Westbrook paving a new path, on and off the court

(Photo by Torrey Purvey)

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY — More than three hours before each game, Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook can be found in the same place. Whether he is on the road or at home. Whether it’s a late West Coast start or even early afternoon in the east. The routine never changes
Before any other players have arrived and almost two hours before the fans are even let into the building, Westbrook is going through warmups on the court.
For close to 30 minutes, Westbrook goes through an assortment of drills while joking, laughing and talking trash with Oklahoma City assistant coach Maurice Cheeks and anyone else who happens to be in his vicinity. His laugh can be heard throughout the nearly empty arena before he scolds assistant coach Royal Ivey for even trying to guard him.
It’s a side of Westbrook seen by very few outside the Thunder organization.
Hours later, as game-time approaches, that side of Westbrook has faded away. In its place are the scowls, the ferocious dunks and the stare-downs — all features of one of the most competitive and unique players in today’s game.
“I just go out and have fun. I don’t know if it’s the most fun I’ve had, but it’s definitely at the top because the group of guys we have,” Westbrook said. “Everybody is so unselfish. Everybody is willing to do great things, and everybody wants to get better. We’re young and blessed to be able to play this game. You can’t do anything but have fun.”
It can easily be said that this NBA season has been all about Westbrook. While many believe the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are destined to meet for a third straight NBA Finals, the Thunder point guard has stolen his share of the headlines with his exploits.
In his ninth year in the league, Westbrook is on the verge of doing something that has only been done once before by averaging a triple-double for the entire season.
That feat is now solely owned by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson during the 1961-62 campaign. But Westbrook is charging his way up the mountain to not only join the Big O, but do it in a much more spectacular way and in less time on the court. Robertson played more than 44 minutes a game while Westbrook is right at 34.
Westbrook’s stat line looks like something you would see only on video games. Heading into February, he had already compiled 24 triple doubles and was averaging 30.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.2 assists per night. He leads the league in scoring and is second in assists.
Even more impressive, Westbrook is 11th in the NBA in rebounding. He is hauling in more boards than DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Vucevic and Tristan Thompson, who are all 7-foot centers. No other guard is ranked inside the top 20.
This season alone, Westbrook has already passed up LeBron James, Fat Lever and Larry Bird on the all-time list for career triple doubles. He sits in fifth place by himself, trailing only the likes of Wilt Chamberlain (78), Jason Kidd (107), Magic Johnson (138) and Robertson (181).
Yet, Westbrook doesn’t want to focus or elaborate on the historical milestones he is reaching.
“I definitely don’t take that for granted,” Westbrook said. “Like I’ve said before, every night I step on the floor I try to compete at a high level and I am thankful that I can play the game that I love every night.”
More often it’s opponents of the Thunder who are more impressed with what Westbrook is doing than the man himself.
“He is putting up phenomenal numbers, I think it really just comes down to heart, passion and will,” Phoenix Center Tyson Chandler said. “Every second he is going full speed, giving 100 percent. He is just putting his will into the game. I have the utmost respect for Russ because at the end of the day, you know what you are going to get. He is going to give you everything he has got every time he steps on the floor, and I really respect that.”
One of the coaches who has faced Westbrook the most during his career is the Dallas Mavericks skipper Rick Carlisle. From regular-season matchups to postseason battles, he has had a front seat view to Westbrook’s exploits.
But even Carlisle is amazed how much Westbrook has elevated his game.
“It’s historic,” Carlisle said. “He is averaging a triple-double. It’s amazing. He has boundless energy and never seems to lose it. The team is playing well. They are a load to deal with because of his greatness as a starting point. The question is whether he can continue it. I don’t see any reason he can’t. To this point, it’s been an amazing accomplishment and should probably be talked about more than it is.”
Westbrook has always been a talented player. There has never been any question about that since he was drafted fourth overall by the Thunder in the 2008 draft.
What Westbrook had to prove is that he was capable of being the type of leader franchises are built around. Up until this season, he’s shared leadership duties with Kevin Durant. But when he left Oklahoma City for Golden State, the Thunder fortunes fell on the shoulders of Westbrook.
As the season has gone on, the questions regarding Durant have become fewer and fewer. Even most visiting media have moved on.
But that will change with the Warriors coming to Oklahoma City on Feb. 11 and the All-Star game right around the corner, where both Westbrook and Durant will be on the same team.
Yet, Westbrook contends the only players he thinks about are the ones in a Thunder uniform.
The first thing Westbrook did to solidly himself as the face of the franchise was to sign a contract extension in the offseason that will keep him here through at least next season.
The next step was to transform himself into a player that can not only be great, but make those around him better. It’s a task he looks to be getting a handle on.
“I remember my first game was at Charlotte, and from the first game he gave me so much confidence. I mean whenever I am out there on the floor with him, he just gives me so much confidence,” Thunder forward Enes Kanter said. “He makes the game so much easier for everyone around him. That is what a really special player does. And then you see him on the court, and he’s not just cool on the court, but off the floor too he is a really good friend and a really good locker room guy that is always talking to players and tries to get the young guys involved too. He’s amazing.”
Off the court, Westbrook has never hidden from his responsibilities to his organization or community. Whether it’s appearing at various team-wide community events and Christmas shopping sprees, or using his foundation to build reading rooms at elementary schools and hosting Thanksgiving dinner for underprivileged families, he doesn’t shy away from his responsibility.
That includes speaking up on tough topics. Earlier in the year, he stated strong opinions against the election of Donald Trump as President. Friday, he said current players in the league need a better understanding of the importance of Black History Month.
“A lot of people may not know. We’ve got a lot of younger guys in the league that may not understand African-American culture,” Westbrook said. “For me I know that was important, that’s something I studied in college. To be able to know your history, know your background, know where you’re from, and how we’re able to do the things we do today, I think it’s important, not just for people in the NBA, but everybody across the world to have a good understanding of what Black History Month is.”
These are comments fans would not have heard two or three years ago.
The 2016-17 season has in many aspects been a new start for Westbrook. While he isn’t reinventing himself, he is providing more glimpses of who of who he is and who he can become.
“It’s the things off the floor,” Westbrook said on the fun he’s having. “Being able to chat with guys, not just on the basketball court but in the locker room, taking guys out to dinner, and having team events. To be able to do that and to see another guy do well and you are happy for them, that’s a blessing to be able to do that inside of a team. Nothing can break that bond.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer at Eyeamtruth.com

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