Wicked Game


Originally published in SLAM 166

by Tzvi Twersky | portraits Ahmed Klink

Nighttime in Oklahoma City, and the streets surrounding West Reno Avenue are silent. An otherwise normal December Sunday evening in downtown OKC, where refuge from frigid arctic winds is found in cold bottles and warm beds, is disturbed by an unusual occurrence: a 7-2 fallen star has crashed to earth.

He, Roy Hibbert, All-Star center of the Indiana Pacers, fell in Chesapeake Energy Arena, in front of 18,203 witnesses, with 3:47 left to play in OKC’s 13th home game of the season. He didn’t just crash to earth, though, as some players are wont to do. After catching the ball deep in the paint, thanks to a nifty one-handed dish from David West, Hibbert rose for what he thought was going to be a pivotal and uncontested layup.

A 6-3, 187-pound point guard named Russell Westbrook had other ideas. As Hibbert gathered himself and uncoiled his length toward the basket, Westbrook, who was guarding Gerald Green along the far wing, dashed over and leapt, legs askew and right arm held high. Though 11 inches separate the two players when they stand side by side on the ground, in the air Westbrook is a pilot and Hibbert a passenger. And so it was on this occasion, the shorter of the two men rose far above the taller one and violently sent the ball and the gentle giant back to the ground.

“Oh, what a play by Westbrook!” Thunder TV play-by-play man, Brian Davis, exclaimed.

“Talk about putting a cork on a bottle,” his partner, Grant Long, added.

This is the Russell Westbrook of 2013, of whom anything is not only possible but likely. On the sidelines, Pacers coach Frank Vogel can do nothing but shake his weary head and rest his hands on his hips as his center peels himself off the ground. Mere feet away, on the other side of the scorer’s table, Thunder coach Scott Brooks does his best to conceal a smirk.

“Russell has an ability that you don’t see from that position, or any position,” Brooks says over the phone a few weeks later. “Coach [Maurice] Cheeks probably has a charley horse on his thigh every other game because I’m hitting it. I always say to him, Can you believe that he just did that?!”

Coach isn’t the only one in awe of Westbrook’s athleticism. Five seasons after he joined the Thunder as the fourth pick in the Draft, five seasons after he began running right by—and, sometimes, through—opposing guards and leaping clear over—and, sometimes, through—opposing centers, five seasons after he started leaving opponents grasping for air and fans gasping for air, the 24-year-old still has other players searching for superlatives.

“He might be the most athletic player to ever play the point guard position,” says Westbrook’s teammate, center Kendrick Perkins. “And I’m not just talking about how high he can jump; I’m talking about how fast he is.”

“It’s tough playing against him in practice. It’s tough every single day,” says Eric Maynor, Westbrook’s backup until a recent trade to the Portland Trailblazers. “As much as I’ve been watching basketball and playing basketball, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or guarded, at that position, somebody as explosive and powerful.”

“His athleticism is—” Paul George, the Pacers small forward and a renowned athlete in his own right, looks to the locker room ceiling and pauses—“I don’t know if there is a point guard that possesses that type of athleticism.”

In-game dunks that are Dunk Contest-worthy. Steals where he starts and stops so fast you swear you can smell burning rubber. Dribble drives that require only two steps inside the three-point arc. Blocks on forwards and centers who are at the pinnacle of their jumps. All of it brings fans to the building and keeps them out of their seats, but does any of it ever surprise Westbrook?

“Yes, it does,” Westbrook, who had trouble finishing at the rim and couldn’t even finger-tip dunk until well into his high school days at Leuzinger in Lawndale, CA, says, acknowledging the absurdity of it all. “It does, but sometimes you just have to play and just go.”


“I’m not too good at these scary faces,” Russell Westbrook says to the photographer.

He is sitting on a wooden milk crate in the sparse entranceway of Integris Health Thunder Training Center. A converted skating rink that served as OKC’s practice facility from 2008-12, this unlikely site in Edmond, OK, nurtured Westbrook’s early growth as an NBA player and now serves as the rental home for several local AAU teams. The building, which looks like a warehouse from the outside and is situated across from barren fields and next to tractors, clings to the recent past, as posters of Thunder players past and present adorn the walls.

On this Monday in December, the old Training Center is bustling with activity, mostly Jordan Brand personnel preparing the cavernous courts for multiple photo and video shoots. Different color backdrops dot the floor, and a rim is lowered to nine feet. The court is now a set; JB personnel are now Westbrook’s personal attendees; and Westbrook is now a product pitchman.

“I’m excitable and outgoing,” he continues later, while changing out of a Jordan t-shirt and a pair of AJ XX8s in a camouflage colorway and back in to the grey hoodie and loose beanie that he arrived in. “It’s just that when the game starts, I don’t really say too much. I just go out there and take care of business.”

There is no irony lost in Westbrook saying he can’t make a mean or scary face. After all, if you entered the Thunder locker room pre-game and saw Westbrook with a towel shrouding his head, or if you watch the Thunder play on national TV, you’d think Westbrook (and not his teammate Perkins) invented the disgusted scowl, invented the hard stare. You’d think that he was an ornery guy who walks around all day with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Larry O’Brien trophy. You’d think that, as one person close to him put it, he looks like a villain. You’d think…wrong.

“So many people say so many things about me,” says Westbrook. “If I would care or take it personally, I would be going crazy.”

“People don’t really know him,” says Maynor. “It’s like night and day from the court to off the court with him. On the court, he means business. Off the court, he’s just a cool guy who wants to joke around all the time.”

Westbrook, in fact, has a face that was made to smile. With his high cheekbones and wide mouth, attributes that lend themselves to brilliant grins, Westbrook has the right facial chops to be the life of a party. And, according to friends, he often is just that.

“He’s a dancing machine,” says Perkins, before sarcastically calling Russell a diva. “He’s just a guy who likes to dance all the time.”

“He stays chilling,” says his younger brother, Raynard. “He’s funny. We laugh and joke all day, every day.”

“It’s accurate,” says Westbrook. “It’s very accurate. I dance, I like to have fun and good times.”

Westbrook’s oft-overlooked penchant for fun, which he keeps in check for 48 minutes around 100 times a season and during most interviews, was on full display at the afternoon-long photo shoot. He laughed—a deep, genuine giggle—at corny jokes. He greeted Raynard, when he visited the shoot, by charging into him like a linebacker, and he spoke with his agent in high-pitched “yiiiips” and “yaaaps.” His love for life was like static electricity, passing through and touching all who were in his vicinity. No wonder, then, that some on OKC’s PR staff consider Westbrook a favorite.

“There’s no question he’s intense on the court, but when you see him in community events and when he’s visiting hospitals and with the young fanbase, he’s the most charming, friendly, lovable player that you can ever be around,” says Brooks. “But on the court—and I like this—he doesn’t like 29 other point guards. That’s how you compete in this League. You don’t have to disrespect them, but you don’t have to be friendly with them.”

While Westbrook turns his affability on and off with the ease of a TV, he can’t dial back his toughness, on or off the court.

An example: Six minutes into that same game against the Pacers, while reaching in for a steal on Hibbert, Westbrook jammed his right hand. He came up grimacing and spent the next few minutes of the game tenderly holding his hand and flexing his wrist. Standing by his locker after the game, Westbrook told the assembled media he was fine. Meanwhile, his hand was buried in his navy down vest’s front pocket, concealing athletic tape. The next morning, despite no outward signs of injury, Westbrook was in too much pain to properly palm a ball. Two days later, in a win against the New Orleans Hornets, Westbrook had 14 points and 9 assists. He never said one word to the media about the injury. He is still yet to miss an NBA game, having played 371 consecutive Thunder games.

“Toughness is your ability to play every game, practice every day, and Russell does that,” says Brooks. “He doesn’t miss practices, he’s never missed a game—I don’t think he even has in high school or college. That tells you his toughness is displayed every night.”

It’s more than missed games and practices, though. It’s more than mangled fingers and deep-pocketed vests. It’s a dedicated mindset. Back at the old Training Center, a makeup artist noticed a collection of off-colored scars crisscrossing Westbrook’s shoulders and arms, snaking under his familiar blue Thunder away jersey. Ever so politely, she walked over to him and began to ask if she could touch up his upper body to conceal the marks.

Shaking his head forcefully, Westbrook cut her off mid-sentence. Whether the photos were going to be used in an ad campaign for millions to see or held to his mom’s fridge by a magnet and seen only by his family, Westbrook didn’t want anyone to “take away [his] toughness.”


Back to that Sunday night in Oklahoma City. The streets outside West Reno Avenue are silent, but following Westbrook’s block on Hibbert, the crowd inside Chesapeake Energy Arena is anything but. The score stands at 98-91 before the block, and 100-91 when Westbrook goes the other way and hits a pull-up jumper, his specialty, from the free-throw line extended. A few possessions later, Westbrook drains a pull-up from the other elbow. With 62 seconds left in the game, he follows that up with another J and a steal. In all, after starting the game 4-12, Westbrook would finish with 21 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks.

That math, which is in line with his season averages of 23.4, 7.9 and 5.2, is impressive. It’s impressive in an across-the-board peripheral way—LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are the only other players currently averaging at least 20, 5 and 5—and it’s even more impressive if you know where Westbrook started. Just consider: in the past 12 years, he has transformed from a football-first pre-teen to an undersized jump shooting kid with achy knees; from a growing albeit lightly recruited high schooler to a starter at UCLA; from a fan from afar of Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers to the fourth overall pick by their soon-to-be-rival Thunder; from a workout marvel that wowed OKC’s front office with his athleticism to a SportsCenter regular; from a firecracker of a scorer who was labeled as selfish to a near-complete player who can impact a game in any way on any given night.

“I think the biggest step he took,” says Perkins, “is learning how to be effective without having to score. Some nights you’re going to struggle, but he had a big steal the play after the block, and that’s the thing he keeps getting better at.”

“Year by year,” says Westbrook, “as the game has slowed down for me—even though I’m still playing at the same speed—it’s helped me see things quicker, helped me make better decisions.”

“Russell’s leadership and improvement on the defensive end, to me, have made him not only one of the top point guards but one of the top players in the game,” says Brooks. “And I love the fact that he just does it every night at a high level. He doesn’t make excuses. When he plays bad, he owns up to it; when he plays good, he’s not telling the whole world how good he is.”

Maybe that’s because Westbrook knows how easy his greatness is to see. Or maybe, scarily, it’s because the reigning Second-Team All-NBA player considers himself unaccomplished.

“I feel like I haven’t done nothing yet,” says Westbrook. “Until we get some Championships around here, I won’t feel like I’ve done something.”

If Westbrook and the Thunder accomplish that, trust, the streets of downtown Oklahoma City won’t be so silent.