Russell Westbrook has made it clear, on multiple occasions, that he doesn’t need any extra fuel to propel him on the basketball court; the innate passion that he never stops carrying is motivation enough. On Tuesday night against the Lakers, though, watching him deliver an eye-popping 10 assists and rip down seven rebounds in the first 10 minutes and 31 seconds of game time, it sure seemed like the 2016-17 MVP had brought something more with him to the floor.
After the game—a 119-103 Thunder win ignited by an individual performance that will live on in NBA history—the famously taciturn Westbrook told us what that something was: a heavy heart and the desire to do something that might lighten others.
Westbrook was all-encompassing Tuesday, commanding all facets of a game with a force of will that was jarring, even for a player whose defining on-court trait has long been unabashed relentlessness. You didn’t need a box score to feel his dominance, but the final numbers told the jaw-dropping tale: 20 points, 21 assists, and a career-high-tying 20 rebounds, making Westbrook the first NBA player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, and only the second ever, to put up a 20-20-20 game.
The final two rebounds came in the closing seconds of the game, with the outcome already decided. Thunder coach Billy Donovan had sought to pull his starters with 1:04 remaining, a 16-point lead giving Oklahoma City plenty of cushion for its 45th win of the season. But as Paul George, Jerami Grant, and Dennis Schröder all headed to the bench, Westbrook waved off would-be substitute Hamidou Diallo. He stayed on the floor, muscling through the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Mike Muscala to pull in a missed free throw by the ever-giving Steven Adams and then beating just-signed rookie swingman Jemerrio Jones to an Isaac Bonga miss for his 20th board.
Then, and only then, could Westbrook come out. As he did, he shouted something to the OKC faithful: “That’s for Nipsey.”
Westbrook authored his historic performance as a tribute to rapper, community activist, entrepreneur, and L.A. icon Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed Sunday. He was 33. Westbrook and Hussle were friends; the rapper helped serve food to guests at Westbrook’s foundation’s Thanksgiving dinner in Los Angeles in 2016, and the Long Beach–born ballplayer showed up to celebrate the opening of Hussle’s apparel store, Marathon Clothing, in 2017.
YOU’RE ONE OF ONE BRO!!! Rest Up King pic.twitter.com/fXzJesHlaB— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) April 1, 2019
“I knew that he had a close friend pass away. He had mentioned and explained that to me,” Donovan told reporters after the game. “I think for a few guys on our team, relationship-wise, it’s kind of hit them pretty hard the last couple of days, talking to them. I think for Russell that was something that really meant a lot to him.”
There would’ve been nothing wrong with Westbrook chasing history for the sake of chasing history; when something as mind-bending as 20-20-20, a feat only the most Paul Bunyan–esque tall-tale figure in NBA history has achieved, is within arm’s reach, you should extend your hand. For Westbrook, though, the numbers added up to something more.
“Twenty plus 20 plus 20,” Westbrook told TNT’s Jason Terry during an on-court postgame interview. “They know what that means, man, and that’s for my bro.”
And those of us who didn’t—those of us who aren’t from some places where you probably can’t go? We learned: 20 plus 20 plus 20 equals 60. Or, more to the point, the 60s, the South Los Angeles neighborhood Hussle called home. As our Micah Peters wrote after attending an impromptu memorial for Hussle in front of the Marathon Clothing store where he was shot, “Hussle’s music tells the story of a violent, desperate 60s—the area of Hyde Park where, in his formative years, he’d seen more than enough of the life he didn’t want. It also tells of how he worked toward building the life he did want, but at home.”
Hussle had spoken openly in his music and in interviews about his affiliation as a young man with the Rollin’ 60s Neighborhood Crips, but had long since left gang-banging behind to focus on supporting and enriching his community and its residents through reinvestment and philanthropy. He had reportedly been slated to participate in a Monday meeting between representatives from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment group and the Los Angeles Police Department about how to curb gang violence in the city.
“In my eyes, it’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not promoting [gang-banging]. I’m just speaking on it,’” he told Complex in 2010. “I’m more focused on giving solutions and inspiration more than anything.”
Solutions can be hard to come by, especially in the face of tragedy and sadness. Inspiration, though, can come where you find it. On Tuesday, after finding some by warming up to “Grindin’ All My Life” from Hussle’s Victory Lap LP, Westbrook provided even more, bending the arc of an NBA game in a nearly unfathomable way to the purpose of picking up for his fallen friend and lifting the sunken hearts of those who loved him.
“It’s somebody that I looked up to, somebody that paved the way for guys like myself growing up in the inner city,” Westbrook told Terry. “I am truly saddened by the situation. I continue to pray for his family, his wife, his daughter and just continue to live on his legacy the right way and be positive in the community.”
Westbrook has racked up triple-doubles at a staggering pace in recent years—127 since the start of the 2014-15 season, nearly three times as many as second-place LeBron James. The guard is on his way to a third straight season of averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. That has, to some degree, inured us to just how hard it has been for players to produce such games throughout the history of the league (and to how hard it remains for, like, 99 percent of NBA players). To some basketball fans, a sharply increased supply of these performances has diluted their impact; what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly, and all that.
But making a conscious decision to pursue a nearly unprecedented level of production in an effort to soothe some of the pain of grief in the days after a crushing loss, and then to actually pull it off? There’s nothing cheap about that.