When you wake up in the morning and take but dumb cuts at the day, what is it that is driving you, throwing coal into your fire, stoking the deepest passions of your heart? Food? Water? Sex? Drink? Drugs? Competition? Money? Revenge? The feeling of your enemy lying at your feet, their face mushed up and interlaced in your dirty toes? What drives the passions of mankind, what makes life ALIVE, which of the temptations life provides gets you out of bed, keeps you from overdosing on Prozac and slipping into an SSRI-induced coma, riding out the rest of your life in a bed, your body waiting for the heat death of the universe?
I mention all this to prime your mind for speculating about what stokes the passionate fires of ANOTHER person, Russell Westbrook, guard for the Houston Rockets. Westbrook got traded in the offseason after 11 seasons in Oklahoma City, where he was … good? Great? Capable of putting up mind-breaking stat lines, even over the course of a season, but also maybe occasionally more than a little counterproductive?
It’s honestly, I think, hard to say what was going through Westbrook’s head for all those years in OKC. History, I suspect, will be the teller of the full tale, simply because everything about the man is completely baffling. I mean, you have to assume he wanted to win basketball games, but there was a real sense that he wanted to do that ON HIS OWN TERMS, with himself as the axle and his teammates as the wheel. He would just f*cking heap points and assists onto the scoreboard, sure, but there was also the matter of his bevy of missed shots, midrangers that would careen off back iron and stop a play dead in its tracks. And those rebounds, sometimes there were miracles, one guy skying a billion miles in the air and snatching it away. But sometimes there was just the most blatant stat-stuffing nonsense imaginable, Russell scowling at his teammates to scare them off the open ones, or just totally selling out his defensive position for the notch on his stat sheet.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of Westbrook as a coworker. Two, count ’em, TWO elite wing talents, Paul George and Kevin Durant, left the Thunder high and dry while the team was in Westbrook’s thrall, the kind of thing that MIGHT make you SUSPECT that playing with him is kind of difficult, if you are also an ambitious young man who is looking to win big in the NBA.
All of these facts together suggest that the thing driving Westbrook, more than anything else, appears to be his own numbers. The violence with which he pursues triple-doubles, his seeming lack of concern as to whether or not his pursuits end up losing his team games or valuable teammates, it just all sort of points to his main motivations being statistical in nature.
But then, isn’t that sort of a strange thing to say, to think, considering what it’s actually like to watch him play basketball?
Here is Russ, catching the ball in the backcourt, dribbling the length of the floor, splitting two passive-seeming Orlando Magic defenders, rising up and throwing down a mostly uncontested dunk. It’s honestly a good dunk, full extension on the arm, just dribbling the full length of the court was a nice, heads-up play. It’s fine. Cool, even.
But, right after it goes down he just loses his g**damn mind. Screaming, fist pumping. He’s so g**damned amped about this kind-of-fast-break-dunk he got off a sub-.500 team playing in the middle of winter, that when the ball comes up toward his face, he gets the holy spirit and headbutts the ball, like he’s an Arsenal fan in some hideous London bar, smashing domes with his pal after Nicolas Pépé drills one against Man City or whoever. He’s SO AMPED!
Look, if were all being totally objective here, there were better dunks this week. Fultz going behind the back in transition, LeBron doing some dirt-dishing to Dwight, or James twisting off a defender in a perfect circle and notching a dunk over the Hawks all come to mind. But, like, look who’s right there on the preview picture for the NBA’s compilation: It’s Westbrook, screaming his g**damn brains out after notching two points on a bullsh*t team in the middle of the season.
So much about Westbrook’s production suggests that this dude is a bean counter, looking to heap up as many dings as he can before he kicks the bucket. But I’ve never thought about stat stuffers as dudes who are this … pumped? Jacked and juiced? Out there ready to DIE for this sh*t?
Kevin Garnett was known for losing his mind out there, but his spirit was always in the realm of the intangible, playing defense, screaming at his enemies, getting his squad pumped for another night out on the hardwood. Westbrook is walking around with that same ball of energy in his chest, but it’s getting directed at, like, just total nonsense, night after night. He’s like a cost-cutting accountant, organizing workflow to direct more money to management and stockholders, but instead of bringing single mothers into his office on a Friday afternoon and bloodlessly firing them quick enough so her tears don’t mess up “The Office Vibe,” he’s standing in the middle of the office, screaming his face off about how he is the king of this office, g**damnit, and the ten of you can get out of here, and if anyone is mad about that, maybe they should have passed him the ball more, did that ever occur to them?
It’s just so … weird? Man’s passions are so twisty and strange, of course, that learning about someone being that enthusiastic about ANYTHING is becoming less and less strange to me, as I get older, I suppose. There is a whole genre of human beings who are extraordinarily angry about The Last Jedi because the protagonist is a woman. There are people out there who die for the honor of the Cleveland Browns. You know that there are people in this world who not only think Pete Buttigieg should be president, but are also MAD at people who might take some time out of their day to suggest that his entire lifetime of achievements before this has been either a weird nothingburger or work in service to the worst people in the universe? Couldn’t be me, man.
But these people and their perverse, boring passions have a hero in Westbrook. He goes out there every night and heaping on the ladles full of rich, gravy stats. All in service to the pursuit of the number in and of itself. The pure exhilaration and power of just getting another two points in the NBA. Could that energy be directed somewhere else, somewhere that might help his team, like, win more games? Sure, of course it could. But he mostly wins ENOUGH games. That’s not his reason for being, the sh*t that’s getting him out of bed every morning. Who are we to deny Westbrook his deepest, most profound passions?