On this date last year, Russell Westbrook delivered a brilliant tribute to his fallen friend. Nipsey Hussle had passed away a few days prior after he was shot in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, California. Hussle was a well known rapper and a community figure across South Central Los Angeles, he opened a clothing store in Crenshaw to provide opportunities for those who have limited employment prospects. Hussle engaged in community work with younger people, he spoke candidly about his experiences as a Crip and attempted to provide solutions for young people who have hardship in their life. In the months before his passing, Nipsey was working with the LAPD to find a way to stop gang violence.
Nip’s passing reverberated through the NBA community, it was unfathomable that a man in the prime of his life would be taken in such a callous, brutal way. Hussle was well-connected with a lot of NBA players, his closest connections were with the crop of All-Stars who had come out of Los Angeles in late 2000s. Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden all come out of the same sort of neighbourhoods as Hussle, all three players regarded Nipsey as a brother.
The connection between hip-hop and basketball is long-standing, it goes back to the early days of the genre. Basketball players and hip-hop artists generally grew in the same neighbourhoods and moved in the same circles, basketball has been present in hip-hop since the days of Grandmaster Flash. Biggie Smalls famously rapped about robbing Anthony Mason, the Knicks forward. Clipse, the duo from Virginia, chose to have Peewee Kirkland, a Rucker Park legend, in a music video. Damian Lillard is an All-Star who has two studio albums as Dame D.O.L.L.A.
The death of Hussle was shocking and tributes flowed in from everybody within the NBA community as people grappled with his passing. Oklahoma City had a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on TNT where Russell Westbrook could paint his own tribute. The basketball court would be his canvas and his triple-double would be the mural commemorating the life of his good friend. Without it being known to his team or coach, Westbrook had planned to go for 20/20/20, a triple-double which only Wilt Chamberlain had managed to achieve. It felt fitting, 20/20/20 equalled 60, a number which is associated with Nipsey due to his association with the Rollin’ 60s Crips.
For Westbrook to achieve this goal, a lot of things had to go right for the Thunder. He needed a match-up at point guard that he could dominate and the opposing front-court needed to be fairly small so that Russell could sky in and get rebounds. The Lakers were the ideal team to play on that night in April, Lebron James was out injured and the Lakers were in a troubled state. Nobody had played well since the failed Anthony Davis trade.
Before tip-off, Westbrook sat on the bench and dribbled the ball beneath his legs. As he controlled the ball, he was rapping the lyrics to ‘Grinding All My Life’, one of the most well-known Nipsey Hussle songs. There was a sense that something special would happen but nobody knew quite what would happen.
Westbrook attacked the game with his usual ferocity, he racked up assists in the first quarter as he consistently found his team-mates in the half-court. Westbrook used his speed to attack the defence before it had a chance to set up as he found Adams down low on three consecutive possessions for easy scores. Russell was also effective in using his gravity to create opportunities for team-mates, Westbrook constantly drew help defenders which made swinging the ball to the corner easy. The production in the first half was special on a passing front, Russell was able to find his guys at will, the defence was unable to stop the mercurial point guard from what he wanted.
Although the passing game was working for Russ, his shot was not working correctly. Russell had struggled shooting the ball all season and it was no different against the Lakers, the fabled cotton shot had turned into iron as his shots did not drop. Westbrook’s already erratic three-pointer was even worse, Russell took nine three point attempts and only made two from deep. For the rest of the half, Westbrook continued passing the ball and was already at double digit assists at the interval.
Russell came out of the half in much the same as he has closed the second quarter, he kept finding his team-mates for good scoring opportunities. He had something like sixteen assists before he started hunting his own shot. Westbrook was 2-13 before he dropped in a layup over JaVale McGee, that layup sparked a run where Russell scored eleven points in the quarter. His scoring was starting to come together and his rebounding was immense.
Westbrook rebounds with such energy and force, it is almost like the ball is drawn to him just through his energy alone. His rebounding is not just built off energy though, Westbrook has an innate ability to predict where the ball will land and position himself so that he can secure the board. It is then a question of using his athleticism and strength to grab hold of the ball, a battle which Russell Westbrook wins the majority of time even against much taller players. By the end of the third quarter, Russell had sixteen points, eighteen assists and fourteen rebounds. He was only one rebound away from adding another 15/15/15 game to his accolades but Westbrook wanted more, he wanted to get the 20/20/20.
Westbrook came back into the game with six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers had battled back to narrow the lead, Oklahoma City needed Westbrook to secure the victory. Russell put his head down and started the grind again, he grabbed rebounds like a maniac and found Jerami Grant on a sweet alley-oop. He was just one assist shy of twenty for the game. Westbrook hit two free throws and then dropped in a layup to get onto twenty points, one third of the goal was done. Steven Adams, the Big Kiwi knocked down a jumper to give Westbrook twenty one assists. Russell remained three rebounds shy of his target and would not come out of the game until that goal was achieved.
With the lead secure, Billy Donovan had chosen to empty his bench while Steven Adams was at the line shooting free throws, he did not see a point in leaving his starters on the floor unnecessarily. Donovan made the call to sub Hamidou Diallo in for Russell, Westbrook waved off the sub and stayed in the game. A confused looking Hamidou Diallo walked back to the bench as Westbrook dived in for another offensive rebound. Russell was on nineteen for the game and he did not have to wait long for number twenty. Westbrook did not even attempt to play defence, he sagged off his man and stood in the non-painted area waiting for a rebound to drop into his hands. An Isaac Bonga miss gave Russell the rebound he craved, 20/20/20 was complete, the perfect tribute for Nip.
Westbrook rebounded the ball and shouted that was for Nipsey in memory of his friend. Billy Donovan immediately called a timeout and subbed Westbrook out. In the post-game interview. Russell stated that the triple-double was Nipsey.
It was an amazing tribute by Russell in only a way that he can do, it is one of the best performances which I have seen from him. There have been better games but this game stands out because of the emotional context and what it meant to Russell. There have been a few occasions where Westbrook has let people see his emotions, this game was one of the few occasions. In a historical context, this specific game meant that only Wilt Chamberlain and Russell Westbrook have 20/20/20 games. Wilt’s game came against Detroit in 1968 and then no player was able to achieve the same statistical feat until Russell Westbrook did it against the Lakers, fifty one years later. It is a rare accomplishment that only two men have done, it puts Westbrook into elite company.
As tributes go, it was widely celebrated across the NBA. However, not everybody liked the tribute. There were a few members of the media who felt it was an unnecessary as it promoted the Rollin’ 60s, a notable gang which has caused a lot of violence across South LA. I thought that the tribute was good, Westbrook chose to acknowledge a part of Nipsey that many would have glossed over. It is important to remember those who have passed in the way they were rather than a caricature of themselves.
From my perspective as a fan, it is one of the lasting memories from Westbrook’s last season in Oklahoma City. That final season promised a lot but ultimately under-delivered. Westbrook was central to that, for large stretches of the season his play was below par. His shot was not dropping and yet he continued to shoot the ball a lot from deep. His turnovers felt careless compared to previous seasons, before it seemed like turnovers came when Westbrook was trying to make the killer play. The Russell Westbrook that we had all enjoyed in Oklahoma City had faded and the replacement was way worse. This game was one of the last good moments for Westbrook in a Thunder jersey, it is a game where he did things that nobody else could do just to honour one of his close friends. It is surreal when you think about it and the performance itself makes your hairs stand on end which why I loved watching Russell, he made the impossible seem slightly more realistic.