Strangely enough, I finally read the October 19th Sports Illustrated article about Russell Westbrook almost two hours ago. It was somewhat surreal to read something from a major publication that not only confirmed many of my own opinions concerning Westbrook, but also the level of misunderstanding attributed to him from non-Thunder fans.
I also gleaned a deeper appreciation for Thunder GM Sam Presti and his staff. I know how touched I was when reports surfaced detailing Russell’s poignant dedication to the memory of his late best friend, Khelcey Barrs. For years after Barrs’ untimely death, a dutiful Westbrook would cross the street, where his neighbor once lived and complete his daily chores. With this knowledge and reverence of Russ’ exemplar humanity, I now scoff each time a so-called expert unjustly refers to Russ as selfish or abrasive. And I have bristled at that insidious label ever since... but to learn that Russell’s compassion and selflessness in the wake of tragedy also affected Presti and his staff the same way reaffirmed my belief in their core values.
But as good as this article was, and it was a brilliantly written piece by Lee Jenkins, he missed something in my opinion. Jenkins writes:
On Dec. 29, 2011, in a home game against the Mavericks, Westbrook started 3 of 11 with seven turnovers. This was one night after he went 0 for 13 and squabbled with Durant on the bench in Memphis. “It was a really tough time for me,” Westbrook says. “I was hearing a lot of things.” He shot too much. He didn’t pass enough. Durant was the savior and he was the foil, getting in the way. “He’d come into my office feeling so beat up,” says Weaver. “He didn’t understand the criticism. The kid was Brett Favre. Remember how Brett Favre would drop back, see what coverage you were in and believe he could put the ball wherever he wanted. Sometimes he could. Sometimes you’d pick him off and take it to the house. He wasn’t Joe Montana. He wasn’t Dan Marino. I had to tell Russell, ‘Continue to be who you are. Continue to be Brett Favre.’ ”
Not every exec would say that. Not every coach would allow it. Not every fan base would encourage it. Not with Durant perched on the wing. “He was playing so bad that night against Dallas, I mean really struggling,” Weaver recounts. “But our crowd wouldn’t leave him. They just stayed with him. I remember this one kid, up in the Loud City section, chanting ‘Rus-sell! Rus-sell!’ and then everybody started chanting it.” Late in the fourth quarter, after a prolonged stint on the bench, Westbrook converted a three-point play and sank a 17-foot jumper to set up a Durant buzzer beater. “I think his career changed that night,” Weaver says. “I think it was the defining moment.”
I remember that game as if it happened last night. Russ was pressing hard throughout and the frustration etched upon his face was palpable as he struggled to find his rhythm. The moment Jenkins described will be forever etched in my memory.
Russ had just given the Thunder a two-point lead with three minutes to play. This unforgettable sequence unfolded as an alert Kendrick Perkins wrested the ball from Dirk Nowitzki. A bounding Westbrook then drew a foul from Jason Terry while propelling for a breakaway dunk. Pursuant to the emphatic finish, I can recall him stalking around, preparing for the and-one free throw. Namely, I vividly recollect the fire residing in his wild eyes, before the frenzied pitch of ‘Rus-sell!, ‘Rus-sell!, Rus-sell!!! began.
Like me, the Oklahoma City crowd sensed Westbrook’s frustration, and by the time he reached the foul line the chant had crescendo-ed to a deafening decibel. When the camera zoomed in for a frontal angle, I saw Russell’s eyes soften. He hesitated, and then took a step back. I’ll never forget the way he looked up at the crowd for a brief moment before stepping back to the line. The arena quieted to a still silence and uncontrollably erupted when he sunk the free throw. The dramatics were akin to the climatic scene from a blockbuster movie. The crowd roared like their conquering hero had just netted the winning shot in game 7 of the NBA Finals.
I remember, but more importantly, Russell remembers.
Weaver was right, it was a defining moment. It was one of the many moments Westbrook was likely thinking of July on 6, when he assured Thunder P.R. Director, Matt Tumbleson, “We’re going to be alright.” And it was definitely one of the moments that prompted Westbrook to tell his fans:
"Obviously me being able to come back here is a true blessing. There is nowhere else I'd rather be than Oklahoma City. You guys have basically kind of raised me. I've been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and the bad you supported me through it all. I appreciate it. Definitely want the opportunity to be loyal to you guys. Thank you, guys. I appreciate everything."
"There's no need to wait if you know where you want to be. There's no need to waste time. I'm a straightforward type of guy. I shoot you straight. No need to go back and forth and try to figure out any other options, create this hoopla, rumors and all this stuff. This is where I want to be, and that's what I made the decision based on."
After seven years of following Russ, my take from when he signed an August 4th extension and declared Oklahoma City “basically kind of raised me” and “this is where I want to be,” was that this is his way of acknowledging the people of Oklahoma City are more than fans. They are his friends and in their darkest hour; Russell doesn’t turn his back on a friend. Ever.
In closing I would like to say this. Lee Jenkins, I’m very glad that your viewpoint about Westbrook has changed, but the truth is this; Russell Westbrook has not changed, he has always worn the white hat. The only difference today is that after all these years, the fake white hat with the gaudy blinking lights attached is no longer blocking your view of the real thing.