After a wild off-season, the NBA is back. And nowhere will changes be more evident than in Oklahoma City, where point guard Russell Westbrook has gone all in on his commitment to the new-look, but still tight-knit, Thunder
AFTER THE milquetoast essay and the token text, Russell Westbrook played dominoes. He had started the game early that July 4 morning, as friends and family filled his sunny backyard for a housewarming party, and he did not stop when his phone throbbed with the news he dreaded. A union that spanned eight seasons in Oklahoma City, producing everything but a championship, was over. The goodbye text, which landed in Westbrook's phone a couple of minutes after the first-person essay appeared online, mentioned a desire for a new journey. Kevin Durant was, of all things, a Warrior. "The team that just beat us," Westbrook muttered over dominoes.
His guests had come to toast him—a son of South L.A. on a spread in Beverly Hills—but they did not know what to say, and neither did he. The first call came from Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver, who heard the disbelief in Westbrook's voice. "You have to do your job," Weaver said, "and trust us to do ours." Then OKC power forward Nick Collison, who had been in the private room at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood a week earlier, when Westbrook asked Durant what he could do and how he could change. "He went above and beyond," Collison says. Westbrook offered to fly to the Hamptons mansion where Durant was holding free-agent pitch meetings.
Westbrook and Durant were not best buds, but they were peerless partners, a souped-up Stockton and Malone, transporting a mini market to the big time. Westbrook's closest friends are actually former high school teammates, long-standing wing men like Donnell Beverly and Demetrius (Juice) Deason, who flank him in summer pickup games and play dominoes with him on the Fourth. "He didn't talk much about what happened," says Beverly. Westbrook didn't disparage Durant. He didn't judge him. All he did was take a picture. When Kendrick Perkins played center for the Thunder, he called teammates "cupcake" if he thought they were acting a little soft. Westbrook and Durant adopted the term in jest. Westbrook posted a bittersweet pic on Instagram: three plates of cupcakes topped by red and blue stars and sprinkles.
Durant's departure was distressing enough without the subsequent piling on, several Warriors suggesting that the former MVP had grown weary of his edgy but explosive point guard, eager for the Big Fun promised by Steph Curry & Family. Durant's move morphed into yet another referendum on Westbrook, despite all the assists he'd delivered and arrows he'd absorbed, wearing the black hat while his costar wore white. "I don't know if Russ was hurt," says center Steven Adams, "because he'd never tell me, and he'd definitely never tell you." Adams recalls a litany of ordeals he has endured in recent years. "Russ is always the first person to help," Adams adds. "But if you try to reciprocate, he's the last person to accept help himself." He bears every burden. He betrays no weakness.
"This is professional sports," Westbrook sniffs. "You have to live with it. I just continued about my day." As the afternoon wore on, and more dominoes were played, Beverly turned the topic to Oklahoma City and the franchise left behind. "I like my team," Westbrook told him. "I still really like my team." His tone took Beverly back a decade, to the blank navy thermal sweatshirts they wore in layup lines at Leuzinger High, as rivals from Westchester and Artesia rocked shiny jackets with shoe company logos. Westbrook, desperate for a college scholarship, could have mulled a transfer. "Oh no," he says now, cutting off the question. "No, no, no. That school was where I'm from. It's where my friends went. I was never going to leave. I was never going to be a follower."
Late in his senior season one player quit and two others were ruled academically ineligible. "You can guess how he responded," Beverly says. "'Forget 'em. We'll go with what we got. We'll run with who we have. We'll fight to the end.'" When Leuzinger fell in the sectional quarterfinals, finishing 25--4, Westbrook staggered to the locker room with cramps buckling both legs. Beverly eyed his fuming friend and worried he might slug an opponent. But Westbrook felt oddly at peace. "You don't win a championship every year," he says. "The moment, the process, the ups and downs, the bumps and bruises, are special to me. We didn't win it all, but we became better, we became closer." He savored the struggle. He treasured the crew.
On July 6, Westbrook flew to Oklahoma City to shoot a spot for Jordan Brand. Execs across the league were already speed-dialing the Thunder, convinced they would trade him before he too bolted as a free agent in 2017. After all, Westbrook is 27, from L.A. and loves fashion, and if you dug no deeper, it was easy to connect the dots leading out of town. Westbrook insists that he did not realize on the 6th how Durant's decision would accelerate his own. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, forever jockeying to improve their title shots, Westbrook was doubling down on sinking odds.
He wanted to work out, but the court at Thunder headquarters was being resurfaced, so he drove past the dog-food factory to the old gym where the team had practiced after it moved from Seattle. He told Matt Tumbleson, the p.r. director, to meet him on the floor. Like many in the organization, Tumbleson was tight with Durant and gutted by his exit. Westbrook spent a half hour with Tumbleson.
"We're going to be all right," Westbrook said.
HE NEVER DREAMED he'd reach the NBA, much less become one of its leading men, and in that way he is different from the former prodigies who populate his stratosphere. "I wasn't that good," Westbrook says. "I really wasn't. All I cared about was that my parents didn't have to pay for college. I didn't care where the hell I played after that."
On Dec. 29, 2011, in a home game against the Mavericks, Westbrook started 3 of 11 with seven turnovers. This was one night after he went 0 for 13 and squabbled with Durant on the bench in Memphis. "It was a really tough time for me," Westbrook says. "I was hearing a lot of things." He shot too much. He didn't pass enough. Durant was the savior and he was the foil, getting in the way. "He'd come into my office feeling so beat up," says Weaver. "He didn't understand the criticism. The kid was Brett Favre. Remember how Brett Favre would drop back, see what coverage you were in and believe he could put the ball wherever he wanted. Sometimes he could. Sometimes you'd pick him off and take it to the house. He wasn't Joe Montana. He wasn't Dan Marino. I had to tell Russell, 'Continue to be who you are. Continue to be Brett Favre.'"
Not every exec would say that. Not every coach would allow it. Not every fan base would encourage it. Not with Durant perched on the wing. "He was playing so bad that night against Dallas, I mean really struggling," Weaver recounts. "But our crowd wouldn't leave him. They just stayed with him. I remember this one kid, up in the Loud City section, chanting 'Rus-sell! Rus-sell!' and then everybody started chanting it." Late in the fourth quarter, after a prolonged stint on the bench, Westbrook converted a three-point play and sank a 17-foot jumper to set up a Durant buzzer beater. "I think his career changed that night," Weaver says. "I think it was the defining moment."
Weaver, in another cross-sport comparison, likens the Thunder to the St. Louis Cardinals. Players are protected and eccentricities embraced. Take Westbrook, for instance, who has his own shower, his own parking spot and his own massage table (marked by a pair of sandals) at the training facility. He is not an isolationist. He is a neat freak, shunning tattoos and piercings, chiding rookie Josh Huestis for a messy locker ("We keep it clean here") and Adams for untied shoes. When posing for a picture with his coach, Billy Donovan, he ensures that Donovan is holding the basketball so the logo points toward the camera. He makes self-deprecating references about his OCD tendencies. "Sometimes, when he's not looking, I lie on his table and rub my ass on it," Adams says. The big man must be joking. The last person who swiped Westbrook's parking spot got boxed in for the rest of the day.
His sense of order extends to his daily schedule. Shoot from 9 to 9:30 a.m. Breakfast from 9:30 to 10. "If you're a minute late for anything," says athletic trainer Tony Katzenmeier, "he's tapping his wrist and asking what happened." Lock in, Westbrook tells Katzenmeier, and everybody else. "I've never known someone like this," says guard Anthony Morrow, "who wasn't in the military." Westbrook listens to the same eclectic playlist on the drive to games, calling both of his parents, Russell Sr. and Shannon. Then he calls them again on the way home.
In the off-season he works out at 8 a.m. at Jesse Owens Park in L.A., where his father trained him, and he still does his dad's drills. He is often alone. "I know what to do," Westbrook says. "I don't need a bunch of people around to give me—whatever those people give you." He pays his own bills, a rarity in the NBA, hauling stacks of them into the Thunder lunch room. "This isn't $32," a staffer heard him grouse at a miscalculated invoice. When the team eats dinner on the road, they toss their phones in the middle of the table, so nobody is distracted. The first person to reach for his cell has to pick up the check. Westbrook typically goes home with a free meal. "My life is pretty simple," he says, contrary to the mad dashes and outrageous outfits he shows the public. When Westbrook was younger, he tried to ingratiate himself with Durant, according to those who knew both. But KD was surrounded by a thick circle of friends and associates. By the time Durant streamlined his entourage and attempted to reciprocate, Westbrook had settled down. He lives in the Oklahoma City suburbs with his wife, Nina, whom he met at UCLA. He does not drink. He toils over his clothing designs.
Westbrook's shell is tough, but you know you are cracking it when he starts calling you an "a--hole" or a "piece of s---." You're really getting somewhere when he flips you off. The Thunder have understood this quirk of personality since June 2008, when he swaggered into the Furtado Center in Seattle for the first time. Marc St. Yves, the Sonics' legendary equipment manager, greeted him at the front door. St. Yves wanted to know if Westbrook was going to stick with the number 0 he wore with the Bruins. St. Yves does not remember Westbrook's exact response, but it was something like, "Get my f------ zero ready." St. Yves turned to the security guard and rolled his eyes. "This kid is going to be fun," he said, shaking his head.
He had no idea. St. Yves now cusses Westbrook like a longshoreman and loves him like Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel rolled into one. When St. Yves bought a Western Conference All-Star jersey for Westbrook to autograph two years ago, he pleaded, "Don't write a--hole on this one." That's how you break the shell. "Russell takes a long time to feel comfortable with people, to trust people, but he realizes he has that here," Collison says. "He knows he's been treated well."
A blue-chipper like Durant, saddled with whacked-out expectations since adolescence, could have looked at the last eight years as a ringless disappointment. Westbrook, the kid in the blank thermal begging for a scholarship, never would. "This environment is a huge part of how I got to this point," Westbrook says. "There's a sense of comfort for me here." During nationally televised games Westbrook can come across as chilly in his sideline interviews. But on local broadcasts his demeanor is much warmer, which is no coincidence. In 2012, Thunder sideline reporter Lesley McCaslin challenged Westbrook on his clipped answers. "I have to ask you these questions," McCaslin said, "and you've got to help me out."
Westbrook will never be a garrulous speaker, but he respected McCaslin's candor. During the playoffs last spring McCaslin was pregnant, and Westbrook pestered her about when she was starting maternity leave. She didn't understand why he was so interested. Finally, after a flight from San Antonio to Oklahoma City, Westbrook led McCaslin through the airport parking lot and popped the trunk of his car. Inside was a Maclaren stroller. "He's more human than people would ever think," McCaslin says. "He just doesn't want you to know that." When McCaslin thanked Nina for picking out the stroller, soon to be occupied by baby Hunter, Westbrook's wife laughed. "That wasn't me," she said. "That was all Russell."
Not long after Durant's decision Westbrook returned to Oklahoma City for his annual basketball camp, and general manager Sam Presti met him back at the dog-food gym. The Thunder were prepared to offer Westbrook a maximum contract extension, and if he turned it down, they'd have no choice but to consider those trade offers. "I don't want you to do this because you feel you need to," Presti said. "I want you to do it because you want to." Westbrook could have told Presti that he'd talk about free agency next year, setting up the Summer of Russ, and all the ensuing attention. But Presti had a pretty good feeling that he wouldn't. "One way or another he lets you know where you stand," Adams says, "and he doesn't do it with a whisper. He does it with a few more decibels than that."
For someone who is loath to change, slow to trust and attached to routine, the choice was easy. "You remember the people you've been in the trenches with," Westbrook says. Besides, he'd earn more money in Oklahoma City.
On Aug. 4, Westbrook signed a three-year, $86 million extension, and then ducked into St. Yves's office. An early version of the 2016--17 schedule was out, and Westbrook wanted to see it. Every year he loses himself in the schedule, reviewing hotel choices and departure times. For 30 minutes he studied the document, his eyes burning holes in it. St. Yves didn't ask if he was looking at any games in particular.
He didn't have to.
WESTBROOK IS making the case, impossible as it may be, that the Clippers game on Nov. 2 will mean as much to him as the Warriors game on Nov. 3 or the Timberwolves game on Nov. 5. "Who it is, what day, what time, pickup, not pickup, I only know how to play one way," he says. "There's nothing extra. I don't need it. I already have it. My duty is to give all I have. Other people have to think about competing. I don't. Watch those games and tell me I don't play the same way."
He was a football star first, a heat-seeking tailback, pounding between Pop Warner tackles and looking for linebackers to level. "I liked to hit," Westbrook says, gazing down at the scars that stripe his arms, badges from runs up the middle. "I liked contact." He brought the gridiron to the hardwood, taking no breaks, tolerating no lapses, regarding the T-Wolves just as he does the Dubs. But then a quote is relayed to him from another NBA star he knows well. "I don't pay to watch sporting events, but I would pay to watch Russell Westbrook against Golden State." At this, he unleashes a delirious laugh.
Media and fans are prone to hyperbole, but even Westbrook's peers speculate about his upcoming campaign in terms normally reserved for natural phenomena. They expect him to breathe fire, hottest on Nov. 3, but inextinguishable every other night as well. Can he score 35 points per game? Can he average a triple double? Can he go one-on-four at Oracle Arena and rip the hoop from the stanchion? In a season when the champion appears preordained—and the runner-up as well—Westbrook is the most captivating subject.
There is basis for the hype. When Durant was recovering from foot surgery in early 2015, Westbrook embarked on a two-month offensive binge reminiscent of Oscar Robertson, making 40/15/10 stat lines look commonplace. The everlasting question—What could Durant do if untethered from Westbrook for 82 games?—was suddenly flipped on its head. What could Westbrook do? He can answer that in a couple of different ways, either by turning Oklahoma City into a wildly entertaining if ultimately nonthreatening solo act, or by moving the ball and lifting a young core back toward contention.
"Let's say Russell becomes a one-man wrecking machine, night in and night out: Where's the growth in that?" asks Donovan. "Can you develop the rest of the roster to complement Russell and help Russell? He's so bright. I think he understands the importance of having guys he can rely on."
Sometimes the wrecking ball prevails. In the 2000--01 season Allen Iverson hauled the 76ers to the Finals, with a starting lineup that featured George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Theo Ratliff and Eric Snow. An assistant coach was Maurice Cheeks, now with the Thunder. "We've talked about that team," Donovan says. "Iverson took the majority of the shots and did the scoring. They had great defenders and rebounders. If you look at the stats, there was so much attention on Iverson, they killed teams when he shot and they got offensive rebounds."
Oklahoma City, with its length and toughness, is not so different. Power forward Enes Kanter pulled down 18.5 rebounds per 48 minutes last season, fifth in the NBA, and Adams gathered 12.7. Andre Roberson is a stopper on the wing, and Victor Oladipo, acquired from the Magic in the deal involving Serge Ibaka, is a more dynamic scorer than any of those old Sixers. But for every Iverson there have been countless solo shows who failed to cause a playoff ripple—including Westbrook in '15, when the Thunder missed the postseason. OKC lacks outside scoring, an issue for Westbrook, who figures to find driving lanes clogged. "I have to do what's best for the team," he says. "I have to gauge that. And as a leader you have to gauge how you help other guys get better. I want to make sure everybody feels comfortable about what they're doing."
The Thunder are not making the Finals this year, barring an Iversonian surge, but they are not going to be the 2010 Cavaliers, either. They privately prefer to be compared to the Cardinals, strained as it may be, who lost Albert Pujols in '11 and reached the World Series in '13. Westbrook has never been the franchise face, but he has long prepared for the day. Over the past few years he has watched game film to evaluate his body language and tried to tailor his style of communication depending on the recipient.
"He blasts me all the time because I'm fine with it," Adams says. "He can scream in the middle of a game, 'F--- that!' and we're totally cool. But I see him take another approach with others." The Thunder heard the off-season indictments, that Westbrook is difficult to play alongside, and compared with Curry those claims may be true. But the same used to be said about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, both of whom call Westbrook the current player who most reminds them of their younger selves. "This is the way I look at it," says Kanter. "When he yells at me that I need to do a better job, it's probably because I need to do a better job."
Just as Westbrook will have to strike a balance between carrying teammates and enabling them, he will also need to alternate tongue lashings with attaboys. "All eyes in the room are on him, where they used to be split," Weaver says. "Russell could be the hard charger, and Kevin would go pick guys up. He needs to be a little more understanding, a little more sensitive. I think he will. I think that's in him." Weaver flashes back to Khelcey Barrs, Westbrook's high school teammate and best friend, who died during a pickup game in 2004 and was later found to have an enlarged heart. When Weaver scouted Westbrook four years later, he came across a piece of personal information that froze him. "Do you know that after the boy died, Russell would go over to his grandmother's house and do his chores?" Weaver asks. "Part of the reason we liked him was his compassion."
Super teams are as endearing as hedge funds, so even if Westbrook scowls all season, he will still be the league's darling. Just like that, he and Durant switched hats, not that he gives a damn. "I didn't care about that then, and I won't care about it now," Westbrook says. "Good things, bad things, I'm going to do the same things, like it or love it. Before, nobody liked it, and now everybody loves it. Doesn't matter to me either way."
What does matter is the picnic. One afternoon every September, the Thunder hop on Route 66 and head to Arcadia Farms, 30 miles north. Almost everyone in the organization, plus spouses and children and a few Disney characters, gather on a grassy bluff for food and football, cornhole and karaoke. The first year, Presti counted 60 people under the pine trees. Now, there are more than 250. Westbrook, in a white T-shirt and gray shorts, mirrored sunglasses and red-and-black Jordans, is the Pied Piper. He holds Presti's 18-month-old son, Nicholas. He teaches handshakes to Tumbleson's four-year-old, Teddy. He encourages teammates to mingle. Lock in. Kanter bounds down an inflatable slide. Roberson poses for a caricature. One backup point guard, Cameron Payne, fires a water gun. Another, Ronnie Price, drops a line into a pond. Adams compares mustaches with Captain Hook. ("Bastard," he mutters, defeated.) Oladipo serenades Tinker Bell with "I Believe I Can Fly." ("Any duets here?" he asks, and she rises from her hay bale.)
Westbrook, cradling a football, surveys the folksy tableau. Oladipo and Tinker Bell have moved on from R. Kelly to John Legend. Even when I lose I'm winning, 'cause I give you all of me, and you give me all of you. A year ago Westbrook was running fly patterns with Durant on the bluff, and now he is throwing spirals to Nina. Finally, he fires one deep, into a bouncy house, and kids scatter with terror and glee. Their laughter fills the farm as Westbrook turns to leave, having crashed one fun house, locked in on another.
DURANT'S DEPARTURE WAS DISTRESSING, BUT WESTBROOK BEARS EVERY BURDEN. HE BETRAYS NO WEAKNESS. "THIS IS PROFESSIONAL SPORTS," HE SAYS. "YOU HAVE TO LIVE WITH IT. I JUST CONTINUED ABOUT MY DAY."
WESTBROOK DOESN'T SEE HIS EIGHT YEARS IN OKC AS A RINGLESS DISAPPOINTMENT. "THIS ENVIRONMENT IS A HUGE PART OF HOW I GOT TO THIS POINT," HE SAYS. "THERE'S A SENSE OF COMFORT FOR ME HERE."
JUST LIKE THAT, WESTBROOK AND DURANT SWITCHED HATS, NOT THAT HE GIVES A DAMN: "I DIDN'T CARE ABOUT THAT THEN, AND I WON'T CARE ABOUT IT NOW. GOOD THINGS, BAD THINGS, I'M GOING TO DO THE SAME THINGS, LIKE IT OR LOVE IT."