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The Russell Westbrook Roundtable: Final thoughts and reflections of a Thunder icon

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As a Thunder icon steps away from the franchise he helped build, the WTLC team offers final reflections on the Westbrook experience.

W. Bennett Berry

After 11 seasons of (mostly) great success and good times in an Oklahoma City Thunder uniform, Russell Westbrook was traded on July 11, 2019 to the Houston Rockets. Westbrook said his farewell on Instagram:

And with that we’re left with a lot of memories. Here to talk and rant and ramble about some of their thoughts are members — both past and present — of the WTLC team.

The Team

Dom Flaim

First, an admission. I’m a Russ fan. He’s the main reason I’ve gotten so into the NBA and I’ll be following him in Houston (I’m sure I’ll be around still, you can’t get rid of me that easily, but probably less). That said, the last few hours it’s really hit me because I’ve hated Houston for the last 5 years and I’m trying to reconcile that with still liking the Thunder (and legitimately having my most interest in them in quite a while).

But after thinking more, Russ is where he wants to be and on a team that wants him. So yeah I’ll be a Rockets fan (honestly I’ve got no geographical ties to OKC and generally just cheer for whoever I like, when I feel like it, it’s entertainment right?) and an OKC fan, along with some others. But I think this move ended up the best for all parties assuming CP3 gets moved. Now having said all that...

Westbrook’s 11 years in OKC had so many highs and lows it’s pretty incredible to even think back on a lot of them. I wasn’t around in the early years but in my time here since 2013 they’ve had 3 seasons of heartbreaking injuries, one of the most incredible postseason runs I’ve seen, an MVP race that had me on the edge of my seat and a few years of giant questions.

The biggest thing to me is that Westbrook wasn’t always going to make the “right” play or do what was expected by most, but every single night you knew he was giving everything he had. The one reason I always stuck up for him as most I could is because in sports I’m able to accept errors of commission much more than errors of omission. You’re going to quit or not go hard? Nah, screw that, if I know you’re out there fighting for a win every second that’s a player I can cheer for. From the times he didn’t (so many bizarre late game 3s) to the times he did (the greatest comeback I can remember against the Clippers in game 5) he was full throttle every game.

I’m starting to ramble because 24 hours later this still is very odd, but possibly my favorite memory of Russ in OKC was the Philly game in 2015. No, not the crazy 40 foot buzzer beater at Denver, but the game against Philly when he did this:

OKC needed this game for playoff contention. They ultimately didn’t make it but this game was won in OT, and this was 5 days after Westbrook broke his face. He actually had a dent in his face from a full speed knee shot, and played. He wasn’t going to stop for anyone or anything and that embodied his attitude in OKC. Its painful seeing my favorite player go to what (was) a hated rival, but I’ll be cheering for Houston now too. Hopefully (to me) Russ’s never ending energy can help the Rockets achieve their goal. And at the same time, all OKC got back for him can help them achieve theirs.

Mark Bruty

Russell Westbrook has been a polarising yet important figure in NBA history, as well as being iconic for the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise and Oklahoma City as a city. In many ways, he is a somewhat relatable superstar. Talented but never highly touted, had to really work hard to get noticed, a family man who hasn’t dated supermodels or made headlines for nightclub incidents. But rather, a doting partner and now father and husband.

Russ has a fire which CANNOT be extinguished. He wears his heart on his sleeve, always gives you everything he has, never gives up and cares (sometimes to a fault). These traits are what made us fall in love with Russ. It’s also what made this relationship so volatile and ‘love/hate’ at times. It was a genuine relationship with a genuine person. Warts and all.

I’ve had a number of favourite players over the 30 years I’ve supported the game of basketball - Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Gary Payton, Allen Iverson and... Russell Westbrook. In many ways, Russ is the culmination of all my childhood heroes. Perfectly imperfect — but built with such fire and such desire, you found it hard not to root for him. What he has been able to accomplish in basketball is nothing short of incredible. It will see him finish his career as a Hall of Famer and I can only hope that he comes back one day a la Dwyane Wade for a farewell season where he belongs. In OKC.

When OKC needed him, Russ answered the call. When they were down and out during games, when players left, when it was a dogfight — he was there. He stayed loyal and wanted to bring everyone along with him on the journey, when others found an easier way to achieve their goals. He’s never shied away from criticism, from the spotlight, from being accountable, from the pressure of being THE man OR deferring and allowing others to be the man. For every poor shot, he made a good one. For every game he shot us out of contention, he won games for us. Every win, every loss, every game was for OKC — the franchise, the fans, the City.

I’m devastated to see Russ go. I have accepted that it was time for a fresh start, I’m glad Russ has a chance to reunite with a friend and ex-teammate and I am glad that others will get to experience his greatness the way we have (even though — and it’s a gross generalisation — but Houston fans seriously do NOT deserve Russ). As OKC will once again look to rebuild and rise, and we will, I am sure going to enjoy Russ regardless of where he plays. He has earned that level of respect.

When the Rockets return to Chesapeake Arena, with Russ and Harden as their starting backcourt, I hope every single fan in attendance stands and supports someone who means infinitely more to this Thunder team and franchise than we can ever truly appreciate.

Reid Belew

How do you sum it all up? The strong sense of humanity that came with the Westbrook Experience resonated most with me. Russ is a deeply flawed, deeply talented player. Those two sides of him were always dueling, and something about that is easy to relate with. All of us have these deep flaws that are sitting next to our deep wells of strength. But what made Russ special is that he eclipsed them all, and despite his flaws, threw everything he had at everything—including said flaws. There’s some message in there about not letting your shortcomings define you and instead hammering, hammering, hammering them into the ground with some sort of controlled abandon.

The poetry of his first triple double season will stick with me forever. It’s one of my favorite sports happenings.

Russ made me fall in love with the NBA again. And though he maddened me to no end, he was my player to be mad at. When others criticized him, I became one of the annoying Westbrook defenders. It’s not that they were wrong, it’s that he was my guy.

I’ll be cheering him on in Houston. No doubt about it.

Ben Mertens

Perhaps unexpectedly for someone who now writes (and cares deeply) about the Thunder, the team that got me back into basketball was the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. Their quest for history got me back to following the league closely after I’d drifted away for a few years. I wasn’t particularly rooting for them or against them, but I was intrigued by their run. And then the conference finals happened, and I was surprised, and delighted to see that the Oklahoma City Thunder not only were unafraid of this would be juggernaut- they straight up thought they were better than the Warriors. It was clear where that energy and attitude flowed from- their fiery leader, #0, Russell Westbrook. The Thunder backed Golden State into a corner, and while they ultimately choked the series a way, their team, and Westbrook, won over a formally neutral fan. It’s probably odd to become a fan of a player because of a series that many people would consider his lowest moment (he choked! he chased Durant [who shot just as poorly] out of town! etc), but I knew what I saw in Russ. I will always be a fan of the hero who refuses to back down in the face of long or even impossible odds- who better fills that archetype than Russell Westbrook? For better or for worse, no odds have ever been too long for Russ.

And so I was fully on board for everything that followed- the unbelievable 2016-17 season where Russ deservedly took home the MVP, the nightly triple doubles, another series where OKC fell short against a stronger opponent as Russ- for better and for worse- tried to force his way to victory through sheer force of will. During the next season I got the chance to start writing for Welcome to Loud City, and the following season I got to take my first trip to Loud City itself. Russ was, directly and indirectly, responsible for a ton of joy and opportunity in my life, and for that, flaws, warts, true shooting percentage and all, he goes down as my favorite player. I think a lot of others feel a similar way. Anyone who kept hustling even when their team was out of the game, anyone who refused to back down when things were difficult, and anyone whose response to being told “no” was “Why Not?”, saw a kindred spirit in Russell Westbrook.

I fell in love with the Thunder as a team too, and I’m excited to chronicle their rebuild and eventual return to contention. But I’ll always, always cheer for Russ and I hope he gets the championship he deserves in Houston. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch his MVP highlight reel until I start crying.

Nile McNair

Like almost every superstar in the NBA, Russell Westbrook brought some negatives to the table, and his negatives are probably part of the reason OKC is rebuilding. However, Russ was the heart of OKC, the franchise player that the city and organization fell in love with.

Something nobody can take away from Westbrook is he gave it his all every night and was highly entertaining in doing so. My favorite Westbrook memory will forever be during his MVP season, the 50 point triple double versus the Nuggets, when personally brought the Thunder back and then closed the game with that three from way downtown.

Russ will be missed can’t wait to see his number get retired and eventually probably get a statue in front of the arena.

The “Enemy”

Kevin Nesgoda (EiC of Sonics Rising)

I might have been the first person to step up onto the “you can’t win with Westbrook” podium and have been preaching this I saw him passing over too many open shots of his teammates in the 2011 series against the Grizzlies. I remember Brooks calling a timeout and trying to talk to Russ and Russ just blew him off after he missed a wide-open Durant on three straight trips. This was a trend that continued over the years and has not really stopped. Yes, he averages a triple-double now, but at the same time, it always seemed like he was trying to get his. You check my Twitter there are numerous posts of me saying that I am so happy he never wore the Sonics uniform and I stand by that. Having Russ on my team would have driven me nuts.

In saying all of that, you can’t deny his fire and passion for the game and how he united the State of Oklahoma around the franchise that was stolen from Seattle. He gave the team swagger that it had no business having. He gave the community a sense of identity and became the focal point of Oklahoma sports. I have no doubt that Russ will have the biggest statue ever built for any Thunder player outside of the arena or hell he might deserve a 75-foot fountain statue in the heart of downtown. All I have to say is let Russ design it. He deserves it and he’s earned it.

The alumni

Marina Mangiaracina

Never have I seen such passion, such athleticism, and such guile all rolled into a single player. It’s impossible to think of Russell Westbrook in terms of comparison to any modern-era NBA star. He broke the rules and redefined the game in his own way. In an era where shooters are valued, Russ has been a top tier scoring threat at the smallest position on the floor using sheer force of will.

Russ defied metrics, and anybody watching him couldn’t help but holding onto the edge of their seat. Would this be the game where Russ pulls off unthinkable moves, salvaging his team from certain defeat? Or would tonight be a night where Russ’ ship is dead in the water, guns blazing as they rapidly sink? Either way, it was a visceral and emotional experience, one that left you wondering about your cardio health.

How could someone so badass be so wholesome, so lovable? The devil-may-care fashion sense, the catty interviews, and the reckless play never seemed to make Russ unlikeable. There were never any scandals; by all accounts Russ is an ideal citizen. But no one could call him boring, nor could anyone label him as a goody two shoes. Russ embodied the inner flamboyant hero in all of us; not perfect, but sincere and earnest.

No NBA title can be equated with the exceptional honour of living and dying with Russell Westbrook. You can have your hardware, your dominance. But Russ gave us something to cheer for every single freaking game. For passionate, die hard fans, what could be sweeter? It’s not the destination, after all. It’s the journey.

Bennett Berry

Oklahoma has alway been a place that’s centered around sports, starting with the emergence of OU football with the specific intent to give us some sense of pride after the dust bowl and “The Grapes of Wrath.” We’ve always been a place that’s had a chip on our shoulder, a place that’s valued work ethic above all else, and that’s valued loyalty. We have our faults, but on the whole we’re a solid, salt of the earth people. That’s why we took to Russ, we could see our collective selves in him. He had the same chip on his shoulder, the same work ethic, and, at times, the same imperfections.

I can’t remember the season it happened, but I was at the game. He was having a tough run, and while at the free-throw line the crowd spontaneously starting chanting, “RUSSELL…RUSSELL…” That’s when he became the face of the franchise and of the city.

There was some doubt on our end when it came to his first opportunity to leave, shortly after KD left. He didn’t let us down. There was a second opportunity, and he proved that he was one of us. Things have changed, his window is closing and OKC window for winning a championship is all but shut with PG leaving. As bittersweet as it is, I know that it’s time for OKC to rebuild and for Russ to go and get that ring. Regardless of what happens going forward, he’ll always be loved in OKC for what he did off and on the court more than he could ever know.

Finally, one more Photoshop for the road:

W. Bennett Berry

Joshua Broom

As WTLC managing editor during Russ’ MVP season, my days became an exercise in chronicling the latest Westbrook moment. Nothing could compare. From opening tip that year Russ was hell bent on resurrecting the state of Oklahoma after Kevin Durant’s ‘decision.’ With every buzzer-beater, nutmeg pass, fearless coast-to-coast dunk and, yes, triple double in 2017, Westbrook transcended statistical output and reached heights reserved for the boldest. Beyond basketball, but through it, Russ showed anyone who witnessed his NBA-altering journey what’s possible.

It’s a rare, beautiful thing when human spirit overshadows MVP awards, scoring titles and longstanding triple double records. Always original, Russ’ improviso breathed in an 82-game zen rush while he lived those intangibles we hope our children gain through sport. For one season, especially, he gave us a glimpse into the unknown.

In his wake undeniable memories and fresh records live.

Yes, Russ is now a Rocket -still seems foreign- but his best will remain in Oklahoma City. And I’d have to think Oklahoma City’s best will remain in him.

To me and many others, Russell Westbrook’s impact as a Thunder cannot be quantified by one intrinsic or extrinsic factor. Russ was and is a free-wheeling, human force. He was also the superstar that gave us everything.

For that, I’ll always consider journaling Westbrook’s MVP march as one of those rare times in life my fortunes aligned. From a personal sport-viewership perspective the 16-17 Thunder season became surreal.

Happy trails, Russ.

J.A. Sherman

In my other, non-J.A. Sherman world, I manage editorial teams very much like WTLC, and our unofficial editorial mission is to document the disruption of industry.

Covering Westbrook’s career over the past decade certainly qualifies as “documenting the disruption of industry.”

Back in 2010, I didn’t know what I was in for, honestly. We as NBA fans and onlookers tend to process the advancement of the game analytically, but we evaluate players analogically. Player A is like Player B because of X, but not like Player C because of Y. Even as we use advanced metrics to stack up players along side each other to try and calculate a fantasy sports rubric, there is still an intrinsic humanity to players that isn’t quantifiable yet completely essential.

To borrow a phrase from another pioneer, the secret to basketball is, it’s not about basketball. The primal element has to be examined within the moments of the game, under a variety of circumstances, and with a variety of teammates, coaches and fans. But this, I would argue, is what makes the NBA a rare and uncommon sporting experience. And what makes Westbrook unlike any other, because he is a unique and wholly human event — torn body tissue, broken bones, scars...ascendence — unto himself.

When Westbrook retires one day, and we individually and collectively decide what our future relationship with the NBA experience will be, one thing is certain. For a decade, we got to experience a true original, Westbrook Prime, and through it we encountered an event and a community, drawn together, unlike anything else.