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Sports Authority

Edmonds: What makes Russell Westbrook great

| Thursday, August 23, 2018

Having begun my amateur journalism career in news, the thought of writing a sports opinion piece is my own personal eighth circle of hell. However, there are few things I love talking about more than my hometown of Oklahoma City and its beloved basketball team — the Thunder. Consider yourself warned that the majority of my Sports Authorities going forward will probably reference the team.

I love Russell Westbrook, everything about him — his King Kong stomp when he posterizes someone, his infamous #whynot brand and, of course, his adorable son, Noah. But perhaps, my favorite quality of his is his intense loyalty, evident in his relationship with his family, teammates and the city that took him in as a 20 year old wild card with unparalleled athleticism.  

Westbrook is the backbone of the Thunder and, by extension, the backbone of our city. That might seem dramatic to those of you from major cities that boast multiple professional sports teams and industries and this is by no means meant to minimize the importance of those fanbases in their respective communities, but rather to highlight the unique influence of a successful and committed team to a small market. A state long scarred by tragic events — the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murray building, devastating tornados and dust bowls — has been transformed over the past decade. This birth of culture and industry is undoubtedly a result of the Thunder and their success. This new relevance has made Oklahoma City feel as though we finally belonged in the conversation with other major cities, even if we clearly didn’t really belong there.

Credit to Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who took on a nearly impossible task and created a playoff contending team within three seasons. There’s a reason I want to like Kevin Durant so badly. His presence and investment is still felt very much around the city. But, like any bad breakup, the thought of him serves as a scar for the boy who upgraded to a flashier, more popular model. I often talk to friends from the coasts who don’t understand why Thunder fans still hold such resentment towards Durant, but it’s simple — we hate him because we used to love him. And then came Westbrook. Just over a year after Durant permanently ruined July 4th for an entire city, Westbrook announced his commitment to stay the course in OKC, not coincidentally on Durant’s birthday. Unlike the first time Westbrook signed an extension, he was committing to the franchise when things were looking rather bleak. With Durant, Harden and Ibaka gone it would’ve been easy to just blow the whole thing up. But the former drama king demonstrated that same loyalty. 

For those of you who aren’t quite as enamored by Westbrook as myself, I get it. He can be cocky, strutting around in his newest capri set and Gucci sweatshirt. He’s a hot head who may not be the easiest teammate. You could argue that his sometimes questionable shot selection and need to be an alpha male eliminates him from a list of greats. But there’s no denying that Westbrook treats all 82 games as though they could be his last. Look no further than his incredible performance leading the Thunder in their comeback against the Jazz. Facing elimination, Westbrook exhibited the competitor he is when he scored 20 points in the third quarter to come back from down 25 and ultimately force a game six. He’s matured immensely, both on and off the court, over the past decade. 

For you data junkies, Westbrook’s numbers are obscene. Anytime a player joins Oscar Robinson as the sole companion in a category, you know they’re in good company. For the detractors who claim his stats are only further proof of stat padding, he’s had to lead a team the only way he knows how to — commandingly. That’s not to say Westbrook is without help. Steven Adams has developed into a dominant big man along and there’s obviously no denying the huge boost the Thunder earned in re-signing Paul George (just don’t talk to me about that whole Carmelo experiment). But that has required time and patience by Westbrook, something he rarely gets credit for. 

I’m not trying to suggest that Westbrook is a great player by virtue of his commitment to one team. By that logic, Udonis Haslem would’ve been inducted to the Hall of Fame by now. Rather, I’m arguing that players like Westbrook represent one of the things that are still great about sports — standing by a community instead of trading in a “sacred legacy for cheap jewelry,” in the words of Reggie Miller. 

That said, there shouldn’t be an expectation that players stay with their original team their entire career. Often there are factors — poor management, trades, complacency — that can compel a player to move teams. But the creation of super teams is ruining the quality of the league. As part of the summer of “King James,” LeBron was able to leave Cleveland with much more grace as he took his talents to Los Angeles. As an avid NBA fan who never missed playoff season, I couldn’t have been less interested in the 2018 finals. I wasn’t alone in my disinterest; viewership for the 2018 Game 4 clinching for the Warriors was down in every measurement, including 30 percent compared to the previous year’s series ending game, which featured the same teams.

As much as I hope it’s this year, I don’t imagine anything will change in the near future. I am, however, optimistic that there will be a shift in team configuration. The NBA shouldn’t want this period of lopsided dominance for the league to thrive. I hope to one day watch Westbrook hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, dawning some strange glasses and his blue and orange jersey, proud that his decisions to reject the easy route are finally being rewarded. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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