In the National Basketball Association, narrative is everything. It’s what legacies and opinions and clickbait are made of. It helps determine All-Star appearances and All-NBA votes, even MVPs. Sometimes is feels like it even has a hand in dictating players’ actions, both on the court and off.
It’s the straw that stirs the proverbial drink, the spark that lights the proverbial fire, the Russell Westbrook that sets my proverbial heart all aflutter.
But really, it means next to nothing, narrative. Would Charles Barkley have been any better at basketball if Michael Jordan had never existed? John Stockton? Gary Payton? LeBron James would be just as amazing if Ray Allen had missed that shot. Sorry, but they’re not actually going to print asterisks on Kevin Durant’s rings.
It changes nothing. And yet, for many players, the narrative, in large part, defines their careers. Are you the “type of guy” who can win a ring? Do you “have what it takes?” Are you a “championship caliber player?”
Or are you just not quite good enough? Flawed.
What does that name mean to you? If you’re on this website, I’d say there’s a solid chance you’re a Thunder fan, and it means a whole lot. If you’re a Thunder fan, it means loyalty and passion and desire and #WhyNot and, frankly, it means defending him constantly. Especially if you’re on NBA Twitter, you probably already know all the pet lines used to slander Russ, and you probably even have your own pet retorts, with stats to back them up.
Ball Hog! Leads the league in assists.
Stat-padder! Have you seen OKC’s record when he triple-doubles?
Can’t play with him! Career years from KD, PG, Oladipo, etc, etc, etc.
We know the answers. We know the truth. But it’s still there, the narrative. Every day, every game, every play, and it will be there forever – unless he can change it.
So, what are we rooting for? What’s the best possible scenario for the remainder of Russell Westbrook’s career, that would bring us the most joy? This would be an easy answer if he was still in the Oklahoma State Flag blues, but things are obviously a tad-bit more complicated now that Russ plays for the Rockets.
As I see it, there are three parties involved: Russ, Thunder fans, and (because I’m the one writing this so I get to make myself extra important) me.
Russ’s rooting interests
Imagine asking Russell Westbrook, “Do you think you need to win a championship?” You can already hear his response. Depending on his mood, it’s probably either “Next question” or something along the lines of “I just try to get better each and every day, and the rest will take care of itself.” You can probably already picture his facial expression.
And you know what? He’d actually be fairly credible in saying he didn’t care. Russ is more than just a ball-player these days. He’s got a happy family that’s just bursting at the seams. Despite his (border-line plagiaristic) claims that he has no friends other than Spalding, he showed real love to his old Thunder teammates after their latest matchup.
He even went into the OKC locker room as a member of the opposing team. Gasp. What would Perk say?
Is it possible that Russ is starting to mellow in his “old” age? Is it possible that he would mean it when he scoffed at the idea of “needing” a ring to validate his legacy?
Come on, no. Russ knows as well as we do that he needs that ring – better yet, several. He knows it, or else he would have never immediately worked with the OKC front office to find his way to a contender once Paul George punched a hole in the ship.
So, what is Russ rooting for?
Rings. All the rings. Rings like Saturn. Rings like when a new telemarketer gets ahold of your number. Russ needs to win championships to shut up the haters and change himself from “one of those guys…” into “one of THOSE guys,” and the sooner the better.
Thunder fans’ rooting interests
I would never tell you how to feel, but I will tell you how it seems like the average Thunder fan feels.
For the record, the “average Thunder fan” does not exist, and I know that. We are a diverse, eclectic fanbase, with members all across the country and all around the globe. Not all of us loved Kendrick Perkins. Not all of us want Billy Donovan fired1. Not all of were ready to give up on Kyle Singler.
Okay, maybe I went to far with that last one, but you get the point. The average Thunder fan, as far as I can tell, loves Russ, is still loyal to Russ even though he’s gone, and thinks that Russ deserves a ring.
And again, things would be so much simpler if he was still on our side. But he’s gone, and now Thunder fans have some interesting choices to make, and an interesting question to ask. See, Russ had been on the Thunder for every season in their existence. He had come to define the franchise. For many fans, being a Thunder fan and being a Russ fan had become inextricably linked, indivisible.
Now that they’ve been divided, how do they prioritize the two? Are they still Thunder fans? Were they ever? Are they going to continue to root for laundry, or follow the player who’s defined their fanhood? Do they even have to choose?
For the most part, fans seem to have fallen into three groups, and here’s what they’re rooting for:
- Rooting for Russ, but not the Rockets. The Rockets continue to lose in the playoffs as Harden collapses. Russ, however, is incredible, quieting the narrative that he can’t win, and making that narrative about Harden as a postseason failure all the louder.
- Rooting for the Rockets, except when they play OKC. I think this is the most common stance going, and since Oklahoma City is not a contender this year, the goal is obvious: Parade in Houston or Bust.
- Rooting for the Rockets even against OKC. Given current circumstances, this is actually a defensible take as a Thunder fan, so long as you’re all in on the tank and losses to be good. The goal is also obvious here: Rockets for the championship.
None of these are wrong, and the fact that there are likely dozens more nuanced takes among the fanbase just goes to show how complicated this situation is.
My rooting interests
What if I told you the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted three MVPs in three years, and they all won rings… in other cities?
I haven’t been able to get that idea out of my head since Russ left – no, to be honest, since Harden was sent away. I’d seen other Rockets games, I’d watched Harden and Russ sit together on the sidelines and dance together pre-game, and it stung. Every bit of it stung. How did the bees get past my ribcage? But I knew I had to wait to watch Russ actually suit up against the Thunder before I’d know for sure how I felt.
For as long as I can remember, any time Russ stepped on a basketball court, my eyes couldn’t leave him. He’s always been electric in every way – his game, his personality. You can’t break away once you lock on.
I wanted to root for him. I really did. I wanted to smirk when he yelled to the crowd because I knew what was coming. I wanted to feel that excitement that comes when he’s leading the break, when he starts taking those Deion Sanders high-steps and you’re not certain if what’s about to happen will be good or bad but you know it will be special.
I wanted to jump to my feet when he tip-slammed a shot in to beat the first half buzzer, but I just found myself sinking into my couch. I wanted to appreciate the savage beauty of his freak offensive rebound and masterful kick to PJ Tucker in the corner that sealed the win for Houston, but it just felt like the dagger it was.
I wanted to be happy for him, but he was wearing all that red.
I love Russell Westbrook, to be clear. He’s my favorite player in the league. I love him so much that typing about him playing for another team feels like my fingers are being stabbed by tiny little knives.2
What I found, as I watched Russ, Harden, and the Rockets versus my OKC Thunder for the first time, was that my eyes didn’t lock onto him the way they used to. Instead, they were tied to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as he slithered through the lane like a greased cobra. They found Steven Adams, as I wondered what was up with his play. They watched Hamidou Diallo intently as he seemed to find himself as an NBA player.
Sure, I noticed when Russ made plays, and I saw when he cheered the other team’s buckets. But I only had eyes for Thunder laundry.
In an effort to promote Thunder fanbase unity, and in case there are others out there who feel like me, I propose a compromise.
Let’s all root for this season to go very poorly for the Rockets. Not because Russ is bad, oh no. Because Harden is awful, or because Morey gets fired over the China Incident, or because Tilman Fertitta turns out to be the terrible owner we’re all hoping he is. The “why” isn’t really important; what happens after is.
Following Harden choking in the Playoffs, Russ is traded to Miami for Jimmy Butler (who continues to tank Houston’s chemistry, improving OKC’s future Rockets draft holdings). Russ plays one season in Miami and is joined in 2021 by… Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they go on to win multiple rings together.
Yes, this will hurt the value of OKC’s Miami picks, but it will also prove that Russ was always capable of winning a ring alongside a huge, talented forward, had one of those stuck around OKC.
So that’s my solution, my best-case scenario. Maybe some of you who are rooting for the Rockets can join me over here. Or maybe you’ll ignore my fantasy and just root for Russ to win the championship this year. That’s fine, too.
But whatever you’re rooting for, whatever you think will complete Russ’s legacy and set him among the all-timers, among the “winners” where he belongs, I think we can all agree on something.
Russ was ours. He made us all feel wanted and special for years. He chose us, and he stuck with us as long as he could. He’s an incredible, singular basketball player – an avalanche made of dunks and scowls and barbed wire and chaos. He’s the triple-double king, he’s an MVP, and his statue and his jersey are going up at the Peake the day he retires. He’s the one who stayed.
The rest? Well, that’s all just narrative.