Russell Westbrook And A Method To His Greatness

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“Considering his physical tools, intangibles and how much he’s improved over the past two years, though, a lot of teams would probably have a hard time passing him up in the 10-20 range, since he truly has home run potential if he can improve on his weaknesses in time. He might ideally be suited coming off the bench playing a Leandro Barbosa type role, which would still be worthy of a very high pick.”

That was the comparison drawn for Russell Westbrook in the NCAA weekly performers report from March of 2008. 13 years and 182 triple doubles later, the report stands as the precis of Westbrook’s Avant-garde career. Underrated until undeniable. 

A missed fadeaway from Danilo Gallinari was gobbled up by the man who broke the record the likes of Magic Johnson claimed to be unbreakable. An indifferent saunter back on offence followed by a swift gather and a shot from behind the arc which didn’t fall. The rebound fell to Robin Lopez at the perimeter. Russ got the hand-off and back to work he went, pulling two Hawks towards him before kicking it to Ish Smith for a three. The game goes on for Westbrook, hardly any time to smell the roses. Folks at the State Farm Arena chanted his name as he glanced at the screen momentarily. A moment was all he had to acknowledge a grind spanning decades. After-all, the Hawks were leading by four with 7:55 on the clock. The Wizards get the rebound with nine seconds left in the game. Down by one. Russ in transition. Shades of the game against Denver in the 2016-17 season. Shot goes up – no good. Hawks take the game. Out come the nay-sayers who gloss over the feat as empty-calorie stat-padding, an unprecedented reign of comprehensive dominance fizzled down to a numerical farce. Insouciant as ever, Westbrook absorbed the grandeur of the achievement, rather than the plaudits; perhaps because the latter haven’t always been easy to garner.

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Triple doubles are the crown jewel of a trailblazing résumé. Four seasons averaging a triple double, including the 2016-17 season where Russ wreaked havoc on his path to record the most number of triple doubles in a single season, bestowing him with the rightful honour of MVP. 9-time All Star, 2-time NBA scoring champion and an Olympic Gold medalist along with countless ‘firsts’, many to do with the term ‘triple double’.

The phrase is hurled about ad nauseam, affixing it firmly with triviality. The comparison to Leandro Barbosa may seem laughable now, yet Barbosa holds an honour Westbrook doesn’t – a ring.

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Ah, the ring. The supreme gateway to the Pantheon. It beckons with a sparkle as those who reach shed tears and sweat alike. What objectively is the prize for sacrifice, a pay-off for individual stories of austerity and affliction, has taken a more torpid form. It stands as a primary barometer for success; the statistics, the moments, the memories matter… if you have a ring. 

Perhaps it’s fair. Greatness calls for a metric. However, what inevitably follows is a banishment of altruism. A cold shoulder to bonds and culture for the Larry O’Brien, something Westbrook is all too familiar with. His bond with Kevin Durant felt powerful. The two shared camaraderie, gratitude and more importantly, a healthy spirit of competition, driving the two to greater heights. A man of Russ’ drive needed that. His teammates would attest for his unforgiving ire(ahem… Serge Ibaka). Yet, a loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2016 saw KD jump ship to manufacture a Juggernaut, leaving his brothers in blue in a state of limbo. A string of events followed involving cupcakes and intense face-offs all the way to Durant forgetting to mention his former teammate’s name in his list of top 5 teammates. It, quite simply, was the kiss of Judas. Durant now walks proudly with a ring befitting of his other-worldly talent. Russell Westbrook, with records unmatched, stands with none.

Credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Few men can empathise with Russell. Almost none can with both. One man can, however. One whose name is synonymous with the unbreakable record that was shattered mere days ago – the Big O himself, Oscar Robertson.

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History books speak of Oscar as a trend-setting standard. A 6-foot-5 guard, 210 pounds, dashing around the hardwood with deft motions. An unparalleled poise. In just his second season for the Cincinnati Royals post a rookie of the year run, 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists a game. A coveted 64′ MVP against the likes of Chamberlain and Russell. An average of 29.3-10.2-8.5 with 48.9 percent from the field over ten years in a small-market team.

Forget standards, Robertson was defying a sense of understanding of the sport. Versatile, is an understatement; he was complete. Robertson seemed alien to those who watched. Perfection in athleticism.  Physically intense with pristine grace with consistency a mere formality. Oscar Robertson levitated above his competition, all they could do was admire his eminence.

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Yet, the realities of a small-market team reared its torturous head as the Cincinnati Royals failed to barge through the impregnable Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, two of the greatest teams of all time – a pioneering dynasty in the Russell-led Celtics and the 76ers with Wilt Chamberlain. Oscar Robertson stood amongst the greats – John Havlicek, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor. Yet, the elusive ring rested at a distance.

The 1969-70 season saw Bob Cousy take over as head coach to breathe life into the side. There was a grave misunderstanding, however. A desired shuffle gave way to the wrecking ball, tearing down the culture of the side along with its mentality. Robertson’s co-star Jerry Lucas was sent packing to the Warriors. The loss of its core paled in comparison to the loss in identity. The proclaimed ‘youth movement’ reeked of emptiness as 36-year-old Johnny Green, 33-year-old Connie Dierking and 30-year-old Oscar Robertson started. To sprinkle the final dash of calamity, Cousy’s attempt at kickstarting the franchise’ journey towards a breathing juggernaut… involved him deciding to return to play at the age of 41. Not done there, to be eligible, a trade occurred; solid reserve Bill Dinwiddie made his way to the Celtics for Cousy to be released from the Boston retired list. Safe to say, the bells had sounded, Robertson’s time as a Royal was over. A failed trade to the Baltimore Bullets led to a move to the Milwaukee Bucks for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk.

The New York Times reported at the time in 1970, 

“Robertson had his choice of four clubs, it was reported, and he chose Milwaukee. The terms of his contract with the Royals gave him veto rights over any trade. Robertson said sometime ago he had been approached by the Royals’ management and told he would be traded because Cincinnati could not afford to pay him what it was expected he would be asking after the current season. He denied that he had actively sought a trade.”

The Bucks were an ascendant side, led by one Lew Alcindor, known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wayne Embry, a former teammate of Robertson. The no-frills approach of the franchise worked for Robertson. Their emanating aura declared their intentions succinctly – Championship. It was theirs. It was Oscar’s – one illustrious career later.

Credit:Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Certain things don’t quite add up. The paltry trade offer for a bona-fide star, albeit past his prime, holds an explanation, perhaps an incomplete one. The Royals management were lambasted and torn down by their kingpin. However, ten years before a finals appearance with an all-star teammate in Jerry Lucas? A layer remains unearthed, abridged by the following take from former Knicks player Bill Bradley in The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.

“Perhaps he doesn’t give lesser players a large enough margin of error, but when they listen to him he makes All-Stars of meager talents. He controls events on the court with aplomb and the authoritarian hand of a symphony conductor.”

Mastery is a commanding virtue. It assumes itself to be routine, an off-the-cuff monotony. Anything less was half-pie. Teammates failed to live up to the standards of a man who was setting new ones each game. His passion for the sport would deem brilliance as a step below. Robertson’s prowess and disdain for otherwise elevated him to lofty heights as much as it isolated him there. Perhaps Kareem was one of the few who could supersede. The joy for the sport seemed to have dissipated before Robertson was ready to admit. A blazing star withered down to a bitter curmudgeon, finding a special pair of rose-tinted glasses that exalted the man against a seemingly grey backdrop.

There lies a poignant reasoning to his persona. Atrocities that now seem abhorrent plagued the lives of African-American people at the time. The mental aspect to Oscar’s persona is proud and forthright. Discrimination felt foreign to him, as it did for countless men and women. A kid whose ambition was to make it through the merciless courts in ‘Dust Bowl’ long before his family could afford a basketball had withstood travails in earnest.

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His basketball team at Crispus Attucks high school revelled in a 45-game winning streak on their way to becoming the first African American high school to become the state championship, twice. The honours arrived despite the lack of essential amenities, even a gym. Yet, what should have been a celebration for an unprecedented coup, pomp and circumstance; was stripped from the team. The route was switched from Downtown Indianapolis to Naptown. The implicative disdain stayed with Oscar.

“I knew all those stories about their long ride back to Milan, women coming out of houses with fresh pies for them, men standing on the lawn with flags. Why was that honor denied us?” 

Indiana University’s coach, Branch McCracken, when recruiting Oscar had this to say, “I hope you’re not the kind of kid who wants money to go to school.” A myriad stories of death threats and separation  from civility broke Oscar. His ability on the court proved to be a constant, almost as much as the disrespect he faced.

His beliefs transcended his surroundings. Compassion drove him to combat against racism and the dire lack of power players had at the time. The mountain ahead was untouched, for good reason. Fortitude was necessary en masse – Oscar donned the responsibility. Emulating his poise on the court with his steely look of intent, his heroics forced an association to its knees, and thus, the free agency was birthed. 

“But sometimes in life, it is important to be persistent or, as I’ve been called, stubborn. Stubborn about what you believe in, in order to help others, even at great personal sacrifice.”

The summary of a man, scorned by society, with an unbreakable will to be the best along with an unwavering desire to assist others. His triple doubles changed the sport, on and off the court.

The sport has evolved since, the Magics, the Jordans, the Kobes, the LeBrons.. the Westbrooks. Each imbibe from the antecedent generations, yet only the things their experience allows them to. 

Compton Avenue masqueraded with an icy demeanour. It hardened its inhabitants, yet offering a rose in the form of kinship. The steel of man forged here stands the test of time. Westbrook has dealt with heartbreak. The passing of his closest friend Khelcey Barrs III during a pickup game jarred a new perspective open, the fleeting nature of life and opportunities. An amalgamation of coarseness with swift ferocity dazzled and frustrated coaches from Leuzinger High School to UCLA.

According to Chris Palmer of Bleacher Report, the UCLA head coach Ben Howland was left perplexed and impressed in equal measures after watching the youngster. 

“This kid’s not a point guard,” said Howland to assistant coach Kerry Keating.

“I never said he was a point guard,” was the response, “I just said he could play.”

Seattle Supersonics GM Sam Presti garnered flak for choosing an unpolished guard as a fourth overall pick when the side needed a big. For him, the upside was worth it. Presti is a smart man. Russell has sparkled with ‘blink and he’s gone’ drives, emphatic dunks and that signature snarl. It paints an image for him.

Over the years, the game of basketball paints an inevitable mural. Each ring, each triple double, each game winner is a stroke of the worn-out brush with a story to tell of its own.

How accurate is it? Are stats enough? Are the intangibles enough? Are the narratives enough? Is basketball… enough?

The late great Nipsey Hussle was an inspiration for countless, Westbrook included. According to Billboard, he was someone Russell “looked up to, someone who paved the way for guys like me growing up in inner-city.”

Nipsey once said, “The highest human act is to inspire.”

Russell Westbrook embodies the saying. Not through triple doubles or even championships, but through his ‘why not’ attitude, through the ‘KB3’ wrist band he wears in memory of his friend, through friendships, through experiences.

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Russell Westbrook is inspirational. A ring is far from essential. The honour of witnessing greatness suffices.

His words, transcribed by Fred Katz, highlight a serene state of mind, “A championship don’t change my life. I’m happy. I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion. I don’t have to be an NBA champion. I know many people that got NBA championships that’s miserable, haven’t done nothing for their community, haven’t done nothing for the people in our world. And for me, man, my legacy, like I mentioned before, is not based on what I do on this court. I’m not gonna play basketball my whole life. My legacy is what I do off the floor, how many people I’m able to impact and inspire along my journey, man. That’s how I keep my head down and keep pushing because it’s very important that you don’t let the negativity seep in, because it’s been like that my whole career, honestly. There’s no other player that kinda takes the heat that I take constantly.”

The two flag bearers met in 2017 for a conversation. The similarities went beyond statistics. They felt obligated to pour themselves out on the court. The contrast between the two and their paths only added to the magnificence of the journey explained simply, by basketball.

Credit: Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Assessing greatness with metrics is futile. Their stories matter. They inspire. Garner Russell with applause, not ‘Mr. Triple Double’, not Brodie – respect Russell Westbrook.

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