Russell Westbrook, it can be argued, is something of a walking contradiction. A fiery competitor on the floor, he’s known for his charitable ways and caring demeanor off of it. Standoffish to the media at times, he seems to be consciously aware of how that churlish behavior could be perceived by those he cares about and loves.
The enigma that is Russell Westbrook is examined in an extensive piece by Lee Jenkins for the April 6 issue of Sports Illustrated. One cannot walk away from reading it without understanding a little bit more about what makes the dynamic Oklahoma City Thunder point guard tick and how the labels applied to the 26-year-old superstar don’t necessarily hold true.
Sure, the fierce competitor’s personality on the court is one of scarcely controlled, high-scoring frenzy — “He plays with a rage,” says teammate Kevin Durant — but how he carries himself off the court when the cameras aren’t around show how that perception isn’t always reality.
One anecdote from Jenkins’ story is about how Westbrook is a favorite in the Thunder’s offices, as he demonstrates a frequent friendliness that belies his reputation.
The ball is not his only friend, not even close. Westbrook is beloved in the Thunder’s headquarters for attending the hockey games, soccer matches and piano recitals of staffers’ children. Every year he sends a pair of Air Jordans and a Jordan-brand sweat suit to each employee. He can be warm (“Get me out there with those people,” he told team p.r. boss Matt Tumbleson after the devastating tornado in ’13, when the guard was still relegated to a wheelchair because of the meniscus) and funny (“Congratulations on your daughter’s birth,” he messaged Tumbleson. “I hear her name is Russellena”).
Jenkins notes that Westbrook is a changed man once the cameras and recording devices are turned off, writing that the surly, short-tempered demeanor frequently exhibited to the press instantly goes away as he transforms into a gregarious sort whose voice becomes boisterous and lively.
“People who don’t know me probably think I’m mad all the time, and with the way I play, they have a point,” he says. “But I’m not Angry Man off the court. I’m a laid-back chill guy.”
The perception that he is “Angry Man” all the time bothers Westbrook, especially because he worries how it could affect children who idolize him as well as those he loves.
“It upsets me when little kids hear, ‘He’s so aggressive, you can’t contain him,’” Westbrook says. “My mom hears that, my family hears it, and it makes me seem like I have no control over what I’m doing.”
Westbrook, despite Durant being perpetually injured (along with several other Thunder players), has somehow managed to keep the team afloat by putting up MVP-caliber numbers night after night, sprinkling in triple-doubles into the box score with alarming frequency. With eight games remaining on its regular season schedule, OKC is 42-32 and currently holds the eighth seed in the tough Western Conference with the Phoenix Suns 2.5 game back.
With the Thunder announcing last week that Durant was being shut down for the season and would undergo surgery, the pressure became even greater for Westbrook to lead his men into a presumed first round showdown with the Golden State Warriors, a tall task, indeed, perhaps one so formidable even Westbrook will be unable to put the team on his back and lead them to an improbable upset.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t give it everything he’s got.