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Russell Westbrook can be stingy with his words, but lucky for us his facial expressions give like the Gateses. There's the face, meant for the opposing team's bench when he dunks over their tallest player, that says something like, “I just scored two better points than you'll ever score in your career.” There's the face the Oklahoma City Thunder star makes when he's high-fiving his teammates and one pulls his hand away too soon, a face that says, “I will bite your fucking pharynx out if you don't march back over here and make contact with my hand.” There's the face when a reporter asks a question he doesn't like that says, “I know you have young children, which is why I'm not gonna humiliate you in a viral Vine.” And sometimes, as now, on this open-air patio in Beverly Hills, a long way from a packed NBA arena, there's the face I've seen a bunch this afternoon: head canted, nostrils flared, eyebrows appealing to all possibility—a 3-D emoticon shrug that says: “Why not?”
It's a mantra that's governed his disposition as long as he's been in the spotlight, evident in the unflinching way he both plays the game and picks his clothes (fashion's his other fixation). But his embrace of the phrase Why not? goes back to well before he was famous. “My friends and I started that motto early in high school,” Westbrook says. “That attitude, that mentality, from way back then: Want to go to Stanford? Why not? Want to play in the NBA? Why not? I was never the best player. Not ever in my life. Though even when I was younger, I felt that on any given day I could be. And that mentality's what's helped me get over the hump each and every day to where I was meant to go.”
To UCLA. To Oklahoma City. To the NBA Finals, five All-Star teams, an All-NBA First Team. And now, to a lonely new altitude—the sole superstar on a team that forever had two, the odds-on favorite for league MVP. Here is someone who hasn't been the best player on his own team since high school, and all at once he's poised to be not just the focal point of a franchise, but perhaps the best player in the entire league.
There're those giant shoulders shrugging and that face again. Why not?
IN THE WAKE of the disaster of last spring's Western Conference Finals, the hypotheticals ticked like dominoes. If Westbrook's Thunder had beaten the Warriors, do they handle the Cavs in the Finals? If they handle the Cavs in the Finals, does Kevin Durant feel itchy for an out? Does he leave the team he transformed for the hated Warriors, the super-team, the Steph+Klay+Draymond starting-All Star squad? More to the point: If the Thunder beat the Warriors, does Kevin Durant leave Russell Westbrook behind?
After that series loss, it seemed like things in Oklahoma City couldn't ever again exist as they had. This is grossly overstating it, but Westbrook and Durant were like the palest version of a married couple who'd lost a child and wound up divorced. In the days that followed Durant's departure, Westbrook was said to be angry and hurt, but he stayed largely quiet. Even now, months later, he's careful with his words. He knows how things can sound, knows the value of striking a conciliatory tone.
“I mean, obviously in the NBA there's a lot of different decisions that people make,” he says. “The whole thing in the NBA is that people sometimes have an opportunity to go where they want. And Kevin chose a place where he wanted to go.”
So, have they talked much since?
“Uhh, not much, no.”
In the wake of Durant's departure, Westbrook weighed his own future in Oklahoma City. His “process” was discussed each night on SportsCenter as though he'd been lining up suitors the way Durant had.
“But it wasn't like that at all for me. There was no process. It was just very simple,” Westbrook says. “I wasn't trying to figure out if I was leaving or not. I was happy where—I am happy where—I'm at. It's very simple.”
It was this simple: three years, $85 million. By staying, he'd become the league's second-highest-paid player (tied with KD, among others, and behind only LeBron), the centerpiece of a franchise that, for the better part of a decade, has been right there, but never fully across the line. Westbrook had always been the second threat. The speed and the power, the decoy before the dish. But what would it mean now that the team was his alone?
Entering high school, Westbrook was five feet nine, a hundred and sixty pounds, couldn't touch the rim. He didn't even try out for varsity and wouldn't make it until his junior year. He wasn't the best player at his school, and he wasn't even the top player on his block—that was his best friend, Khelcey Barrs. “At the time, he was probably the best basketball player I'd ever seen,” Westbrook says. When coaches came to Leuzinger High School games, they were there to see Barrs. It was Barrs's dream to play at UCLA, more than anywhere else. But in late May of their sophomore year, during the last of a long afternoon of pickup games, Barrs collapsed and died on account of an undiagnosed enlarged heart.
“Obviously, it's something that's always going to be a part of my life,” Westbrook says. “What I do and where I do it. Always playing for him and his spirit.”
Westbrook says that from that point forward, he was carrying on for two. He began helping Barrs's grandmother, doing Khelcey's chores, and on the court, he doubled his efforts. His senior year, everything changed again. He sprouted to his full-size six feet three. He led the league in scoring by a long shot. He dunked for the first time (“a very small dunk, a barely dunk, a way-up-on-the-fingertips dunk”). Still, Westbrook wasn't hearing from big schools: “I was just trying to figure out a way to get to college without my parents having to pay. It was very expensive, and we couldn't afford that. And basketball—I was just playing because it was something that I loved at the time. Honestly, I never even thought I had a chance of playing in college.”
Finally, just before graduation, Westbrook signed with UCLA. A college that offered him free housing and free food. That it happened to have been Barrs's dream school made the reality all the richer. “Part of that was me and part of that was him.”
Though Westbrook had spent his entire life in Los Angeles, he'd never really ventured to the UCLA part of town. “I just stayed where I lived in the neighborhood. The far side of the park I grew up at and that was it,” he says. “I'd never been to the west side before. It was a big deal for me to be over here. I'd never been on this side of town.”
In this instance, Westbrook's “over here” and “this side of town” are an umbrella for both UCLA's Westwood and Beverly Hills, where we're sitting on a patio on the top floor of Barneys, where he prefers to shop when he shops anymore, which he really doesn't, because designers preemptively send him most of what he'd ever want, anyway. He's comfortable “over here.” He's smiling a lot, he's laughing a lot, he's making fun of my shirt. Last year, he married his college girlfriend, Nina, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He just bought a house on “this side of town,” too. Ten years ago, though, Russell was 17 years old, at the very outset of a transformative decade. And to mark the occasion, he picked a new number. “I could pick any one, and I picked 0. It was a new chapter in my life. A new start.”
When he arrived at UCLA, Westbrook rode the bench on a squad that had just lost in the national-championship game. “It was just: I'm here, that's fine. I thought I hadn't done anything yet, so my mentality was to come in and try to get on the court.” It wasn't until his sophomore season, when a teammate's pivotal injury thrust him into the starting lineup, that Westbrook seized an opportunity he'd been preparing for all summer. “I worked out twice a day until the season started, lifting, running; I didn't take a break.” He added ten pounds of muscle, several inches to his vertical. He played pickup games with Kobe and Kevin Garnett—games he treated with the characteristic intensity he's practically patented. “That was a turning point for me,” he says of that sophomore season. “I had the opportunity to showcase my talent—since we were a very well-watched team that year—to help me draw the attention of the NBA.”
Westbrook became the playmaker we recognize today, the guy who draws just enough attention—from defenders, from reporters—to make space for his teammates to thrive. After that sophomore season, when the general manager of the then Seattle SuperSonics, Sam Presti, asked other prospects which players they feared most, they said Westbrook's name again and again. The defensive intensity, the high drive. Presti went out on a limb and drafted Westbrook fourth.
The Sonics' new point guard appeared at just a single press conference in Seattle before the team relocated to Oklahoma City. He thought about ditching the number 0. “But I said, ‘You know what? This is another new chapter, another fresh start, at the bottom again.’”
“Before I got there, I didn't know where Oklahoma City was. I didn't know it existed.”
His mom helped him pick out a house. Helped him find a place with a good kitchen and a refrigerator and everything. Took all his calls, which were many. He was still a teenager, trying to figure out how to run a whole house, how to do all the shopping for himself. Mom had even bought all his clothes up to that point. “I called her all the time,” Westbrook says. “Probably annoyed her. If I went to the grocery store, I asked her all the questions, she'd lay it out for me.” Westbrook went out a lot on his own. He was looking for a new hobby, so he started hanging around a bowling alley, taking pointers from a pro there named Anne Marie. Wasn't long before he was bowling regularly in the 180s, 190s. “All about consistency,” he says. I'm going to be the best.
Every athlete talks about “getting a little bit better every day,” and Russell Westbrook is plenty steeped in that cliché. But he seems somehow, at 27, to be improving at a rate beyond other players his age. Heading into this season, he is faster and stronger and more skilled than he was at 26, when he was faster and stronger and more skilled than he was at 25. He is not just not over-the-hill; he may not have even peaked.
Today, Westbrook is regarded by many to be the most athletic player in the NBA. He defends tirelessly—with speed, but especially with strength. Look at the way he knocked Curry around in the Western Conference Finals in May. He just bullied him, out-strengthed him. He wore Steph out not with hard fouls but with incessant presence, hands on the body, like a shadow that left bruises. The performance in that series was Maximalist Russ—he shut down the unanimous MVP.
On offense, Westbrook probes and penetrates with the classic speed of a point guard, but he rebounds with the elevation and body force of a power forward. He's a running back that tackles like a linebacker. That ability to blitz into the lane, plow through bigs, and relentlessly draw defenders (who otherwise leave him alone at the edge of the perimeter; his three-point shot is a weak spot) is a surpassing advantage. When his leading foot plants in the paint, the odds of him driving to the rim or dishing to the perimeter are equal—and therefore must be defended against equally. (The threat is balanced in much the same way the odds of him attacking with his right hand or his left hand are basically equal—he has been functionally ambidextrous all his life.) It's a tremendous puzzle for defenses. But driving to draw defenders the way that he does, “that's something I've learned, that's not something that I always knew. Because if that was the case, I'd have been doing it for a while.”
You might be wondering why, if this is so effective, every point guard doesn't drive into tra∞c on every play—into the two or three sequoias defending the rim. The simplest reason is that it hurts. Westbrook gets hit every time he does it. Whether the contact is clean or leads to a foul, he gets hammered. (As a result, his arms are so heavily scarred by short, sharp cuts they look as though they've been subject to cross-hatching.) And after getting slammed, what does he do on the next possession? He goes in again. Gets hit, gets cut, gets knocked to the floor. This is a person who treats practices like they're games and games like they're all Game 7s. A person who's been named most valuable player of the All-Star Game—an exhibition in which stars are meant to downshift—not once, but twice.
“I don't know what to say,” he offers. “I don't know how to be cool. You know what I mean? That's not in my nature. I only know how to play one way. I can't, like, decide to turn the switch on and off. I'm not good enough to do that.”
That intensity manifests itself in at least 17 of the facial expressions on the Russell Westbrook Feelings Chart. And those facial expressions seem to tell NBA fans everything they need to know about him.
angry, mean, demon, villain
They're depictions that are recycled by the media again and again. Westbrook says he doesn't hear those words. “I've been blessed with the ability to be able to just, like”—here he mimes the words sort of floating in one ear and out the other, then boomeranging around and rolling off his back—“in this ear, out this ear. I just don't pay no mind to it. It's just something I'm so used to.”
But what does it feel like to know that's how people perceive him, even if he doesn't perceive himself that way? “I just don't care. A lot of people don't really know me. All they know is what they see on TV. So I don't mind it. Because I play basketball different than how I am off the court. When I'm on the court, everybody thinks I'm angry and I'm mad. I'm fine with that. But that's why I think some people are confused until they see me off the court. They'll run into me and be like: ‘Oh, I thought you were gonna be mad.’ But why would I be mad?”
Does the characterization wear on him?
“For me, I feel like, if they're talking about you, then you're doing something right. When they stop talking about you, that's when you should worry.”
That's when you go full-time fashion designer.
“Exactly! That's when you should worry,” he says. “But I don't worry at all.”
You can see an extension of Westbrook's Why not? mentality in his sartorial decisions. In his clothes, Westbrook evinces his singular self-possession—his special vision, his chameleonic openness, his complete lack of regard for what anyone else thinks. Sometimes he wears a T-shirt and jeans. Sometimes he shows up in eyeglasses without lenses. Sometimes he pulls on what looks to be a quilted potato sack. There are no limits to his choices in clothes, because he has money and exposure without constraints, and designers know there's a good chance he'll wear what they mail him (he doesn't repeat looks, he needs options—it's math). His resoluteness in his own vision, his tunneled self-assurance, is so pure that it edges up to a sort of deeply beneficial psychosis. Just a little bit broken from reality. Which is maybe what people mean when they say Westbrook plays crazy, dresses crazy.
“And that's why a stylist, for me, is just a waste of money,” Westbrook says. “It would take away from my creative side. And the most important thing about fashion is being creative and being able to have your own ideas.” As a professional basketball player in the 2010s, one of the things you have to do is decide whether you're going to hire a stylist to make your fashion choices for you. If you want to keep up in a league that's gotten serious about clothes—and you're not Westbrook—it's wise to seek professional help. “Sometimes you can tell who stylists are working with, because a lot of guys will start dressing the same. But I don't pay much mind either way.” At Barneys, I watch him recite his varying sizes for several different brands (without consulting an Excel spreadsheet or anything). He has recall for specific outfits—again, he aims to never wear the same combination of clothes more than once—in much the same way basketball players can recall a given play from years before. And he's always on the lookout for statement pieces that he can parcel out through the season (instantly relegating those he's worn to the giveaway pile). When he can, he makes a point to squeeze in front-row appearances at Fashion Weeks. New York. Milan. Paris. “I like making sure I'm there, because a lot of that stuff on the runways never makes it to the stores,” he says. “And I'm able to see, like, different colors, how they go together, different color palettes, different fabrics, how they go with each other, how they link, how they flow, how they look on people.”
He creates his own collections for Barneys, though he's interested in more than just clothes—he's at his most animated when talking about design of any sort. He loves traveling, not because of the sites but because of the exposure to design. In hotels. In restaurants. From away games in Minneapolis to sponsorship obligations in Hong Kong. “I get ideas from everything. Just from everyday walking around. Looking at people. Just from everything. I see colors, women, men—traveling, I get ideas from all over the place, just because I think that's the best way to do it,” he says. “Like the carpets in hotels. How it works with the walls. The artwork. I had a great idea when I was in China this summer, this thing going on on the street, and I was just like, Man, I'm going to design something exactly like that. I can't tell you at the moment. But for my next collection, when I do it, it's gonna be just like that. To me, it's just exciting, 'cause I'm able to see different things and come back.… I can't draw, but someone who can draw, I'm able to explain to someone exactly what I want to do.”
During last year's conference finals, it seemed that Westbrook was playing as though he were finally sick of hearing all the Steph Steph Steph business of the last couple of years. I told Westbrook that he was the favorite for league MVP, above even James and Curry—but that I had suspected he'd maybe felt he was the league's best player for a while. That the Steph Steph Steph chorus might even be part of what's pushed him to that place.
“The thing about me you have to know is, I don't care what other people are doing. I. Don't. Care. I'm so busy worried about how I can improve, I just don't have time to worry about what any other person is doing.”
I was asking about how he feels he stacks up against the best players, though I realized his answer could have applied to nearly any subject related to the opinions of others. Media. Fans. Coaches. Rivals. I keep thinking about that gesture—the in-one-ear-out-the-other-roll-off-the-back hybrid of disregard. Imagine being so unaffected by other people that you were able to direct every moment, every thought, into self-improvement. All that collateral energy lost to FOMO and envy and the validation of strangers. All that precious time spent worrying about a scoreboard to a game no one else knows is being played. Imagine if all those forces could be bagged up and cinched with a twisty tie and sealed inside your brain and body for only you to expend. The world might perceive you as a little closed off. A little secretive, a little untrusting, maybe even a little crazy. But, holy shit, would you be good at being you. At doing what you do. Conditions change, teammates turn over, trying circumstances present themselves. But because you've been Why not?-ing your way here your entire life, it's no big thing.
This Thunder season could go a lot of different ways. Westbrook could marshal a balanced offense, spreading the ball around to a dozen different scoring threa—Just kidding! Russell Westbrook is going to touch the ball every possession and drive into three-on-ones and shoot more often than he should and possibly lead the league in scoring, and maybe in assists and even rebounds, and at the very least triple-doubles, because he is a triple-double threat like we haven't seen since Magic, if not Oscar Robertson. Maybe he'll even average a triple-double, like Oscar did. He will run up and down the court for 45 minutes a game, because, on top of everything else, he is a conditioning outlier who seems legitimately allergic to exhaustion. (“Ya, I know,” he says with a laugh. “People tell me that all the time. The thing is that I just keep playing. I just do what I know how to do: rebound, run, steal, go, just keep going till…”) We will hear a lot about Russell Westbrook.
But will the Thunder win? Probably not as often. A nuisance to title contenders rather than title contenders themselves, more like. It's up to more forces than just Westbrook's will. Which must kill him. Because here is a person whose baseless childhood conviction—I'm going to be the best—has somehow carried him to the top of the mountain. Who's somehow known all his life that the only thing he'd ever be able to fully control is Russell Westbrook. Who knows no better way to better his team than to better himself. “It's a new situation,” he says, “but my mind-set stays the same. The best thing I can do is stay true to myself. If I do what I know how to do, everything else will follow.”
Daniel Riley is a GQ senior editor.