Following the departure of his superstar teammate, Russell Westbrook was left to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder all by himself. That’s when something special happened.
In Philadelphia, before the first game of the N.B.A. season, Russell Westbrook worked through his warm-up routine. He was loose and laughing but — as always — precise. Westbrook’s internal clock had driven him to be the first player out on the court, a full three hours before tipoff, and he was performing his routine in front of a largely empty arena. He started with chip-ins and free throws, easy stuff to get his body going, and then moved on to his signature shot: the pull-up jumper. Westbrook’s pull-up is one of modern basketball’s most recognizable weapons — if not yet quite on the level of Kareem’s skyhook or Jordan’s turnaround or Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway, then at least at the edge of that territory. The move is a surprise attack. Westbrook is unreasonably fast and aggressive, a flying, screaming whirlwind of ferocious highlight dunks, and he charges the hoop with so much raging menace that defenders have no choice but to scramble backward to try to stop him. That’s when he hits them with the pull-up: He stops instantly and — while the defender’s momentum continues to drag him backward — leaps perfectly straight into the air, like a fighter pilot ejecting from his cockpit to escape an explosion, except that Russell Westbrook is the explosion: He is the explosion and the control all at once. The whole thing seems to defy the laws of motion. Growing up in Los Angeles, Westbrook practiced this move so many tens of thousands of times on the playground that he and his father referred to it as “the cotton shot,” because they always expected it to go through the net.
Now, in Philadelphia, in front of the ushers and ball boys, Westbrook practiced his cotton shot. He backed up almost to half-court, squared his huge shoulders, dipped, charged, stopped, rose, fired — and missed. He backed up and tried again. Again he missed.
It was only warm-ups, but everything surrounding Westbrook in that moment seemed historic, and the misses struck me as a bad sign. I watched him shoot 11 times from the same spot and make only three. At one point, he missed five in a row. Russell Westbrook was cold. The cotton shot, at a very inconvenient moment, seemed to have turned to iron.
As season openers go, this game was unusually loaded with expectations. It was a sort of Independence Day: the first game of Westbrook’s professional career without Kevin Durant as his teammate. For eight seasons, Westbrook and Durant were one of the great inscrutable duos in all of sports, superstars with wildly opposing personalities and playing styles, overachieving together in Oklahoma City, one of the smallest markets in the N.B.A. Durant was basketball’s greatest prodigy since LeBron James, a mild-mannered, long-limbed scoring genius with a baby face and a golden jump shot. Westbrook was the scowling underdog on a never-ending mission to prove the entire universe wrong.
On the scale of creative tension, Westbrook-Durant fell somewhere between Lennon-McCartney and Goofus-Gallant. They clashed and blended, encouraged and diminished one another, in ways that were hard to parse. Durant led the league in scoring; Westbrook led the league in turnovers. Durant was the metronome; Westbrook the guitar solo. Durant was the scenic cliff; Westbrook the waterfall raging primally over the top of it. Occasionally, TV cameras would catch the two of them squabbling during a timeout, but they always appeared at the media table together afterward to insist that they were friends and brothers. Durant once called Westbrook his “hype man” — the Flavor Flav to his Chuck D. The whole relationship was a puzzle. Were they real friends, work friends, secret rivals, frenemies, secret real-world frenemies? On sports TV, Westbrook and Durant inspired as much talking-head bloviation as a celebrity affair.
The most surprising thing about the partnership, however, was how well it worked. Westbrook and Durant turned the Oklahoma City Thunder, against all odds, into one of the reigning powers in the N.B.A. In 2012, when both stars were still only 23 — an age at which most players are just beginning to find their footing — the Thunder made it all the way to the finals. In a six-year span, they reached the Western Conference finals four times. (It took major injuries to keep them out.) The only thing Durant and Westbrook never did together was win a championship. They came agonizingly close, including last season, when they held a 3-1 lead in the playoffs against the mighty Golden State Warriors. But they never could quite push over the top. Still, it seemed inevitable that their day would eventually come.
Until last July, when Durant blew everyone’s minds by leaving Westbrook, suddenly and gracelessly, to join the aforementioned Warriors, making their superteam even more super. Just like that, Westbrook was on his own. The hype man was out front. And anyone who knew anything about basketball was dying to see what would happen next. It seemed less like a question of sports than a Zen koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
If anyone could answer that, could explore its full range of sonic possibilities, it was Russell Westbrook. The sound might be wonderful or terrible, or wonderfully terrible, or it might be nothing at all. The only certainty was that we were all about to hear it, at maximum volume, for an entire season.
That night in Philadelphia, Westbrook’s poor warm-up shooting carried over into the game, not only for himself but also for his teammates. He was setting players up for easy shots — layups and open threes — but they kept blowing them. When Westbrook tried on his own, his luck was no better. He missed tough contested jumpers, drove into crowds of defenders and was blocked, forced passes and threw the ball away. The 76ers were widely expected to be the worst team in the league this season, but after five minutes they led the Thunder 16-5. The Philadelphia crowd was going crazy.
“He scared!” the people behind me kept screaming.
This storm of negativity triggered one of those Westbrook moments when he seems to pop out of space-time. Off a Sixers turnover, Westbrook took the ball near half-court, charged toward the rim, drew a hard foul and still somehow exploded forward, twisting between two defenders, to toss in a layup from a steep angle. He stood there for a second after the whistle, berating the crowd. A courtside fan — a bespectacled white man in a bulging Allen Iverson jersey — screamed back at Westbrook and flipped him off with both hands.
Westbrook’s face, in happy moments, is smooth and boyish, with deep dimples and a classic beauty mark on his cheek; his facial hair grows in tiny sparse wisps that suggest an eighth grader who hasn’t yet learned how to shave. (Westbrook claims that he has never actually shaved.) But now his sweet face changed. The bright, round eyes narrowed and darkened; the lips twisted into a sneer. Westbrook, when he needs it, has weapons-grade powers of stinkface, and he unleashed their full nuclear payload on the fan. He pointed him out to the referees in disgusted disbelief. Security came to escort the man away. Westbrook was still shaking his head in fury as he stepped up to make the free throw, and on the next few possessions he seemed lit up by anger, driving and passing and scoring so relentlessly that the fans behind me stopped taunting him and grew quiet, then started complaining about the man in the Iverson jersey, asking why the hell he had thought it was a good idea to antagonize Westbrook in the first place. Animated by rage, Westbrook carried his team, and by halftime the score was tied. Westbrook walked off the floor cursing fiercely.
The second half brought plenty more to be angry about. No one but Westbrook could create anything, and no one could finish the things he created. After OKC’s center, Steven Adams, managed to miss an easy alley-oop Westbrook had set him up for, the crowd started chanting: “K.D. LEFT YOU!” (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) “K.D. LEFT YOU!” So Westbrook started shooting, and — just as he had in warm-ups — he missed and he missed, but still he didn’t stop. At all times, Westbrook surfs right on the perilous line between confidence and recklessness, and tonight he was surfing and wiping out hard, only to get back up and immediately wipe out again.
With just under three minutes left and the Thunder trailing by 3 points, Westbrook dribbled hard at the basket and, without any apparent shadow of self-doubt, stopped to rise for a pull-up jumper — precisely the shot I had watched him clank so many times before the game. Now, however, he made it, and then with around a minute left he did it again, giving the Thunder the lead, and in the end, as the crowd gurgled on its own disappointment, the Thunder won by 6 points. Westbrook’s final stat line was dangerously overstuffed: 32 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists. He should probably have had closer to 15 assists, but that stat depends largely on the skill of the players around you, and with this group, nine seemed like a minor miracle.
After the game, Westbrook sat at his locker wearing only a towel, with the veins bulging out of his legs so hard he looked like a map of the human circulatory system. (Joe Sharpe, the Thunder’s head trainer, told me that Westbrook could probably be a bodybuilder if he wanted to.) Slowly, while the media watched in silence, Westbrook started getting dressed. He put on underwear covered with the words “Why Not?” — Westbrook’s personal slogan, which he invokes to justify everything from his fashion choices to his shot selection. (As he tweeted once, apropos of nothing: “WHYNOT?!!! #whynot #whynot”) He pulled on a pair of skinny black jeans, ripped at the knees, then a bright yellow sweatshirt that said, on the front, “Paranormal: Out of the Ordinary.” Over this he put on a denim jacket.
It was, I thought, an interesting outfit.
But there was one more piece, and it was the coup de grâce: Over his jeans, Westbrook pulled on a kilt.
He rubbed some Vaseline on his face and turned to face the media for an official round of questions. As usual, he spoke to the reporters without ever looking at them. It was as if he were being interviewed by the locker-room door, with which he maintained fierce eye contact, with occasional follow-up questions from the ceiling tiles or the carpet.
Why are you wearing a kilt? someone asked.
“Why not?” Westbrook said.
And so began life after Kevin Durant.
Westbrook’s season has a chance to be historic because of one magical statistic: the triple-double. A triple-double means, simply, that a player has reached double figures in three major categories during the course of a game — almost always points, rebounds and assists. If that sounds like dry math, it is not. In the N.B.A., the triple-double is a sacred threshold of excellence.
Triple-doubles are difficult and rare. You don’t stumble into one — it takes a special kind of player, a dominant generalist. Even the outliers capable of achieving them tend to get only a handful per year; Magic Johnson, the modern king of the stat, got 18 in his best season. A triple-double is not a statistical parlor trick, like hitting for the cycle in baseball. It actually captures the essence of basketball, the way the game allows every player to do everything on the floor whenever the opportunity arises. To get a triple-double, a player has to control the action physically, strategically and socially; he has to become a funnel through which the energy of an entire game pours.
Westbrook has always had the potential to ring up triple-doubles, and in past seasons he has put together impressive flurries of them. This season, he has gone bananas. Some games, it feels as if Westbrook’s stats are moving in fast-forward — as if he is pulling numbers out of wormholes that only he can access. One night, Westbrook generated 10 assists in only 15 minutes; another, he finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 22 assists — totals not seen since Johnson himself. For years, the popular narrative stressed how much Durant was sacrificing to fit in next to Westbrook. It has become clear that the opposite was certainly just as true.
Westbrook is now playing against history. The Holy Grail of triple-doubling is not just to pile up a ridiculous number of them but to actually average a triple-double for an entire season. This has only happened once, in 1961-62, when Oscar Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists — numbers straight from the mouth of God. Until recently, his feat seemed as untouchable as DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Wilt’s 100-point game. Matching Robertson’s record is doubly tricky because not only was he an aberrant superfreak, he also happened to play in an unusually fast era, when teams flew up and down the court generating extra possessions in which to rack up gaudy statistics. Today’s players are limited by the modern game’s slow pace. Even LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation and someone whose gifts seem precision-engineered to produce triple-doubles — size for rebounding, vision for assists, speed and agility for scoring — has never come close to averaging one for an entire season. That’s how basketball works: There are unavoidable trade-offs, pragmatic allocations of resources. Averaging a triple-double is like having a helicopter that is also a boat that can also write the Great American Novel. It is more than just an engineering impossibility — it is an existential cheat.
When Durant left last summer, some fans speculated that Westbrook might have a chance to pull this madness off. Rational people, myself included, responded with scornful laughter. It was absurd, particularly for a player who was only 6-foot-3 and surrounded by mediocre shooters. To actually average a triple-double would be not only historic and impressive but also a little weird, almost disturbing.
But this is where we have to take into account Russell Westbrook’s personality.
“He’s a different dude,” Anthony Morrow, a Thunder shooting guard, told me.
“He’s weird, yeah,” Steven Adams said. He paused. “Bizarre.” He paused again. “Not normal.”
Westbrook is not merely a superelite athlete (he is commonly referred to as the most athletic player in the N.B.A.); he also has a highly unusual mind. He is moody, stubborn, loyal and fiercely private, a control freak and a perfectionist. Outside a very small circle of family and friends, he refuses to be known. The triple-doubles, their sheer unreasonableness, are as much a reflection of this personality as of any particular basketball skills. Each time he registers one it is like a signal — a ping from the sealed box of his private mind.
Russell Westbrook III grew up 1,300 miles from Oklahoma City, in Los Angeles. He was born in 1988, under the smiling moon of Magic Johnson. Westbrook’s father, Russell Westbrook Jr., worked at a bread factory and played basketball in his free time on the local playgrounds. When I asked Westbrook III what kind of player his dad was, he burst into laughter.
“Player?” he said. “Player!?” It was as if he had never thought of his father that way before. “Man, they argued the whole time,” he said. “That’s what I remember most. They played for five minutes and argued for 40 minutes. All day.”
Westbrook’s father was strict and devoted, determined above all to keep his family out of the way of trouble. When Westbrook showed an interest in basketball, his father devised endless drills that they ran through, just the two of them, for hours at a time. They focused on the midrange jumper, the cotton shot, practicing it off one foot and two feet, on the move and standing still. Westbrook learned to identify all the possible ways you can mess the shot up: being off balance, moving too fast, not having your feet set. “A lot of times, I make it when those things are not right,” he said. “That’s all my dad. That’s all him and myself, basically.”
Westbrook constantly invokes his family — his parents, his brother, his wife — to explain why he is the way he is, but he won’t allow reporters to talk to them. When I asked if I could speak with his father or brother, he told me he would ask his mother instead — and then added, immediately: “My mom never talks. She never talks. She doesn’t like to talk.” (I never spoke with her.)
As a high school player, Westbrook was spectacularly unheralded. He was the shortest kid on his team, not even able to dunk until his senior year. Although he already possessed most of the qualities that would eventually make him great — the crazy speed and fearlessness, the motor that never stopped — basketball was fundamentally a game of size, and Westbrook didn’t have it. A lifetime of arguing on playgrounds looked as if it might be his best case.
Then came a miraculous growth spurt. Toward the end of high school, Westbrook shot up seven inches, from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-3. Suddenly, all his intangible gifts were attached to formidable size. Westbrook was still not an elite recruit — it was too late for that — but he was good enough to earn a last-minute scholarship to U.C.L.A. after one of its star players declared unexpectedly for the N.B.A. draft. Westbrook was a bench player, a defensive specialist; his job was to enter the game and wreak havoc. During his freshman year, he averaged only nine minutes and 3 points a game. That same year, at the University of Texas, the freshman Kevin Durant was playing 36 minutes a game and averaging 26 points and 11 rebounds — by many reckonings, the greatest freshman year in N.C.A.A. basketball history.
During his sophomore year, Westbrook played more of a central role at U.C.L.A., and his powerful dunks made him a hero of ESPN highlight reels. Still, no one was in danger of confusing him with Kevin Durant, who was by then winning N.B.A. Rookie of the Year. Westbrook’s second-year averages remained relatively modest — 13 points, four assists, four rebounds — but it was enough to entice the Seattle SuperSonics (soon to be, scandalously, the Oklahoma City Thunder) to take him in the 2008 N.B.A. draft. They picked him fourth, a position almost everyone else thought was a serious reach. As a Seattle Times columnist put it the day after the draft: “Equipped with two first-round picks, they came away with Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. That’s like getting two free airline tickets and booking trips to Gary, Ind., and Kosovo.” No one was more surprised on draft night than Westbrook himself, who was afraid he wasn’t going to be picked at all. “I was like: Damn, am I gonna be the only one left in the greenroom?” he told me. “This is about to be embarrassing.”
In theory, in the beginning, Westbrook and Durant seemed like a perfectly complementary pair: the scrappy defensive specialist next to the once-in-a-generation scorer. Westbrook could defer to Durant on offense and cover his shortcomings on defense. Instead, Westbrook took over the team.
He had few of the skills that defined a traditional point guard: panoramic vision, flawless ball-handling, a deadly outside shot. But his personality was more suited to leading than Durant’s was. This, in fact, was a major part of why the team drafted Westbrook, for his unique psychological profile: his ability to withstand crushing stress and pressure and doubt without losing confidence or focus. Many of Westbrook’s elite skills were mental, and he would need them right away. The Thunder started his rookie season 3-29, and there were serious debates about whether they were the worst team ever. Westbrook led the league in turnovers, and the team’s ownership was widely reviled for stealing the franchise from Seattle. Even when the Thunder’s fortunes changed the following season, when they made the playoffs and almost beat the world-champion Lakers, and then the following season, when Westbrook averaged 22 points a game and became an All-Star and the team made it all the way to the Western Conference finals — even then, it wasn’t particularly easy. A narrative was beginning to develop: Westbrook was a volatile, reckless ball hog, an inferior player who refused to defer to the clearly superior Durant.
Mo Cheeks is the Russell Westbrook whisperer. Cheeks was a legendary 1980s point guard for the 76ers, an unheralded prospect who turned himself, through the power of scrappiness, into a recurrent All-Star and an N.B.A. champion, the point guard for Dr. J and Moses Malone and Charles Barkley. Cheeks joined the Thunder as an assistant coach in Westbrook’s second year, and Westbrook has been his special assignment ever since.
Early on, Cheeks and other coaches bullied Westbrook around the floor while he dribbled to improve his ball-handling. When Westbrook had emotional outbursts in the middle of games, Cheeks was the one to talk him down. They still work together early every morning: Westbrook is always the first player to the gym, hours before practice starts, and he will pull Cheeks out of the morning coaches’ meeting so they can run through shooting and post moves.
“He’s a driven man,” Cheeks told me. “He’s a very disciplined person. Never late, always on time.”
I asked Cheeks if he’d ever been around a player like Westbrook.
“I — I — I don’t know many with that explosiveness,” he said. “The power and the speed.”
What about Barkley? Or Allen Iverson?
“Charles was powerful, but he didn’t have the speed of this guy,” Cheeks said. “Iverson’s a good name. He played like that — that same ferociousness, same competitive drive.”
But Iverson, infamously, was not a fan of practice, and Westbrook treats every practice as if it’s Game 7 of a playoff series. This is something that surprised Billy Donovan, the Thunder’s head coach, when he joined the organization last season. Even at the beginning of a morning walk-through, when the coaches were just trying to get everyone loosened up, Westbrook would take his first touch of the ball and explode as if he’d been shot out of a cannon to throw down a tomahawk dunk. He is like this always. “We play 82 games,” Donovan said. “There are gonna be nights when your team just doesn’t have it. Four games in five nights, you’re tired, you’re beaten down, it’s a long trip, there’s flight issues. Russell is so unique that it doesn’t happen to him. It’s nuts.”
“This is my 39th year,” Cheeks said. “I’ve asked many people, and no one really has had an explanation for this guy. This guy plays with power and speed all the time. Like, all the time. This is kind of a ‘cool’ league. You don’t play like that all the time. He does it all the time. Practice. Preseason games. A lot of guys make the All-Star team, but how many have been two-time All-Star M.V.P.?”
The answer is: Several, but only Russell Westbrook has been unreasonable enough to do it in consecutive years. “I don’t think I’m good enough to relax and be cool,” Westbrook told me. “Just be chillin’ and be cool.”
I asked Semaj Christon, one of the Thunder’s backup point guards, what it was like to guard Westbrook in practice every day.
“It’s a problem,” he said.
“It’s not fun,” Anthony Morrow told me. “I done seen him literally hurt people, on offense, and it’s not an offensive foul.”
In the swirling cloud of contradiction that surrounds Westbrook, one paradox stands out. He often looks, on the court, like a force of pure chaos: a wild, petulant, fire-breathing hothead. And yet he is also, especially in his personal life, relentlessly devoted to order and control. He builds his days around a series of inflexible routines: calls to his parents, a designated parking spot, morning shooting on Court 3. He expects every room to be neat and clean, at work and at home.
Before games, Westbrook always eats a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and it must be prepared just so: bread cut on a diagonal, fillings spread very thin. (In Oklahoma, the team chefs know exactly how to do it, but on the road Westbrook can’t trust anyone, so he makes it himself.) Three hours before tipoff, Westbrook warms up; at T-minus-60 minutes he goes to chapel. When the pregame countdown clock hits precisely 6:17 — never a second more or less — Westbrook leaps off the Thunder’s bench and screams, “Two lines,” initiating the team’s final layup drill. I asked Westbrook if there was some kind of numerology behind this — a June 17 birthday, a favorite Bible verse. “No particular reason,” he said. “I just do it. Nothing special.”
Westbrook is unbelievably attuned to the tiniest details of his shoes. He has his own personal rack at the practice facility. “Most guys, I can just bring a pair of shoes,” the Thunder’s equipment manager, Wilson Taylor, told me. “Russell wants a certain pair. He knows which are for games, which are for practice. He determines which shoes are coming on a road trip.” When Nike sent Westbrook its latest model, the Jordan 31, he wasn’t happy with the sole flexibility, so he asked the company to build him a special hybrid using the previous model’s sole. Even in that custom shoe, however, the insoles aren’t thick enough for Westbrook, so Taylor replaces each of them by hand.
On the court, what looks like madness is often deliberate. Westbrook is obsessive about studying film. He insists on knowing every play from every position. Steven Adams told me that Westbrook occasionally wakes him up in the middle of the night, on the team plane, to show him an angle he might have missed. “I ain’t gonna lie, bud,” Adams said. “Watching video, especially after a game, at like 2 in the morning — it’s rather hard to stay up. He maintains the same focus. It’s amazing.”
Everyone had stories like these. I got the feeling that Westbrook’s personality, the sheer intensity of his presence, is an energy field that seeps into every square centimeter of the Thunder organization. When Westbrook is around, everyone is aware of him, and he is never not around. Players arrive at the gym in the morning to find Westbrook already there. Sometimes they come in at night to put up extra shots, and Westbrook will already be there again, in the weight room, working out. You can begin to imagine how Kevin Durant, a talent with equal or greater claim to the organization but not nearly Westbrook’s force of personality, might have been driven to look for his own space elsewhere.
Although everyone who works with Westbrook gushes about him endlessly — he is loyal and generous and as real as a human could ever possibly be, they say — he also has a talent for keeping the people around him slightly on edge. He has a foulmouthed, teasing charm, and a formidableness that makes people think twice, and often a third and fourth time, before mentioning something they’re not sure he’ll like. Perhaps this tension is another way Westbrook has found to maintain focus, in himself and in others — the social equivalent of grinding a blade across a rough stone to keep it sharp.
I first met Westbrook while writing an article for this magazine in 2012, and we did not exactly hit it off. He kept me waiting for over an hour for an interview that was spectacularly unproductive; despite my best efforts to keep our conversation going, it petered out in less than 10 minutes, some of which time Westbrook actually spent on the phone telling a friend that he was currently doing an interview but would be done with it very soon. It felt almost as if he were performing some kind of art project.
He shut down questions with ruthless efficiency. The P.R. staff had mentioned to me that Westbrook was famous in the organization for giving everyone nicknames: Alfalfa, Ace Ventura, Snakes on a Plane. I asked him what nicknames he’d given his teammates.
“Those are my secrets,” he said. “I don’t let out secrets.”
The most revealing thing took place afterward, when Westbrook went into the P.R. office to banter with the staff. He sat down to look over a stack of contracts. (Westbrook handles most of his own business; he often sits in the back of the practice facility to pay his bills.) He admired a new addition to the room — a big, free-standing, color-coded season schedule — and asked the P.R. guys if he could have it. They said no, they were using it to plan the season, but they would be happy to get another one printed out especially for him. Westbrook asked why he couldn’t just take this one right now, and then they could get another schedule printed for themselves. That way he wouldn’t have to wait. He was the player, he said. Shouldn’t he have priority?
Even in the middle of the P.R. office, in other words, Westbrook was having a P.R. problem. He was being a jerk. Watching this performance in person, however, even immediately after my unsuccessful interview, I could see why everyone liked him anyway. Westbrook wasn’t only a jerk, or at least not uncomplicatedly a jerk. By traditional social standards, saying the things Westbrook was saying is bad manners. But that’s in the same way that, by traditional basketball standards, it’s a bad idea to charge into a one-on-four fast break and pull up for a contested free-throw-line jumper. He was a social gambler as well as a basketball gambler, one of those people who know how to play on the line between charisma and rudeness, teasing and affection, especially among people he likes.
Westbrook started to sign his stack of documents. He held the pen in his left hand.
“Little-known fact about Russell,” one of the P.R. guys said to me. “He shoots with his right hand, it says he’s right-handed in the media guide, but he writes with his left.”
Westbrook’s head snapped up. He looked straight at me, where I was leaning against the door frame.
“Don’t put that in your article,” he said.
I told him we could make a deal: I would keep it out of my article if he would tell me one of his teammates’ nicknames.
“You don’t get to bargain with me,” Westbrook said — and then he added a curse word with so much venom it made me laugh out loud. He went back to signing papers with his left hand.
A month into the 2016 season, Westbrook arrived in New York agonizingly close to the impossible Oscar Robertson dream: averaging a triple-double. The only stat holding him back was rebounding. He was at 9.9 per game — an extremely high number, historic in itself for a point guard of his size, frankly a little unrealistic. But still: single digits. The statisticians had crunched and crunched and determined that at Madison Square Garden that night, Westbrook would need to pull down 11 rebounds in order to get his average up to 10.
Rebounding has always been one of Westbrook’s superpowers. He is athletic enough to leap through vast spaces, strong enough to bully people in close combat and, most important, persistent enough to get himself, with unholy urgency, to the places around the rim most likely to yield rebounds. I have seen Westbrook streak in from a distant corner of the floor to tip in a missed 3-pointer off the glass — a hurtling, perfectly timed run that looked almost like a center fielder’s sprinting back to leap and steal a home run just as it cleared the wall.
In the end, every rebound comes down to one small coordinate somewhere near the basket: a grapefruit of space that materializes suddenly, unpredictably, and then disappears in a second, almost like the golden snitch in quidditch. Westbrook is frighteningly good at getting to that elusive point before anyone else, almost regardless of his starting position, and making it his own. He owns the grapefruit of space.
“Some of these rebounds over power forwards and centers — that’s will,” Morrow told me. “You see it in his eyes. It’s just a level of focus and will that I have never seen before. Never. Nobody. I’ve been around a lot of focused dudes, but to be consistently like that — that’s crazy.”
At Madison Square Garden, Westbrook needed 11 rebounds to cross the sacred threshold, and started with the Knicks’ first shot: It came off the back of the rim, and Westbrook casually took it out of the air with his left hand. Three minutes later, a 3-pointer rattled in and out and popped directly into Westbrook’s hands. The ball seemed to seek him out, over and over, and when it didn’t, he was perfectly willing to go out of his way to get it. In the second quarter, Westbrook rained down a storm of stats on the Knicks that included a series of crucial and difficult rebounds, several of which looked even more impressive because they came at the expense of Kristaps Porzingis, New York’s gigantic young center, who at 7-foot-3 is a full foot taller than Westbrook. Twice, Porzingis blocked Westbrook’s shot only to see Westbrook end up with the ball; another time, Westbrook sprang off both feet and violently snatched a rebound out of Porzingis’s very high hands.
By the end of the first half, Westbrook had already collected nine rebounds and was on the brink of a triple-double, which Knicks fans were openly cheering for him to get. The triple-double arrived 79 seconds into the second half, at which point the journalists around me started tweeting furiously that, at only 20 minutes of game action, it was the fastest triple-double of the modern era — until the Thunder P.R. staff pointed out that, as a matter of fact, Westbrook did one the previous year in under 18 minutes. (Westbrook now holds the second-, third- and fourth-fastest triple-doubles in N.B.A. history.)
Even with his triple-double secured, Westbrook would not stop rebounding. My favorite of the night was his 14th: he drove, drew three defenders, passed to a teammate for a wide-open jump shot and ended up deep out of bounds. Instead of just hanging out there, admiring his handiwork, Westbrook turned, tracked the shot with his eyes, saw that it was falling short and, at precisely the moment the ball hit the front of the rim, exploded into the air with shocking intensity. It did not look like a normal professional basketball player trying to get his hand on a ball to extend a possession late in the third quarter of the 19th game of the season. It looked like a man in the middle of a winner-takes-all dunk contest against the Devil himself to prevent the incineration of planet Earth. It looked as if Westbrook were insulted by the very concept of distance, and so he annihilated it, soaring and spearing the ball out of the air from between two waiting Knicks. Spike Lee, courtside, was standing to celebrate the initial missed shot, but when Westbrook came flying in to seize it, he clutched his head in exasperation and hopelessness and despair.
By the time the game ended, Westbrook had 27 points, 14 assists and 17 rebounds — far more than he needed. He was officially averaging a triple-double, and then some.
This came in the middle of what would turn out to be a streak of seven straight games with triple-doubles — a feat so outrageous it was last done by Michael Jordan in 1989. Westbrook and his numbers became a leaguewide spectacle. A few weeks later, after hundreds of questions about it, Westbrook expressed annoyance at the whole phenomenon.
“Honestly, man,” he told reporters, “this triple-double thing is kind of getting on my nerves. People think if I don’t get it, it’s like a big thing. When I do get it, it’s a thing.” He added, “For the 100th time, I don’t care.”
But this of course was hard to believe, because Westbrook cares about everything.
In Oklahoma City in December, on a day off between his triple-doubles, Russell Westbrook sat on the Rolling Thunder Book Bus. This is a staple of the team’s community-outreach program: a school bus that has been converted into a mobile library. That afternoon it was parked, under the wide blue Great Plains sky, in front of a suburban elementary school. Westbrook was there early, long before the kids started lining up, before even the team’s P.R. director arrived. He sat in the bus’s driver’s seat, sheltered from the Oklahoma wind, waiting, passing the time by cranking the tall doors open and closed with a lever near the steering wheel.
Open, closed, open, closed.
Eventually, a line of third graders formed, and Westbrook prepared himself by stockpiling, methodically in his left hand, a supply of bookmarks and bracelets, which he would hand to the kids as they came through. One by one, the students walked to the bus door. When they saw Westbrook sitting at the top of the stairs, they were variously awed or thrilled or confused or stoic.
“Are you really Russell Westbrook?” a little boy asked him.
“Yes,” Westbrook said.
“I met you at a gas station before!” one girl said.
“I was at the game last night!” another said.
“I was, too!” Westbrook answered.
He directed the third graders toward their favorite reading: Captain Underpants, Goosebumps, Bunnicula, Bad Kitty. (The Thunder’s backup point guard, Semaj Christon, was in the back, helping them find specific books.) “Have fun in school,” Westbrook told everyone as they left the bus.
Midway through the session, a boy stepped onto the Book Bus with one of his shoelaces dragging behind him.
Westbrook looked down at the floor.
“Tie your shoe, man,” he said.
The boy looked down, too, then kept walking to the back of the bus and picked a book.
When the boy re-emerged, Westbrook handed him a bracelet and a bookmark.
“Have fun in school,” he said. “And tie your shoe up.”
The boy walked off the bus, shoelace still flopping around.
“Don’t forget to tie your shoe!” Westbrook shouted out the door.
From that point on in his Book Bus session, Westbrook’s focus was locked onto the children’s shoelaces, a strangely high percentage of which seemed to be loose. “Your shoe is loose,” Westbrook would say as a child walked onto the bus. “Tie your shoe up.” He was cheerful but firm; he seemed genuinely concerned. Dozens of kids passed through the bus, and Westbrook scrutinized each of their shoes, and not a single loose lace was allowed to pass without comment. Over and over, he told the kids to tie their shoes. Even when the laces were not all the way untied, just trending in that direction, Westbrook pointed it out: “Tie your shoes up.” It was as if he had identified a public safety epidemic that he was single-handedly going to fix, one child at a time.
One boy stepped onto the bus with both of his shoes intentionally untied, laces dragging like catfish whiskers.
“You like to wear your shoes like that, huh?” Westbrook said. “That’s what I used to do, so I get it. But you gotta tuck ’em in.” And before the boy could go back and get his book, Westbrook actually knelt down on the floor of the bus and tucked the boy’s shoelaces into the sides of his shoes.
After a while, the Book Bus session ended, and the kids and the players took a photo together outside, and then all the kids returned to their classrooms, laces safely snug on their feet, and Russell Westbrook drove off in a white Cadillac sedan, flexing his mind-muscle on other problems.
Sometimes a place and a person align in unexpectedly powerful ways. For its entire existence, Oklahoma City has suffered from a particularly nasty case of a particularly American curse: volatility. It was founded in 1889, in one chaotic afternoon, with a land run that brought the population instantly from zero to 10,000. Its economy is a never-ending cycle of oil-industry booms and busts. Its weather features killer tornadoes erupting suddenly out of placid skies. Even Oklahoma’s formerly stable earth has, in recent years, begun to spasm: activities associated with hydrofracking, source of the region’s most recent economic boom, have kicked off an escalating series of earthquake swarms.
The departure last summer of Kevin Durant — a pillar of stability for almost 10 years, a player who had talked all his career about how he wanted to stay with the Thunder forever — was magnified, for locals, by the knowledge of this history. This is what happens in OKC. Talented people leave, dreams die, booms go bust. Especially when things seem to be at their best, everything tends to fall apart.
After Durant left, there was endless speculation that Westbrook would leave, too, and it would have been hard to blame him if he had. Looking around the league, Westbrook would have seen almost nothing but bigger cities with stronger teams and better restaurants and livelier fashion scenes — any one of which would have bent over backward for the chance to add him to its mix. Instead, Westbrook signed a contract extension to stay in Oklahoma. It was, in some ways, a crazy choice, unreasonable on many levels, which made it of course the perfect Westbrook thing to do.
Westbrook once told me that growing up in Los Angeles, he had no idea Oklahoma City even existed. And yet he has become, in his odd balance of chaos and control, his volatile lurching toward greatness, a sort of human embodiment of the place. Westbrook was already beloved in OKC, but his decision to stay turned him into a legend. The city was hung with banners saying “WHY NOT?” and the tallest skyscraper lit up with Westbrook’s name: “THANK YOU RUSS.”
“There are people in Oklahoma City who hold themselves differently because of Russell Westbrook,” Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, told me. “I mean that literally. They stand up straighter. People, not necessarily athletes, draw confidence from him and his disregard for the judgment or labeling from others. I’m confident that there are a lot of people in this city that go into job interviews saying to themselves: ‘Come on, you’ve got this — be Westbrook, think Westbrook.’ And that might actually help them get the job, and if they don’t, they walk out feeling sorry for the person that missed the opportunity to hire them.”
This is the lesson of Russell Westbrook. In a deeply imperfect world — a world where a shooting touch will suddenly abandon you at the worst possible moment, where your teammates might not be good enough to make a win possible, where an economy might suddenly collapse for no apparent reason, where the decency of strangers cannot be presumed — in a world like that, Westbrook’s approach to life might actually be the most rational one. You control the things you can control (family, daily routines, the occasional big choice) and outside that you fling yourself with wild abandon, every day, at every object that seems worthy of pursuit. In the absence of guarantees, in the absence of certainty, in the new American volatility, we can bank on only one thing: total presence, total sincerity, total effort, all the time. That is the sound of one hand clapping.
Westbrook’s critics have been very loud for many years. They are quieter today, but they’re still out there, disputing the magnitude of his triple-doubles by pointing to his high turnover rate and his low shooting percentage, his inefficiencies, his mistakes. But, as Billy Donovan, the Thunder’s head coach, told me, this is missing the point. “Before you go to the criticism,” Donovan said, “you have to understand Russell Westbrook. The No. 1 thing for him is how hard he competes. It starts there. That doesn’t mean he plays a perfect game, doesn’t mean that he never turns the ball over, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t miss a defensive assignment. But when the ball is loose on the glass or on the floor, when it requires energy and passion and fire — Russell is bringing that. So many players live with regret: They could have done a little bit more, been more committed, worked harder. I think he’s going to have a great level of peace when his time is done. He’s going to be able to move on with his life. He’s going to have peace in his heart.”
Through 41 games, the official halfway point of the season, Russell Westbrook was actually doing it: He was averaging a triple-double — 30.7 points, 10.5 assists, and 10.7 rebounds. Stat-heads calculated that, if you adjusted Westbrook’s numbers to reflect the pace of the Oscar Robertson era, they would look like nothing we’ve ever seen in the history of anything: nearly 50 points, 17 rebounds, 17 assists. Historical comparisons are impossible to draw in such a linear way, of course. But still. It is possible that we are witnessing, in real time, a performance as aberrant as anything any of the primordial basketball legends (Wilt, Oscar, Bill Russell, Pistol Pete) ever did. We may as well start broadcasting Westbrook’s games in grainy black and white.
And the second half of the season may actually be better. Westbrook’s self-mythology — his belief that he is an underdog — was no doubt stoked last month when he learned that, despite all his exorbitant numbers, despite his decision to stay in Oklahoma, despite the game-winning shots and the surprising success of his relatively untalented team, he was not chosen to start in this year’s All-Star Game. His spot was taken by a player more popular with N.B.A. fans, the ever-sunny Steph Curry — Kevin Durant’s new point guard. So Westbrook did what he does and launched himself into his next triple-double.
An article on Feb. 5 about the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball player Russell Westbrook misspelled part of the name of a rapper. He is Flavor Flav, not Flava Flav.