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Decoding Russell Westbrook

In an increasingly transparent league, the Thunder guard communicates in a code of his own

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Westbrook doesn’t do a lot of talking about his work. This makes him an outlier among elite athletes. When asked to expound on the details of a game, Westbrook generally responds in a minimal monotone. The YouTube subgenre “Westbrook owns reporter” is a result of Russ being asked about subjects he has no interest in speaking on. For the past eight years, that laconic curtness on topics pertaining to being a member of the Thunder has been in direct opposition to the world’s overwhelming interest in his relationship with Kevin Durant.

Russell would probably say he does his talking on the court. Which is fair. (He practically speaks in tongues after dunks.) I would argue that he also does a lot of talking in code.

Westbrook, who signed an $85 million extensions with the Thunder in August, strode into Oracle Arena last week wearing a white tee, white jeans, and a blaring orange work bib with the words “Official Photographer” emblazoned across it. He might as well have been singing Lil B. Kevin Durant, Russ’s former teammate of eight years, has a well-known interest in photography and attended Super Bowl 50 as a photojournalist for the august virtual pages of The Players’ Tribune. The lede of that piece reads: “If you had a Super Bowl bet that I would fit into my photographer’s vest, you might have lost some money tonight.”

On the Fourth of July, KD split Oklahoma City for the Bay Area. (Dumping news during a long holiday weekend is elite-level news dumping.) He informed Russ via text message. It was, scientifically speaking, the actual least Durant could do.

Russ being Russ, he denied there was any subtextual shade to his outerwear. “I got that when I was in Madrid,” he said. “Saw the photographers walking around with the thing on, and I thought it was a great fashion idea. … There’s no story behind it.” Which tracks only if you ignore Russ’s passion for fashion and instinctive understanding of the semiotics of wardrobe. During OKC’s 2016 playoff run, Westbrook wore funereal black to every closeout game. Except (tellingly?) Game 7 against the Warriors.

Courtesy of Zachary Beeker/OKC Thunder via <a href="http://www.gq.com/gallery/russell-westbrook-playoffs-2016-nba-style#14">GQ</a>
Courtesy of Zachary Beeker/OKC Thunder via GQ

Game 5 against Dallas.

Courtesy of Zachary Beeker/OKC Thunder via <a href="http://www.gq.com/gallery/russell-westbrook-playoffs-2016-nba-style#8">GQ</a>
Courtesy of Zachary Beeker/OKC Thunder via GQ

Game 6 against the Spurs. (Animal prints are for beating teams with title aspirations, apparently.)

Getty Images
Getty Images

Game 5 against the Warriors.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Game 6 against the Warriors. (Animal print moves from the kicks to the jacket.)

Getty Images
Getty Images

Game 7. (Did Russ lose his nerve?)

“I’ve always liked to curate my own look,” Westbrook told Bloomberg in 2015. Whether he wins a title or not, and no matter what numbers he puts up (with the exception of averaging a triple-double), Russ’s influence on the culture of the NBA will be his enduring legacy.

When Westbrook slouched to the microphone after Game 1 of the 2012 Finals against the Heat, clad in a cartoon-character-print Prada shirt and bright red eyeglass frames (sans lenses), he single-handedly turned the mundanities of athlete work life into opportunities for wild sartorial expression. Players had been riffing within the limitations of the NBA’s dress code for years, but then Westbrook came along and dunked the enforced illusion of post–Malice at the Palace business-wear docility into earth-toned irrelevance.

Westbrook is the reason that NBA players peacock through shabby cinderblock gangways before big games; he is the reason the NBA has a fashion show during All-Star Weekend, just as surely as he’s the inspiration for Cam Newton dressing like a dystopian Mr. Peanut.

The $2,000 shirts and $145 eyeglasses notwithstanding, Russ is actually at his most relatable when expressing his personality through fashion. His visceral style of play doesn’t lend itself to imitation. Not even in the imagination. In a league of superhuman-seeming superstars, Westbrook’s gifts are purely aspirational; roaring catharsis made flesh. Unless you count the process by which Russ somehow turns anger into overwhelming physical force, there’s no craft to emulate. You can’t become an asteroid screaming across the sky by taking 1,000 jumpers a day. On the court, Westbrook’s signature move is inchoate destruction. His interview responses can be terse, but his outfits speak loudly.

And everyone who has ever cast wary glances at themselves in the dawn light of their bedrooms before the first day of school understands dressing for an occasion.

Players and sports fans both decry “narratives,” but do so for different reasons. For the Thunder fan, circa 2009–16, the popular notion that Durant and Westbrook might not get along was antithetical to their enjoyment of the team. For KD and Russ, though, their actual lives are the subject of conjecture. No wonder, then, that players have long sought more control over their own narratives. In 2016, they can actually have it.

There’s now a channel for the specific tone of every message. If a player wants to release a brand-calibrated, first-person essay, they can use their personal website or an athlete-owned outlet like Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune. Kevin Durant is listed on the TPT masthead as deputy publisher, and, when it came time to announce he was signing with Golden State, that’s where he did it. When Carmelo Anthony lent his voice to the issue of police brutality, he used his website and The Clubhouse, the site he partnered with Vice on, as his megaphone. And, of course, like all modern athletes, when Melo feels the need to douse his hecklers, haters, or ex-coaches in gasoline, he uses Instagram to spark the fire.

Traditional media outlets still act as arbiters of mass appeal (and as the spaces of record for the steady stream of hot stove information needed by hardcore sports junkies and daily-fantasy aficionados). Both Durant and Westbrook followed their respective summer announcements with interviews at major publications — KD at Rolling Stone and Westbrook at (of course) GQ and Sports Illustrated.

Narrative control will always be an issue. After his Rolling Stone profile, Durant objected to the way the piece characterized his relationship with Westbrook as “work friends.”

“When you do a story for Rolling Stone,” Durant told The Mercury News, “we talk and then he writes the story how he wants to write it. He came up with that term on his own. That got kind of miscommunicated through the entire thing.”

The difference is, Durant is quite open — even vulnerable — in his profile. Westbrook says practically nothing in his. The first sentence in his GQ profile begins “Russell Westbrook can be stingy with his words …” And in the Sports Illustrated piece, Westbrook never actually comments on the juiciest morsel contained therein: that his July 4 Instagram post of red, white, and blue cupcakes was a shot at Durant. When you consider his penchant for curation and overall control freak tendencies, the field of Westbrook Symbology is a growth industry.

Take his February Air Jordan commercial.

There’s a jab at Steph Curry: “What did y’all expect,” the preteen Nike hypeman yowls, with a look of utter fuck-you-talking-about dismissiveness on his face, “another CHOIR BOY running point? Nah.” There’s a shot at LeBron: “Taking your stats. Taking your” — here the kid spreads his hands as if imagining a marquee — “HAIRLINE.”

The Nike ad released at the end of October — the one with Lil Uzi Vert’s “Do What I Want” gloriously soundtracking it — scans as nothing less than Russ’s extended “Bye, Felicia” to Kevin Durant and anyone else with the temerity to interrupt him while he’s fucking dancing. (Step down and step off, Charlie V.)

It’s notable that, though Russell could easily commission a first-person profile at an athlete-controlled website, he’s thus far, chosen not to. On the record, Westbrook refuses to comment on Durant. He did not even acknowledge that the game against Kevin and the Warriors on November 3 would hold any special meaning. “I play every game the same,” he said.

He doesn’t have to acknowledge it. He has other ways of talking.