From his relentless on-court game to his audacious off-court style, OKC Thunder guard Russell Westbrook stays on point.
This feature appears in Complex's April/May 2013 issue.
It’s the fourth quarter inside the Staples Center. The Lakers are clinging to a six-point lead with a minute remaining in the game. L.A. fans wait with bated breath while the fate of 37,994 tacos hangs in the balance—and it all depends on Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
He stands at the free-throw line with the ball in his hands. A sea of gold and purple jerseys shake their white cheer sticks, doing their best to break Westbrook’s concentration. California fast-food staple Jack in the Box will give two free tacos to every fan in attendance if the beleaguered Lakers can pull off a win. Kobe Bryant and company are riding high off two straight victories, but the Thunder have bested them in their two previous contests. If the Lake Show can beat their conference rival, 18,997 attendees will go home a little fuller.
Despite the rowdy fans’ best efforts, Westbrook calmly nails the first shot. But the second clangs off the rim, right into the hands of Metta World Peace.
This Los Angeles game is a homecoming of sorts for Westbrook, who hails from South Central. Some of the Staples Center crowd surely remember when he led the UCLA Bruins to two consecutive Final Fours. But they’re not trying to be robbed of their meat-filled tortillas. Not after that stunt Westbrook pulled in Denver.
A week earlier, the Thunder’s unapologetic star drew the ire of Denver Nuggets fans after foiling another fast food giveaway. At Nuggets games, Denver’s mountain lion mascot Rocky takes half-court shots to net fans free nosh. With the Thunder looking on and bowls of Qdoba Queso on the line for every man, woman, and child in the building, Rocky heaved two shots that appeared true—until Westbrook jumped up and snatched both out of the air, drawing audible boos from the Pepsi Center crowd.
“I take risks, but I don't think of it that way.”
Such hijinks have earned Westbrook a reputation as the NBA's reigning iconoclast. No matter what box you try to place him in, this natural-born non-conformist refuses to stay in it. “I take risks, but I don’t think of it that way,” he says with a smile that’s both charming and devilish.
Running point for the defending Western Conference champions, Westbrook has what many basketball diehards regard as the easiest job in the world: getting the ball into the hands of OKC scoring machine Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is no Steve Nash, the archetypal selfless point guard. In fact he's the highest-scoring point guard in the NBA. This year he’s taken more shots than his smooth-shooting teammate; for what it’s worth, he also has nearly three times as many offensive rebounds as the much taller Durant.
“Westbrook’s style is not always pretty, but most of the time it’s effective,” says Darnell Mayberry, who covers the Thunder for The Oklahoman newspaper. “He competes like few other point guards in this league.”
Russell Westbrook is fast—ridiculously fast. He attacks the basket relentlessly, finding ways to create offensive opportunities and excitement. Spry and gangly, he’s built like an upright cheetah and armed with a 36-inch vertical, a 67 ¾-inch wingspan, a fiery temper, and a zero-fucks-given attitude. If Kevin Durant is the NBA’s white knight, Westbrook is the dark horse. He won’t let Lakers fans have their tacos, Nuggets fans their queso, or basketball purists the self-effacing Durant sidekick they hoped for. But he will play his ass off for a championship ring, albeit on his own terms.
Doing things his way certainly hasn’t hurt his bottom line. “His athletic ability is off the charts,” says Brian O’Connor, global VP of marketing for Jordan Brand, which recently signed the three-time NBA All-Star to a multi-year endorsement deal. MJ himself has praised Russell’s “style, both on and off the court,” adding, “we love the drive and passion for basketball that Russell brings.”
When number zero’s on the floor, he moves like the Tasmanian Devil—a 6-foot-3-inch tornado who slashes to the rim with boundless energy. He isn’t afraid to play rough either, like when push literally comes to shove with Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center. While trying to steal the ball in the third quarter, Westbrook is called for a foul, earning a shove from Bryant; Westbrook shoves right back. After the two are separated, Bryant catches a technical foul. “I don’t mind talking,” Westbrook says afterwards, “but I don’t like nobody putting their hands on me.”
When the final buzzer sounds, Westbrook’s racked up 17 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds. Still, the Thunder fall to the Lakers, 105-96, their third L of a six-game road trip. But while L.A. may have revived their Showtime heyday for a moment, the post-game show belongs solely to Westbrook.