*I plan on writing many pieces about Duke Basketball, but watching the saga of Russell Westbrook this NBA postseason provided ample motivation to write my opinion on a player who deserves a ton of credit and plays a style 180 degrees differently from what is expected of an NBA point guard. Watching this previous season’s emotionless Duke team, apart from a legendary Duke-UNC game, makes Westbrook’s fiery demeanor stand out even more*
Star players are taught to play at an even keel. Basketball is usually a game of runs, so a player who gets too excited after a quality stretch is generally thought to be in danger of letting his guard down or tiring out as the game goes on. Emotional basketball players are usually glue guys, which means that they get the honor of doing all of the dirty work that no one else on the team enjoys like rebounding and setting screens. Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls and Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers immediately come to mind (maybe their power comes from their hair). In recent Duke memory, Lance Thomas and David McClure were great glue guys.
Stars used to be much more emotional before the age of overwhelming media and twitter. Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett and Gary Payton were the kings of emotion, trying to do whatever it took to psych themselves up or to get inside an opponent’s head. Now, a big shot in a game is followed by an emotionless stare. Garnett is getting close to the end of the road, so is the NBA going to turn into a scene from Office Space? “No, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Ginobili has not seen your stapler.”
Enter Russell Westbrook, the human ball of emotion. Westbrook plays the game like a scorned John Rambo; constantly in attack mode, with an on/off switch that only goes one way. Westbrook starts the game looking angry, and that anger flows for the entire game. Once the horn sounds, he lets his guard down (and wears some interesting postgame outfits that only his mother could love) but until that moment, he is all business. It boggles the mind to consider how tough it must be to maintain a consistent level of anger for an entire basketball game. When I get angry, it is likely after around a half hour that I cannot even remember what in the world I was angry about in the first place.
Westbrook’s emotion causes some bad individual decisions, but his fire and tenacity fuels Oklahoma City. Media pundits love to negatively talk about him, saying he is not a true point guard and calling for the ball to be in the hands of Kevin Durant more often, but the statistics do not lie. When the ball is in Westbrook’s hands, he makes the correct basketball decision more often than not, and the Thunder are a better team. Adding a pull-up mid-range jumper at the elbow has made him even more lethal this season.
I love watching Westbrook play because his emotion is genuine. He plays every part of the game with a passion that seems real. Many players use fake emotion, play fake defense (flopping) and make fake comments. Westbrook’s best friend Khelcey Barrs died when he was 15 years old, and he wears two rubber bracelets on his wrists each game to commemorate his fallen friend. He has been overlooked his entire life, from high school to college. Some even considered the Thunder drafting him with the 4th pick a reach in the 2008 NBA Draft, but any critique is just adding fuel to his already blazing fire within. His rise has been meteoric if you consider that he barely received a scholarship to UCLA just a few years ago.
Last year’s Duke team would have loved some of Westbrook’s emotion. Losing Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving as vocal leaders, as well as Kyle Singler as a “lead by example” kind of guy, left the team thin. With only one senior, Miles Plumlee, they needed emotion from all around. Freshman Austin Rivers was the only player on the team who reminded me of Duke guys from year’s past who don’t want to win; they HAVE to win. In the coming years, hopefully Quinn Cook can become that guy, or that one of the Seniors will step up this year. The key is to combine the Senior leadership with the raw emotion of underclassmen. Coach K provided much of the emotion and vocal leadership last year that needs to be picked up by the players this upcoming season.
Many in the media, as well as fans, love to box players in by saying how they should play their position and how they should act. Russell Westbrook is fun to watch because of his rawness. What you see is what you get. He plays at 100 mph because that is what he needs to do to help his team win. He is emotional during the game because that helps him play better. This again helps the team. Even with the supreme aggressiveness he plays with, he has missed a grand total of zero games in his career. When asked if a big individual game 4 of the NBA finals was a sort of vindication for Westbrook against the criticism of the media despite the loss of the game, he answered the question as it deserved.
“Lemme get this straight. What you guys [media] say doesn’t make me happy or make me sad, it doesn’t do anything. It’s all about my team and us winning the game. I don’t have a personal challenge against you guys. It’s not me against the world, it’s not the world against me. It’s me and my teammates trying to win.”
Russell Westbrook is not an angry young man. He just plays the game like it. And for that, NBA fans should be very thankful, because it’s damn fun to watch.