensively because he is just bigger and stronger than I was. So I would have tried to frustrate him, get in his head. I would have had to frustrate him and psyche him out a little bit because physically I couldn’t beat him. So I would have to throw him off his game mentally, get him distracted. Say ‘Hey, man, (Kevin) Durant was open, you not gonna pass it to Durant? Hey, why you hogging? Durant, you’re boy ain’t gonna throw you the rock? That’s messed up.’ But then on the offensive side, he’d have to check me, too. And I think I would have got him a little bit. But I would have laying in bed the night before saying ‘What am I gonna do with this joker?’ Because when he comes full-throttle, like I said, he’s the Mike Tyson of point guards. He comes with that mentality. Comes with that anger and when you step on that floor you gotta be ready to battle him."
Therein lies the rub on my favorite player, and now we have come full circle. The Thunder have released Brooks from his contract. I've never seen this team without Brooks and Russell together and while I agree that a change was needed, it's a little scary.
It's been increasingly obvious, even to a Russell homer like me, that Westbrook needs .... more guidance, more control, more understanding of the nuances of the game. Kevin Ollie helped Westbrook early in career, and Derek Fisher was instrumental in moving Russell in the right direction as well, but there is still room for improvement and the man running the ship HAS the importance of doing this particular job right, not to mention how difficult it could be.
Russell is breaking new ground, possibly changing how the PG position is defined for decades to come. He is boldly going where no man has gone before. I get it. But even the Starship Enterprise had a steering wheel.
It has to be said, much of what Russell Westbrook is today has to be credited to Scott Brooks' willingness to let Russell become ....well...Russell. I'm certain whoever GM Sam Presti brings in to replace Brooks is going to come in with a metaphorical bridle ready to rein in some of Westbrook's bad habits that went unchecked under Brooks. Early in his career, this was a reasonable way to unleash Westbrook's exploding talents. Brooks rarely restrained Russell, he just handed him the ball and said go. Like one riding a wild mustang, Brooks would just grab a hunk of mane and sink spur. This unfettered freedom allowed Westbrook to gain confidence and grow. And it worked. For a time. However, after that initial growth phase occurred, Russell needed greater guidance, and it shouldn't have been left to Derek Fisher to do that job. That was Brooks' job.
Westbrook is no clod that needs to be broken like a plow horse. He's a Thoroughbred and he needs to run. The problem was, Brooks didn't teach Westbrook how to always be mindful to run in the right direction, not to mention to not buck off the jockey. I compare Russell to a Thoroughbred as my ultimate compliment for an athlete. My answer to the question of, "Who is the greatest athlete "I" ever saw?" is the race horse Secretariat. Maybe it's because I love horses, but I did see ESPN's top pick in his day. ESPN likes Mike. I like Big Red.
Some context: When Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, he set records in all three races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes) that still stand today. He won the final race, the Belmont, by 31 lengths, shattering a record that had stood for 40 years. The Belmont is the longest and most grueling of the three legs of the Triple crown and Secretariat covered its 1 1/2 miles in 2 minutes 24 seconds, the fastest time EVER recorded on a dirt track, averaging 37.5 mph doing it. The fastest speed ever recorded for a race horse is 43.7 mph covering 2 furlongs, or just 1/4 of a mile. The Preakness, second leg of the triple crown and the shortest, is considered the "speed" race, Secretariat ran its 9.5 furlongs or 1 3/16th mile in 1 minute 53 seconds, or 37.8 mph. Distance race or speed race makes no difference, Secretariat ran one way, pedal to the metal.
Westbrook plays like Secretariat ran. Russ is unique; his teammates swear he could play two games back to back and never tire, and just like Secretariat, it is critical that his competitive spirit never be broken. Russell just has to learn to always play with purpose and direction.
If this season has taught Russell nothing else, it should be this: he can't do this alone. In October, after receiving the news that Kevin Durant was lost for the first part of the season, Westbrook said, "I can't win games by myself. I can't do anything by myself." He may have thought he understood what that meant then, but this season taught him what it really means. He has fulfilled his own prophecy.
Westbrook is ready for the next level, the higher one that acknowledges that humility is like blind justice can drop any man. He wants KD, Serge and all the gang together again so badly, and he sounds like he's ready to start tomorrow if possible. All he needs "now" is the right coach to show him how to make it happen.
I am completely convinced THAT is why Presti is making the coaching change right "now." If this coaching change is like a game of Texas Hold'em, Presti just went all in.
I am so grateful today that the right man trained Secretariat. His name was Lucien Laurin. I feel privileged that I was alive to see the results from that partnership, even if it was just on TV. What a tragedy it would have been had that magnificent athlete been mishandled. Secretariat transcended his sport; people that had never watched a horse race in their lives chanted his name. Secretariat's running at the Belmont was so special that 5,617 winning parimutuel tickets from that race have never been redeemed to this day.
That pretext is why the next 12 months are kind of scary for a Westbrook homer like me. Can Presti find his basketball version of Lucien Laurin? Is there even one out there? When Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, talked Laurin out of retiring, she gave him two colts to work with. The first was Riva Ridge. The second one was Secretariat. The first colt was tall and thin, nervous and edgy. A finicky eater that skipped over the track. Secretariat was just the opposite: big, bold and strong. He dug in deep and pushed off hard and ate everything in sight. Between these two horses, Laurin won 5 of the next 6 Triple Crown races and these two horses had only two things in common: they both had four legs, and they both wanted to win.
Presti's challenge is both simple and difficult. He has to find a coach that can channel all of Westbrook's passion and talent without breaking his spirit while orchestrating a symbiosis with the other Thoroughbreds on the team.
I'll conclude with this.
For those watching the Durant free agency drama and are worried that Brooks' firing will cost the Thunder KD, I counter with this. KD wants a ring. Remember this: before he won the MVP award, KD said he was tired of finishing second. A coach who teaches Russell Westbrook how to discipline his game to a championship level is Presti's best play to keep KD in Thunder blue. Presti is reaching for the brass ring. Remember when Presti basically said, "What KD wants, KD gets"? Durant wants a ring. A coach who can tap into Westbrook's true greatness is the only way that will happen in OKC.
A little bit about me. I'm Oklahoma born and bred. I lost my home in the May 3rd, 1999 tornado and after experiencing what the Oklahoma Standard means first hand, when I say Oklahoma, I say it loud and and I say it proud. The Thunder are now a part of that standard. My motto is: Thunder UP! or go home, and that is why I love to write about the Oklahoma City Thunder.