Why do we insist on vilifying Russell Westbrook?
I met Russell Westbrook last year at a UCLA game in southern LA. With the NBA lockout being on, I guess he had a fair bit of free time. His hometown UCLA crowd gave him a rousing welcome – it was clear they recognized him and loved him for the time he and Kevin Love took the Bruins to the Final Four in 2008. Westbrook lapped up the praise from the.adoring crowd, giving an exaggerated wave and grinning broadly. As he cruised out one of the lower tunnels with his posse, my wife nudged me. “You should go meet him!” The crowd was fairly small and I was close to the exit he left through, but I cringed. I was literally wearing a Westbrook jersey over a UCLA t-shirt. As far as fanboys went, I might as well have been wearing a stormtrooper mask and holding a light saber. She prodded me again. “You’ll regret it if you don’t…”
I sighed, but knew she was right. I’ve met a few NBA players in my life.
I met Jason Kidd at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I think he was standing next to Steve Smith, but I didn’t know/care. I only had eyes for J-Kidd, who would later lead my New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals. Unsuccessfully, but still. He was polite, signed an autograph and smiled when I said I was a huge fan of his & Penny Hardaway (they were the Phoenix Suns backcourt at the time).
I met former Raptor (and 36er) Paul Rogers at my basketball practice in year 12. He was gigantic, 7ft tall, and had been invited at the behest of our coach and his mate, former 36er Nathan Hawkes. We all stood there silently, awkward 16 year olds staring up at this gargantuan, elite basketballer.
“What’s wrong with you guys?” Hawkesy chided us, “Aren’t you impressed your coach brought his NBA-player friend along?”
More to end our awkward silence than anything else, I quipped, “Hawkesy, we’re amazed you can bring any friend at all!”
And if you count Mark Bradtke, I met…what’s that? You don’t? Oh. Fair enough.
But when I was 14, I narrowly missed out on meeting history’s greatest point guard – the one and only Magic Johnson.
Magic was on an All-Star tour of Australia post retiring from the NBA (having contracted HIV). Even retired, he was electric on the court. But sadly for the kids hanging over the ropes to try and grab an autograph, he refused. That 1000-watt smile was no solace for hundreds of Australian kids desperate to meet one of the five greatest basketballers of all time. Magic walked off the court without a second thought.
This was all in the back of my mind during this conversation. I removed my Westbrook jersey – no need to be that guy – and trotted off to catch up to him.
Westbrook was standing at the front of the tunnel talking to his guys. I walked up to him. “Hey Russell – I’m Mike. Man, I’m from Australia, just want to let you know you’ve got a lot of fans down there. Hoping to see you guys down in OKC back on the court soon.” Profound stuff.
Westbrook gave my hand the briefest, most cursory shake. He may or may not have made eye contact. He spent that ‘conversation’ looking at his phone, looking to either side of me or mumbling some sort of unconfirmable affirmation, “heythanksman“.
I didn’t bother asking for a photo. He clearly could have cared less about the conversation and his fans. A few people nearby tried something similar. They too got the brush-off.
The Durant Dilemma
One of the biggest problems with both Russell Westbrook in this series – and LeBron James for that matter – is the guy who stands next to Westbrook and across from James – Kevin Durant. Durant, at 23, is the game’s premier scorer – a 3-time scoring champion, 3-time All-NBA First Team member, 3-time NBA All-Star (and 1-time NBA All-Star MVP) and a former Rookie of the Year. In a room full of stars, he still shines brightest. But LeBron and Westbrook don’t suffer because he’s a bigger star, but because Durant ticks the right public boxes. For example:
LeBron James: Held a highly publicised, farcical TV show called, “The Decision” that turned him from the hero of Cleveland into the villain of the entire NBA, brought the phrase, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” into the popular lexicon and billed him as someone who can’t win an NBA title as the best player on his team.
Russell Westbrook: Sulked his way through protracted contract disputes before eventually signing for $80 mil over 5 years.
Kevin Durant: Quietly tweeted his contract extension with the Thunder. No fanfare.
Last quarter shooting:
LeBron James: LeBron? LeBron? Guess he’s gone missing.
Russell Westbrook: Heroball, aka the Kobe Bryant special.
Kevin Durant: Clutch. He gets it, shoots it, scores it, doesn’t change expression. Pure ice.
You get the picture. There are legitimate reasons people don’t like Westbrook and LeBron, but love KD.
My buddy B-Ry and I have been having an ongoing discussion about Russell Westbrook over the last few weeks.
“I hate Russell Westbrook,” B-Ry declares flatly. “HATE him. His job is to get the ball to Kevin Durant. That’s it! Stop taking bad contested jumpshots!” For the record, Magic Johnson agrees with him, calling it the worst performance by a point guard in the NBA Finals
I find this hard to swallow. Westbrook is one of the best 20 player in the league by any calculations. He’s quick, athletic and explosive. He rebounds as well as any point guard we’ve ever seen and legitimately crashes the boards – no Jason Kidd rebounds. He’s a tricky man-on-man defender because of his length, speed, agility and the way he stays close to the ball-handler. Westbrook’s left hand, and particularly the way he finishes with it, is a thing of beauty – he is so skilled with it that he can actually write with his left hand as well. His length also makes him a dangerous zone defender in passing lanes – it’s very hard to break down the Thunder’s defense with passing when Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are sticking their hands anywhere and everywhere.
But there’s no question he does take bad shots on occasion. B-Ry spent a great deal of time furiously breaking down his Game 4 effort against San Antonio in the Conference Finals, which featured bad shooting, a double-dribble and an (admittedly wrongly-called) offensive foul. His open jumpshot is a thing of beauty. His contested jumpshot is an exercise in pulling out your own hair.
The problem for the critics is, he doesn’t play like a ‘pure point guard’. He’s not a Rajon Rondo, whose pass-first gene is so firmly embedded that at times it feels like he’s forgotten how to shoot at all. He’s not Chris Paul, a team leader and facilitator that gets his teammates involved in the very best way before getting himself involved more at the end of games.
He’s Russell Westbrook. He’s unique. He’s an emotional, ‘middle brother’ kind of player who wears his heart on his sleeve, who needs a big brother (Durant) to pick him up when he’s feeling low. When he’s on top of his game he’s an unstoppable force of nature, because he can score in more and different ways than Durant and James Harden, yet he’s a better passer and dribbler than them as well. He doesn’t have the calm, mature demeanour of Durant (the older brother), a man so relaxed that he spent 20 minutes before game 2 signing autographs for OKC fans and leading columnist Bill Simmons to quip that, “I’m starting to wonder if he’s being CGI’ed by Pixar”. He doesn’t have the happy-go-lucky quirkiness of Harden (the younger brother), a man who wears his heart on his beard and his preppy outfits.
No, Westbrook is the kind of guy who wears fish lures on his shirt and bright red glasses that make hipsters cringe. He’s trying to make a statement about who he is amidst a sea of critics who want to pigeonhole him in their own personal description of point guard – including Magic Johnson, a guy who remade the position to fit his image in his time in the league.
The broader context of the vitriol being spewed at Westbrook is an ugly, twisted mirror being held back up to us as society. In what kind of world do we scream at a 23-year old young man who is averaging a staggering 27, 9 & 8 in the NBA Finals (with 1 stl, only 2 TO & a bad-but-not-awful .400 FG%)?
It’s the same world where we tell LeBron he can’t handle fourth quarters, until he shows us we can. So we retreat and look for someone else to blame.
Dwyane Wade! You’re too old and slow. You’ve lost your first step! Start taking better shots.
And then he does. So the sharks start looking for another victim.
Westbrook. You should pass to Durant more! You’re the second-best player, not the best! You’re not a real point guard!
The last 4 minutes of Oklahoma’s game 2 loss to Miami reads like a transcript for how the critics would like Westbrook to play.
• Q4 3:42 Durant misses a hard, contested drive to the bucket. Westbrook hands it off to let him do it.
• Q4 2:10 Chalmers steals the ball from behind as Westbrook brings it up. 3 teammates see it. No one gives him help or lets him know Chalmers is coming.
• Q4 1:47 Durant on the break, 3 on 1, takes it himself when the second pass was a better option. Takes a tough shot, misses, Westbrook cleans up with a putback dunk.
• Q4 1:17 Durant with a bad contested 3, Westbrook with a HUGE tip-save rebound that gives OKC a second chance.
• Q4 0:38 Off a Harden steal, Sefalosha gets a bad pass, gives another bad pass to Westbrook who recovers and flips flawlessly to Durant for an open 3. Net.
• Q4 0:07 Durant takes the last shot to tie the game. He is probably fouled pre-shot by LeBron (it was softer than the internet has made it out to be though). Misses shot. Westbrook flies for the offensive and can’t quite reach it (and is possibly bumped by LeBron). LeBron grabs the rebound and Miami win.
It’s pretty clear that in the above plays, Westbrook is the one making ‘good point guard plays’ and obediently playing second fiddle to Durant. But Durant keeps missing and Westbrook spends some of his time saving Durant’s bacon.
Here’s the problem: how do we consider Westbrook if he lets Durant be the one to continually miss those shots? Do we vilify Durant and praise Westbrook? Is he a necessary evil in order for us to have the golden boy that we want to pour adulation upon?
Or is the truth that we are always looking for someone to bring down? I think that we as society can’t bear the idea that these elite athletes would be regular human beings who simply happen to be exceptional at basketball. We’d rather put them immediately into black and white categories of, ‘hero’ and ‘villain’. Westbrook’s crime is not taking bad shots or being an alternative kind of point guard, his crime is to do that alongside designated hero Kevin Durant. He’s simply filling a specific role for sports fans. It’s the only real explanation for why we watch him rack up phenomenal statistics and a highlight reel as long as our arm, then tear him to pieces on sports shows and in bars and coffee shops.
It’s not fair. But it’s how we choose to look at people.
I saw Westbrook again as I was leaving the stadium. He was with his boys, trying valiantly to find the bathrooms. He looked out of sorts, surrounded by fans whispering and pointing, kids trying to get an autograph, college girls trying to work out if he was famous. This time I did snap a couple of photos.
This is Russell Westbrook to me. A little blurred, a little lost but always moving and always with a sense of purpose.
See really it’s me, not B-Ry, that should be mad at Westbrook. I was the one he snubbed off! How dare he not want a photo with me and to engage in a 10-minute conversation with a complete stranger. Maybe Durant would have done that, why not him!!
But I don’t see Russell Westbrook in black-and-white. I see him in different shades of grey.
Maybe we should consider this tactic for everyone in life we encounter.