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Hard pass

An elegy for Russell Westbrook

Everybody who lived in Oklahoma City anytime between 2009 and 2019 has a Russell Westbrook story. Here’s mine.

It’s May 14, 2012. I just moved to the city from Norman and lucked into a ticket to my first NBA playoff game. The two-time champion Kobe Bryant Lakers are in town and they’re old, but still dangerous. They enter a second-round series against the Thunder with a worse regular season record and way more playoffs experience. Outside the Chesapeake Arena, it’s humming. Inside, a stick of dynamite could’ve exploded in Loud City and the crowd would’ve barely registered it. 

The Lakers grab the tipoff, bring the ball up the floor and swing it around the perimeter to Bryant. Except it doesn’t get to him. A 23-year-old Westbrook gambled off his assignment, intercepted the pass and turned it into two transition points quicker than I’d previously thought humanly possible. A baby fanbase spent the rest of the game cheering its impossibly young heroes, watching a historic collection of talent throttle a Lakers squad two seasons off a championship. We were young and unstoppable. Things were looking up. 

What followed was nearly a decade of record-setting basketball and all manner of locker room intrigue. Unforgettable slugfest playoff series against the Grizzlies and Spurs. A very early visit to the NBA Finals. One budding superstar traded as two others made professional leaps to their full potential. Repeat trips to the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant’s defection. The triple-double made routine. 

The first era of Thunder basketball came to a hard stop last month. Sam Presti punched the brakes in July when he traded Paul George to the Clippers for a massive haul of assets and promptly sent Westbrook to Houston to play alongside former Thunder teammate James Harden. (By chance Westbrook happened to be in Tulsa the night he was traded, appearing on the bill for a comedy show hosted by a childhood friend at Cain’s Ballroom.) 

I honestly didn’t think Presti had the stones to do it.  Now we are forced to consider life after Russ. What did he mean to us? What’s his legacy? How deeply weird is it to see him wear a 
red jersey? 

I’ll start with the obvious: Russell Westbrook probably fucking sucked to play against. For a decade he victimized undersized point guards and snatched rebounds from All-Star bigs, scowling and stomping his way across every court in the league. In an era when superstar players merely act their kayfabe night to night, Russ sincerely believed his own, cutting a hard confrontational stance more reminiscent of the NBA’s past than its direct message-happy present. 

He also worked his ass off on the court. For a while, there wasn’t a starting center or power forward in the league he feared at the rim. Opposing coaches would load players up in the paint to counter his explosive athleticism and still he’d rebound an opponent’s missed shot, sprint the floor and try to stuff a nuclear-grade dunk before the defense could set. In his tandem years with Durant, the duo drew so many fouls and were so consistent from the free-throw line that a coherent offensive scheme often wasn’t necessary until the playoffs. 

When Nick Collison retired he said he played his best basketball with Harden. The duo used to run a gorgeous two-man ballet off the bench that typically ended with Harden yamming off a backdoor cut. After Presti traded Harden, Collison was never featured in the Thunder’s second-team offense so prominently—the partner who brought out the best in him gone. 

I feel the same way about Durant leaving sometimes. Russ’s game always thrived in the improvisation of fast breaks, offensive rebounds and the broken plays he often willed back to life with hustle. What better complement to a 6-foot-3 chaos machine than a nimble, 7-foot scoring savant? The league’ll never see a pairing of talent like it again. 

Russ also gets credit for stabilizing the franchise with a herculean MVP effort that filled a massive usage vacuum the season after Durant left. You’re not supposed to make the playoffs when a guy that good leaves. (See last season’s 19-63 Cleveland Cavaliers.) Convincing Paul George to commit to a big contract after the 2017-18 season was huge too, proving that the Thunder could woo a premier talent in free agency. Keeping it around is a different story, it seems. 

But I’ll always love Russ for his fearlessness. He had the courage to make big mistakes, and didn’t shrink away from them after the fact. And his always-on court presence exacted a kind of cosmic pressure on opponents. You’d recognize their same I can’t believe this motherfucker is coming at us again body language late in regular season games. As a fan, it was an incredible thrill. 

I’ll be back in the fall with a primer for the 2019-20 season, but until then let’s all build a little room in our hearts to cherish Russ and the great years of basketball he gave us. 

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