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Sounds of Thunder: The Year of Russell Westbrook

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“The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.” - Tommy Lasorda

1969 is remembered for man first landing on the moon, 2017 will be remembered as the year Russell Westbrook reached the stars.

One day, many years from now, you may find yourself sitting at a coffee shop reminiscing with friends about the things you’ve seen in your life and the subject of Russell Westbrook’s triple-double season might come up and you will say, “I remember the year Russell Westbrook broke the great Oscar Roberson’s 55 year old single season triple-double record, I saw history made, I saw it happen.”

The question is, will you also be able to say, “It was the same year Westbrook won the MVP award”?

Part I - One of the most unbreakable records of all-time.

To be great is to be misunderstood.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was 55 years ago that Robertson posted the only triple-double season in NBA history. Fifty-five years. Let’s pay homage to and thus gain some perspective of the significance of that period of time. Over half a century. John F. Kennedy was president, and man wouldn’t land on the moon for another 7 years. The Vietnam war had yet to begin and Eleanore Roosevelt was still alive. When Robertson finished his historic season, AT&T was still 3 months away from launching the world’s first communications satellite.

Elvis Pressley was in his heyday and at 15 years old the NBA wasn’t old enough to get a driver’s license. The best computer was big enough to take up 2 floors of a large building and still didn’t contain the memory the device you are reading this article on in the palm of your hand has, and the baddest Corvette on the planet cost just $4000... brand new. Alaska and Hawaii had been states for only three years and the number one movie of the day was Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole.

Oscar Robertson’s record season was so long ago, TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal almost forgot about it in recent comments made after Westbrook led the Thunder to consecutive double-digit come from behind victories over the Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic, the latter a 57 point barrage, the most points ever scored while also achieving a triple-double:

“This guy’s playing historical basketball,” Shaq said. “For many years we’ve been saying (to Westbrook), ‘You shoot too much, you’re selfish, you need to make your teammates better.’ He’s been doing that. This (averaging a triple double) has never been done before. Excuse me, hasn’t been done in a long time. To be in a category like that … for me, it’s Russell, Harden and Kawhi Leonard, right there. But Russell Westbrook, MVP.”

Oscar Robertson’s record season was so long ago, the triple-double as a stat didn’t even exist.

What is sad is the attempt by some to devalue Robertson’s record in order to lessen the impact of Westbrook’s accomplishment. Flippant comments like this “triple-double thing” or “triple-double craze” insult what was once considered by many to be an unbreakable record and a career-defining kind of stat. Fundamental changes in the game, specifically the 126.2 pace of the game in 1962 compared to today’s 96.4, placed Robertson’s record outside the realm of possibility, not unlike how changes in pitching rotations puts Cy Young’s 749 complete games out of reach.

In a recent report, BleacherReport.com adjusted Roberstson’s numbers to today’s pace, and produced 23 pts, 9.5 rebounds, 8.7 assists, in order to relegate his record season to merely honorable mention status in their NBA METRICS 101: BEST SEASONS THAT DIDN'T RESULT IN MVP article dated March 28th, 2017.

Ironically, Robertson’s adjusted numbers are still better than James Harden’s 2014-15 season, #12 on B/R’s list and still begs one very important question. If Robertson’s 1962 feat was no big sticks, why has it taken 55 years break it? Magic couldn’t do it, Bird couldn’t do it. In fact, none of the great guards that have been in the league since Roberson played could do it, including Isaiah Thomas, Jason Kidd, and Lebron James, not even the GOAT, Michael Jordan, could do it. Nobody in 55 years has really come close ... until now.

A Man Who Knows

To better understand the impact of Robertson, and why it is so significant that

Westbrook is the man to have become his statistical equal, we had to find someone who really understands. To do that, it is necessary to leave 2017 and go back in time. Fortunately for WTLC, we have a connection to the past, and we spoke recently with one of Robertson’s 1962 teammates in Cincinnati, Hub Reed, to get his take on on why the Big O’s record has stood unchallenged for so long:

“The rebounds, that is what sets Oscar and Russell apart. Oscar was a tenacious rebounder and Westbrook is just like him. You know, sitting in my recliner and watching Russell night after night, I see the same type of competitor. Russell is a competitor’s competitor. He comes to play every night and he can do things a guy his size shouldn’t be able to do. I’ve never seen him let down just as I never saw Oscar let down. Oscar didn’t care if it was an exhibition game in front of a small town crowd in a high school gym, he gave it everything he had and would do whatever he had to do to help us win.

Oscar grabbing rebounds helped us win just like it helps the Thunder when Russell rebounds and both Oscar and Russell were fearless. They go where other guards don’t want to go to get the ball. Oscar never thought twice about it and I see that same tenacity in Russell.”

That’s why Bleacher Report listed Robertson’s triple-double record #4 among THE 50 MOST UNBREAKABLE RECORDS IN AMERICAN SPORTS in 2011. It was the rebounding obstacle. There will always be great point guards who can average double figures in points and assists, but the rebounding threshold would always put Oscar’s record out of reach.

And yet, even as pundits like Zack Lowe and Colin Cowherd sneer at a 6’3” PG grabbing rebounds, the 10 rebound threshold is still a standard by which we measure big men. They are both turning their collective noses up at the “2 little rebound” difference between Harden and Westbrook because they claim they are only the result of an uncontested rebound advantage Westbrook enjoys. That claim is nothing but a red herring to distract from the significance of this historic season and gets blown completely out of the water, which we will touch on later.

Robertson’s record was not just a basketball record, it was revered more than many of the 50 most unbreakable records in the entire spectrum of American sports. Rocky Marciano retiring the undefeated champ with a 49 and 0 record, and his accomplishment was ranked #42. The man baseball named a pitching trophy after, Cy Young, 749 complete games and 511 wins was #35. Johnny Unitas throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games came in at #12. B/R even ranked the Big O’s record tougher than the Celtics eight consecutive NBA Championships from 1959 to 1966; that amazing feat came in at number 10.

In that 2011 report, the only records Bleacher Report held more sacred than Robertson’s ‘62 season were Jerry Rice’s 22,895 career receiving yards, Joe DiMaggio's 56-Game hit streak, and the creme de la creme, the "Iron Man" Cal Ripken, Jr.’s 2,632 consecutive games played.

So exactly how does a season that produced a record deemed more secure than Babe Ruth’s .690 career slugging percentage unexpectedly get demoted to a lowly honorable mention? It can’t, which begs the question, why would anyone try to?

Even the triple-double, once considered all of the key benchmarks of basketball excellence done once, has somehow lost it’s luster. Why? Could the why be a direct correlation of the who that is sitting on the verge of breaking the Big O’s record and not one of the media’s darlings, namely LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, or James Harden? Is it because breaking that record puts a man that has openly shunned the media at times squarely in the spotlight of an MVP race that members of that same media votes for? or is it because it is the only way to support the completely ridiculous narrative that the MVP can only come from a top 4 team?

The answer to those questions probably varies from one detractor to the next, but one thing is certain. No matter how badly the naysayers wish to disparage it, fifty years from now, Westbrook’s historical record breaking season will be remembered and so will Oscar Robertson.

#WhyNot

Part II - “We Gotta Win”