russ against the world

words: nathaniel friedman

photography: harry how/getty

You may have heard a thing or two about Russell Westbrook this season. He’s unleashed his full fury like never before, going from outsized talent to all-consuming force. With Kevin Durant out of the picture, he’s now the furious hub of a Thunder team that’s not half-bad. He’s playing with more combustible energy than ever before and shows no signs of letting up. He catapults into every single possession but never fails to keep his teammates involved. Oh, and he will very likely average a triple-double.

Apparently this wasn’t enough for NBA fans, whose voting determined that Westbrook wouldn’t be starting in the All-Star Game. Players and media now have a say; both had Russ in the West’s starting backcourt alongside James Harden. The fans went with Harden and Stephen Curry, with Westbrook coming in third. It’s at once outrageous and confounding: The odds-on favorite to win the MVP—who has also been All-Star MVP for the past two years—will be coming off the bench.

Fans vote lazy. Their ballots are equal parts name recognition, popularity contest and brand warfare, where reputation looms large and image takes precedence over actual performance. That’s how you end up with the self-fulfilling prophecy that is “perennial All-Star.” It’s how underperforming or aging stars often clog up ballots. It’s why teams campaign hard for their franchise dudes and players themselves sometimes enter the fray, almost always with a healthy dose of humor (see Embiid, Joel). The whole point of including players and media in the process was to offset the general public’s loathsome tallies; this year it still didn’t matter, setting up one of the great sports absurdities in recent memory.

Harden’s inclusion is a no-brainer. The Rockets are nearly elite and if Westbrook weren’t threatening to make history, we’d spend way more time marveling at The Beard’s colossal numbers and beguiling play. The stinker here is Stephen Curry, who despite only picking up steam this month was still the top vote-getter. Curry is the classic example of fan sentiment gone horribly awry. He beat out Russ (and Harden) because fans either couldn’t be bothered to keep up with the league in real-time or still see Curry as the NBA’s golden child—a nice young man who should be at the top of the heap. Given Curry’s slow start, him starting in the All-Star Game is an outright denial of reality.

It shouldn’t have been hard for Westbrook to supplant Curry. What more could he possibly do? His every game is an inferno, every box score a mindfuck, every highlight a jolt from which you really never fully recover. His bombast is entrancing, his exploits are instantly newsworthy, and watching him is an exercise in sheer ecstatic release. The only possible explanation is that the casual fan is still very much under Steph’s spell. Voting for him is more a matter of personal preference than it is a coherent read on the 2016-17 NBA season.

You have to wonder if it’s not also a repudiation of Westbrook. He hasn’t hogged the ball or jacked up that many more ill-advised shots than in the past. Still, there’s something profane and excessive about his game that likely rubs some people the wrong way. He barely masks his on-court aggression and has a famously prickly personality. Westbrook offends delicate sensibilities. And while not exactly an Allen Iverson-style iconoclast, Westbrook still exists in his own far-flung corner of the NBA ecosystem. He’s an inveterate outsider who wouldn’t see himself any other way, a brash, confounding individualist who couldn’t be further away from the cuddly, well-oiled machinery of Stephen Curry. If Russell Westbrook has a “me against the world” mentality, it’s perfectly logical that he wouldn’t necessarily curry favor with the faint of heart—fans who think sports should be a feel-good enterprise where untoward humanity takes a backseat to clichéd narratives, groupthink, and childlike hero worship. Westbrook is a direct hit on this view, an individualist who repeatedly has the last laugh by proving himself as capable as he is contrarian.

He’ll have the last laugh here, as well—not just because he’ll likely win the MVP and could still walk away the most dominant player in the All-Star Game. This will only amplify Russell Westbrook. He’s seemingly fueled by resentment against no one in particular, reportedly inventing grudges against opponents (and sometimes even teammates) to motivate himself. As life-affirming as it can be to watch Russell Westbrook, the man himself is kind of dark, or at least leery of the world in a way that belies his extroverted style of play. It’s no by accident that the violence of his game is always front and center. Westbrook isn’t just a fervent competitor. He’s determined to exact his pound of flesh, lashing out in a way that just so happens to translate into transcendent basketball.

If this is a bleak assessment of Russell Westbrook, it’s also one that gets at some of his inherent contradictions. Westbrook has publicly stated that he could care less about the pursuit of triple-doubles, a refusal to get caught up in anything than in-the-moment exhilaration. That kind of accomplishment means nothing to him. This All-Star slight will linger, though, largely because Westbrook has use for it. It suits him. He needs it way more than he does flattery or plaudits.

He doesn’t need his ego stroked and it certainly never suffers; actually, it’s unclear whether he was any ego at all. He’s not arrogant, he’s expressing the obvious; he’s indignant not on his own behalf but for what he perceives as cosmic unfairness. Westbrook doesn’t want us praising him and he’d probably be largely indifferent to ad hominem attacks. All he knows is that he’s got a job to do. And when the world gets in his way, the world had better watch out.