clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The true grit of Russell Westbrook

New, comments

Passion and perseverance.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

(edited for clarification)

The battered Leuzinger High School gym sits tranquilly in the morning darkness, the peace not yet broken by the noise of another day full of drills, scrimmages, and workouts. A solitary figure moves inside, pushing an old dust mop to prepare the floor for the upcoming day.

This figure, standing at only five feet and nine inches of height and weighing in at a slight 150 pounds, doesn’t possess the physical presence evocative of a top tier basketball player. His frame looks more at home behind the dust mop than in game action, battling for a loose ball or driving into a crowded paint for a layup.

As he finishes his quiet task, he grabs a worn basketball and begins to loosen up. Still long before his teammates arrive for the scheduled daily activities, he is putting himself through drill after drill, honing his dribbling moves, layups, and of course, his pull-up jump shot.

It’s a shot he has taken thousands of times, both on his own and while being run through a regimen of drills by his father. As a small but quick guard, the immediateness in which he activates into the shot allows him to release it unimpeded, no matter the size advantage held by the defender. He has practiced the shot in every way imaginable, trying to simulate the many different ways it could be affected by game situations: off-balance, twisting, moving laterally.

Some days, the shot is an image of consistency, dropping through the net with an expectancy that has christened the jumper as the “cotton shot.” Others, though, the rim seems to have a will equaling that of the shooter, denying shot after shot.

On this day, the latter holds true, as the majority of the attempts clank loudly off of the metal hoop, breaking the stillness of the old building. Despite the seeming futility of the work, however, this young man, with the odds stacked against him, continues, without pause, to stubbornly resist failure or fatigue. To him, there are no off days; every repetition is approached with equal focus and intensity. A missed shot is merely another opportunity to improve.

At the time, few people knew the name of Russell Westbrook, a junior from Lawndale, California. An undersized player whose greatest characteristic doesn’t show up in a stat sheet was entirely unremarkable to the outside world. To those who knew him, though, he possessed a quality that has driven him to the pinnacle of the basketball world: grit.

It’s 2004, and Angela Duckworth, a second year graduate student studying psychology, is asking a long-pondered but as of yet unanswered question: “what differentiates the successful from the unsuccessful?” For thousands of years, philosophers and psychologists have attempted to pinpoint the combinations of characteristics that elevate some individuals above their peers. Largely, these studies have come up dry, or in the best cases, resulted in some vague platitude about talent and hard work.

Duckworth begins her study examining the dropout rate during the first few weeks of attendance at the United States Military Academy at West Point. A highly selective institution, West Point allows only the top tier of applicants, excelling academically, athletically, and socially, to enroll. And yet, despite a rigorous vetting process that not only utilizes physical tests to go along with the standard academic measures, but also requires a letter of recommendation from a member of Congress, a substantial number of accepted applicants drop out during the first seven weeks, a period formally known as “Beast Barracks.”

For decades, the military had attempted to answer this question about distinguishes those who persist and those who do not, employing a psychologist as early as 1955 to studying candidates and determine which characteristics resulted in successful graduation. Despite years of study, using a variety of psychological tests to attempt to understand the psyche of the students, the closest any of the examiners came to a conclusion was that what mattered was “a never-give-up attitude.”

Duckworth wants to go beyond ambiguities, however. She needs a way to quantify whatever the driving characteristic was that powered some people to achieve success while others fell by the wayside.

Along with the data gathered from previous studies at West Point, Duckworth conducts extensive interviews with individuals she considers to be exemplar of success. From the information, she creates a questionnaire to pinpoint exactly what it means to have “grit.”

From this effort, the Grit Scale is born.

For Westbrook, the path to a career as a basketball player doesn’t come easily. Even reaching the collegiate level isn’t a smooth ride. While many top tier recruits are being courted by colleges, Russ is being overlooked and underestimated. An undersized, underskilled guard, whose game is built on athleticism and energy yet has never actually dunked in a game, simply doesn’t catch the attention of recruiters looking for first-year contributors. In fact, he doesn’t receive a college recruitment letter until after his junior season.

The seeming barrier preventing him from reaching his goals doesn’t slow him down, however. If anything, he embraces the resistance, using it as motivation to drive himself harder and harder. When scheduled practices ended, he joins his dad at the park to put up more shots. When he sees better players who need an extra man to play a pickup game, he joins in without hesitation, without worrying about pride, knowing that iron sharpens iron.

The effort he exerts does not go unnoticed; a recruiter at the University of California in Los Angeles starts to watch him progress, realizing that there is something notable about this unnoticed kid. Again, though, a problem stands in the way. UCLA has a full roster, with no available scholarships to offer. Going to school without a scholarship isn’t an option, and so the door seems closed.

Russ doesn’t let this inhibit his work ethic, however. Taking the slights from his doubters personally, he pours himself into his practice. During his senior season, come time for the NBA draft, fortune finally arrives; Jordon Farmar declares for the draft unexpectedly, opening up one last scholarship. The interest of the recruiter there suddenly pays off, an offer is made, and Russ commits.

Once Angela Duckworth develops a metric for measuring grit, the next logical step is to discover how grit is developed. It isn’t enough to say that some people just have the trait (though study has shown a hereditary component to grittiness); knowing how to improve in this skill also matters.

When one takes Duckworth’s quiz to determine their grit score, two key factors emerge amongst the questions: passion and perseverance. While these abstract concepts are encapsulated by many of the motivational platitudes one hears, she digs deeper into understanding what they really mean.

Her discovery is this: passion and perseverance are almost inseparably tied. In fact, almost every individual who takes the grit test has a passion score that mirrors their perseverance score. At first, this might seem odd; passion is often thought to be the intensity of one’s feelings toward something, while perseverance is the continual effort applied. But what Angela discovers in each individual that she interviews is this: the successful people who have demonstrated a clear passion for their work all speak of consistency of time, a commitment with longevity.

In a separate study performed in the early 1900s, a Stanford psychologist named Catherine Cox looked at 301 historical paragons of success. She applied many tests, attempting to find some set of traits that correlated to the degree of achievement reached. As part of this study, she looked at 67 psychological indicators. From this study, only four of the indicators differentiated the successful from the general populous.

o Degree to which he works with distant objects in view (as opposed to living from hand to mouth). Active preparation for later life. Working toward a definite goal.

o Tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something fresh because of novelty. Not “looking for a change”.

o Degree of strength of will or perseverance. Quiet determination to stick to a course once decided upon.

o Tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.

Duckworth sees these four traits within her own test. The first two traits align with the questions regarding passion, while the latter two fit with the perseverance items. It can be seen from these traits how interrelated the two words are. Passion breeds perseverance, and vice versa.

To understand why individuals are gritty, it is imperative to understand these two characteristics. They are the driving force behind grit, and as such, behind those individuals who achieve success.

Russell Westbrook is known for his bizarre fashion choices. He insists that he has never worn the same combination of clothing twice. He believes in apparel as an expression, using his fashion to model his persona. But there are two accessories he never goes without: wristbands with reminders inscribed upon them. One of them holds his personal motto, “Why Not?” The other simply says “RIP KB3”, as a tribute to a high school friend, Khelcey Barrs.

For such small articles of clothing, these wristbands clearly hold important value to Westbrook, and for a man who insists that his wardrobe is in constant evolution, their permanence becomes all the more significant. They are also linked closely to the two attributes of grit, passion and perseverance.

Almost anyone who has watched Russell Westbrook play basketball comes away with the same opinion: he is an exceptionally passionate individual on the court. His emotional fire and fervor leave little doubt.

Even by the less in-the-moment definition outlined in Angela Duckworth’s grit test, however, Westbrook is the poster boy for passion. If we simplify the definition to be “effort with endurance,” there is no doubt that Westbrook fits the mold. And the key to that passion can be found in the letters “RIP KB3.”

Growing up, Khelcey Barrs was Westbrook’s teammate, he was also his best friend off the court. The two were inseparable growing up and dreamed of being teammates one day at UCLA. Tragically, in 2004, after another eye-opening performance in a pick-up game against older competition, Khelcey, considered the better player of the two, died as a result of an enlarged heart. Westbrook had left the gym following the game and it's impossible to know just how deeply he has been affected these past 13 years, not only by the loss of his best friend, but by his absences at the time of passing.

What is clear however, is that Khelcey's death had a profound impact on Westbrook's perspective of the future. It made him see the world through a lens of immediateness; that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Harsh experience has taught Westbrook there may be no second chance, that partial effort is not an option. Every time he has stepped on the court since the day Khelcey Barr died, Westbrook has given everything that he has. Spurred by the reminder on his wrist, Russel Westbrook embodies the true meaning of passion.

The hardship associated with Westbrook’s rise to stardom clearly demonstrates a level of perseverance that is rarely found, even amongst the elite. Perhaps, however, the biggest indicator of how committed he is comes via his personal slogan, “Why Not?” Westbrook does not believe in the concept of impossibility when it comes to personal achievements. He believes that, with enough effort and continually trying, he can push through anything.

After Kevin Durant bolted for an easier path to a championship, it would have been simple for Russ to do the same. The situation he was in, once on the cusp of victory, had been suddenly and irreversibly changed, and few would have faulted him for asking for an out. Instead, he reaffirmed his commitment to his team, signing a contract extension to assure his multi-year presence.

For some, this re-commitment to the team came as a surprise. After all, it had always been assumed that he would be the one to leave Oklahoma City for greener pastures, not Kevin Durant. But perhaps it should have been obvious from the beginning. This wasn’t the first situation of this sort that Westbrook had gone through, and history indicated what his mindset was.

In high school, Westbrook’s team was at a clear economic disadvantage to many of their rivals. A dilapidated gym, cheap warm-up uniforms, and down three players his senior season, it would have been simple for him to transfer, knowing that a college scholarship could depend on how the year played out. He never even considered leaving, however, instead choosing to run with his guys, win or lose.

After having their season ended during the sectional quarterfinals, Russ could barely make it to the locker room due to cramps and exhaustion. When asked about the loss, however, he wasn’t regretful or bitter, instead saying that “the moment, the process, the ups and downs, the bumps and bruises, are special to me”.

Russ isn’t one to give up when circumstances change to restrict him. For that reason, it should have come as no surprise that, when Durant left, Westbrook simply said “I like my team” and stuck it out. For him, he could work and will the team to success, no matter the talent disparity or holes that might plague the roster. And even if the success wasn’t the traditional championship, he would rest at the end of the season knowing he had given everything.

Once Angela Duckworth reaches a conclusion as to how grit is developed, the next concept she examines is why it has such a marked effect on success. To her, the idea that grit is more key than talent, intelligence, or background is telling.

Duckworth decides that grit, or put more applicably, effort, matters so much because it matters twice. Many people have the idea that talent leads to achievement. When someone performs some great task, the automatic response is to exclaim how talented the individual is. Part of this stems from a desire to justify our own failures as individuals; we didn’t reach success, not because of a lack of consistent effort, but because we weren’t born with the stuff required to make it.

From her study, Duckworth outlines a different path to achievement. In this path, talent combines with effort to develop a skill. Talent affects how fast one is able to develop a skill, while effort affects how developed the skill becomes. Once a skill is developed, it takes effort to apply the skill and turn it into an achievement. In this path, effort is applied twice.

She gives the example of a potter. By continuing to mold more pots, the skill of pottery develops. But it is also through the effort of molding more pots that the achievement of, say, becoming the most well-known potter in the world, is achieved. So, “effort builds skill. At the same time, effort makes the skill productive.” Someone twice as talented might reach the same skill level with half the effort, but will not reach the same level of achievement.

Perhaps it is a bit ironic to quote one particular individual, seeing how he showed a clear failing in the perseverance component of grit, but the concept of effort counting twice can be summed up in a quote attributed to Durant (though originally from Tim Notke): “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

When scouting draft picks, something about Russell Westbrook stands out to (then Seattle Supersonics) general manager, Sam Presti. When talking to coaches and teammates, he hears a story about how, every single day, Westbrook walks to the house of Khelcey Barrs to do his chores for the family. A commitment that perhaps would go unnoticed by some speaks deeply to a young GM.

The unwavering commitment to everything he does is a key component of who Westbrook is. Even in the perhaps small things like helping the family of a departed friend, he gives consistent effort. That resolve extends off the court; it is woven into the very fibers of his character.

When draft day came, Presti holds the 4th pick. Many mock drafts recommend taking Jerryd Bayless, saying that his proven skill is more worth the risk than the upside of Westbrook. Even Russ believes that he might be the only one in the greenroom not taken. But Presti sees something in him that can’t easily be taught.

In her book, Duckworth quotes a Harvard psychologist names William James. In an essay titled “The Energies of Men,” he writes that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits” and that “the plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only the very exceptional individuals push to the extremes of use.”

Even among the elite, including the players who achieve the dream of playing in the NBA, it is extremely rare to find a player who pushes the boundaries of their own resources. Even the best typically find times when they give only half effort.

Duckworth also quotes actor Will Smith, speaking on his path into the entertainment elite. He says “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. You got it on me in nice categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things. You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”

That quote could easily have come from Westbrook himself, and it is that aspect of his character that draws Presti to pick him. That no matter the skill disparity, the circumstantial advantages that someone else might hold, Westbrook will not waver in his effort, no matter the task. Skill can be developed, court vision can be trained, but that level of effort can only come from within.

Perhaps the most infamous example of an elite player acknowledging the inconsistent effort given, even at the top, comes from Allen Iverson. Iverson, when asked in a press conference about practice, went on a tirade that will live forever, blowing off that time as inconsequential compared to the actual game.

Russell Westbrook brings a very different mindset to practice. He is known for the being the first player to arrive, the last to leave, and the one to be there when there isn’t anything scheduled. Teammates tell of him waking them up on the plane to review certain aspects of film. To quote assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, “I’ve asked many people, and no one really has had an explanation for this guy. This guy plays with power and speed all the time. Like, all the time. This is kind of a ‘cool’ league. You don’t play like that all the time. He does it all the time. Practice. Preseason games.”

When asked what drives him to put so much effort into every single moment, Westbrook has a simple answer, “I don’t think I’m good enough to relax and be cool.” At the pinnacle of success, when many players would be satisfied with having accomplished things never before done, Russ still sees himself as the skinny little kid who couldn’t even get a scholarship offer, having to work for every ounce of respect.

Following Durant’s free agency announcement, CJ McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers tweeted (prophetically, as it turned out) that Westbrook would average a triple double this past season. Despite the speculations, most of the media doubted his ability to maintain the level of effort required to achieve this feat.

To many, the inhibitor would be the rebounding numbers. For a guard to average double digit rebounds is almost unheard of, particularly when responsible for carrying the team every night. Westbrook is commonly the shortest or second shortest player on the court, battling against guys who might be eight inches taller. And yet, when the ball bounces off the rim, it is normal to see him, a blur of energy, rushing to secure the rebound even if it requires out-jumping nine other players.

While it has been clear since the 4th of July, 2016, that this season would not end in a championship for the Thunder, Westbrook simply doesn’t have it in him to give partial effort. A record that had been considered unbreakable, due in part to a pace and style of play unconducive to gaudy individual statistics, falls with startling room to spare.

Even when games were seemingly out of reach, one thing can be counted on: a Russell Westbrook comeback effort. That doesn’t mean that it is always successful, though often it is, but the flurry of frenetic energy to will his team back into the game is incomparable.

Duckworth concludes her analysis of grit with this straightforward example: a treadmill with a simple posit: that “getting back on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again, is in my view even more reflective of grit.” That, after an individual pushes himself to the point of failure, the passion and perseverance shines through when he doesn’t let that stop him from trying again. Even on the worst day, these people still show up.

Cut to Phoenix, Arizona at midnight. The Oklahoma City Thunder have just suffered a bad loss to the Suns, a game in which Russell Westbrook simply couldn’t make a shot drop. For a player of that caliber, it would be justifiable to chalk it up as an off day, and to simply wait until the next game to give it another shot.

Instead, Russ can be found in the practice gym. He’s achieved many of his goals since those days in the crumbling high school gym. He’s marked his place in basketball infamy, a spot that will never be taken away from him. There are still doubters; there always will be. But as the rest of the world rests, content to wait until another day to try again, Russ is putting up shot after shot, willing the ball to go in despite the fatigue, refusing to accept the premise that he is good enough as is, that there isn’t room for further improvement.

Because that’s who he is. He shows up, every practice, every film session, every game. He gives effort with endurance. He is a model of grit.

If you’d like to learn more about Angela Duckworth’s studies, check out her book - Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance