For decades, Oklahomans made one of three decisions to watch NBA basketball: drive to Dallas, jump on flights to distant states or tune in from their couch. Many, however, didn’t have much of an interest in the league that didn’t have a regional connection.
Oklahoma City got a taste of the game when the New Orleans Hornets came to town for a couple of seasons following Hurricane Katrina. The adolescent city’s palate for professional basketball was evolving. It wasn’t until the Thunder arrived in in 2008 — with a dynamic, muscle-bound, kinetic energy-filled point guard — that the city felt its first love, and it fell hard.
Suddenly, Oklahomans started adopting a brand new language, an exciting and different culture. People wanted to do what Russell Westbrook was doing. They didn’t just want to play basketball like him. They wanted to dress like him – in red-framed, lens-less glasses and a fishing lure polo. They didn’t want to look over their shoulders sheepishly if they showed a little swagger. They wanted to take charge, be unwaveringly confident and be the type of people who made things happen rather than waiting for life to happen to them. Now they do what they want.
“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans. His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. “
-Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett pic.twitter.com/3p0Y9HPrLi
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) July 17, 2019
Even those that had made trips to other NBA meccas soon witnessed events and heard terminology so unlikely and unique that any previous experiences couldn’t compare to this one. Oklahoma City had a player completely of its own, someone in the same boat as them, who didn’t know professional basketball in any other place. As Westbrook learned the NBA game, so too did Oklahomans. They were in this ride together.
For many years, Westbrook was still learning his own capabilities as much as those who were watching him. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti often says that players that come to Oklahoma City don’t have ceilings put on their games. Westbrook was exploring how high his went, and the fans took the elevator up with him.
There was a one-footed, underhanded bank shot from the free-throw line – while being fouled – in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a brave 43-point performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat as the 23-year-old point guard tried desperately to will his team back into the series against one of the greatest super-teams ever assembled.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) July 12, 2019
Thunder fans learned what a Zygomatic arch was, as Westbrook traded in those red frames for a clear, protective mask to shield his dented cheek bone. They felt the thrill of soaring one-handed dunks punctuated with the unfurling of a little snarl. They filled the stands at Chesapeake Energy Arena an hour before the game to soak in the energy that brimmed off him and roared with him as he sprinted to the corner of the court just before tip-off. There was nothing to compare it to. They didn’t know what was normal. In his first few years, Westbrook recognized that this love, this affection, this connection was not just different but something extremely valuable to cherish. It resonated with his own family over everything approach to life.
In 2011, after an 0-for-13 shooting night on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies, Westbrook and the Thunder came back to Oklahoma City to face the Dallas Mavericks. Westbrook picked up where he left off, starting 3-for-11 with seven turnovers. Frustrated, but relentless, Westbrook got himself back into the game where he had excelled in college – on defense and in transition. Late in the fourth quarter he picked up a loose ball, sprinted downcourt and finished a two-handed dunk plus the foul, spilling into the second row behind the basket.
The play was cathartic, one of those moments where Thunder fans have seen their star look to the heavens with the word, “finally” emanating from a thought bubble above his head. But what happened afterward cemented a trust that sustained him for over a decade. At the free-throw line, Thunder fans gave Westbrook the equivalent of a brotherly hug. A chant of “Russell, Russell” emanated from Loud City. A poor shooting night, a miscue, an outburst. It was all OK. Westbrook didn’t have to be perfect. He just had to be with them. They’d be there with him, too.
Westbrook has shown through actions, not perfectly choreographed statements, what’s in his heart. For the past 11 years, he made 18,203 people on game nights and an entire state a part of his family. Maybe it wasn’t always textbook, but it was something every Oklahoman can appreciate. It was authentic.
In 2013, days after playing an entire half of playoff basketball on a torn meniscus, Westbrook wheeled himself into the OU Children’s Hospital to meet with victims of the devastating Moore tornado. One year later, he announced the opening of the first of now dozens of Russell’s Reading Rooms, a literacy initiative for Oklahoma’s most vulnerable kids. He didn’t just encourage education with some nice words or an appearance. He actually provided the infrastructure to enhance the educational experience for kids and their families. He literally dug in to Oklahoma’s red dirt.
Despite a challenging recovery from his knee injury, Westbrook not only returned to form on the floor but also won the NBA’s NBA Cares Community Assist award in 2014-15 due in part to those Reading Rooms, plus his affection for the Boys & Girls Club of Oklahoma County.
On the micro level, Westbrook impacted Oklahomans’ daily lives off the court. On the macro level, he aided Oklahomans in myriad other ways. He helped put the city on the map, make it a destination for fans from across the globe and for celebrities to drop by. In countries in every continent, people are proud to wear the words Oklahoma City that are emblazoned on T-shirts and jerseys. Westbrook made the All-Star team eight times, winning the MVP of the game in back to back years. He was a two-time scoring champion and two-time assist leader for the Thunder, growing up as a scorer, passer, playmaker and person all in front of our eyes.
Thunder fans clung to Westbrook like their own brother to protect, because in some ethereal way he was. They even called him the Brodie. Westbrook was 18 when he arrived in Oklahoma City, with much to learn about life, let alone being a professional basketball player. In the years since he’s achieved milestones on the court, but just as much off of it. He married his college sweetheart. They had a son and then shortly thereafter, twin daughters. Oklahomans took pride in how he represented the city as a son, husband and father as much as an elite player.
Thunder fans experienced everything that being an NBA fan entails with Westbrook as their avatar. A losing season. A sweeping, optimistic rise in performance. Devastating injuries and barely missing the playoffs. Players gone to trades and free agency. Westbrook felt the sting of deep playoff runs in 2014 and 2016 ending just tantalizingly out of reach of the NBA Finals. He heard barbs and jabs and insults. Thunder fans wouldn’t stand for it.
What Westbrook felt personally back on that night in 2011 – that trust of unwavering support from Thunder fans – was reciprocated on Aug. 4, 2016, when he signed a contract extension to stay in Oklahoma City. In the face of the external pressure to join up with stars, that winning it all was the only thing that mattered, Westbrook stood defiantly with his city. For the entire 2016-17 season, that head-held-high approach was the armor Westbrook and Thunder fans wore and it led to one of the most historic years in NBA history.
As he did in every season, Westbrook left everything on the floor. His chest heaved with deep gulping breaths as he stood at the free-throw line. He dove on the floor for loose balls. He sliced into the lane with reckless abandon only to deftly fire a pass out to the perimeter or finish a tough layup through contact. He took young teammates aside and reciprocated Thunder fans’ message to him: you’re going to be fine. He took on the responsibility of being the face of the Thunder organization.
With a buzzer-beating, game-winning, 3-pointer that knocked division foe Denver out of the playoff hunt, Westbrook sealed off a 10-point Thunder fourth-quarter comeback and his record-setting 42nd triple-double of the 2016-17 season. That night cemented his case for the 2017 MVP award, as he became the first player since 1961-62 to average a triple-double.
Unthinkably, Westbrook accomplished the same feat in the two subsequent seasons after that, propelling the Thunder into the postseason as a dynamic playmaker who helped elevate all sorts of teammates – rolling big men, two-way stars and catch-and-shoot marksmen. For his career, Westbrook has compiled averages of 23.0 points, 8.4 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game, numbers to go with the accolades that will make him a Hall of Famer one day.
Just like everything else that Oklahomans have experienced alongside Westbrook during this journey of growth and discovery, they have one more moment to share – departure. The sun always sets on a franchise and their superstar in one way or another – trade, free agency or retirement.
But Westbrook is Oklahoma’s son that rose in the West. No one has ever played like him and its unlikely Oklahoma City or the NBA will experience anyone who does anytime soon. He will always be appreciated, loved and remembered in the state where he truly grew up and that grew up with him.