Russ Is Gone: A Sad Farewell to an Oklahoma Icon

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I. The Man Is Gone

Not really sure how to start, what to say. Russell Westbrook doesn’t play for the Oklahoma City Thunder anymore. He got traded to the Houston Rockets last night in exchange for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. Just reading that makes me feel gross. All of those words are absolutely disgusting. I got to believe the world’s ending soon.

Westbrook’s my favorite athlete of all time and an Oklahoma god. I should mention, objectivity is going to be thrown completely out the window here. This won’t be fair. This won’t be measured. This won’t be balanced. I’m going to try to steer clear of the melodramatics but I can’t make any promises. I grew up in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, and love the Thunder. I have a shirt that’s basically just the NASA logo with RUSS in the middle instead of NASA. I wear it all the time. I’m saying I can’t be trusted. If you hate watching Westbrook play, chances are you’re going to hate reading this. If you hate personal essays—this I’m far more sympathetic to—you’ll probably hate reading this too. I don’t know. This whole thing will probably be all over the place. For some reason, writing about Westbrook has always felt for me like trying to run up an escalator in water skis. Rad if you can pull it off, but that’s a lot of work, and things can go south in a hurry. Whatever. I’ll run into the fire. That’s where the most entertaining Westbrook takes are, anyway.

I want to say that it’s totally cool if you’re not into him. I’m not here to try to convince you you’re wrong or stupid or don’t get it. He’s hardly everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t want somebody coming around telling me which players I should and shouldn’t like. I do think there’s a pretty good chance that disliking Russ makes you a more boring person, but who cares? Being boring isn’t a bad thing. The world needs boring people. They provide valuable context for just how interesting an interesting person is. Hell, I’m boring. I’m so boring. I’m beige. One of my favorite things to do is go to the movies. It doesn’t get more boring than that.

I guess what follows are memories. They’re not in any particular order, and most all of them are good. There’s plenty of stuff in the world to be bummed about nowadays. I’d like to choose joy, you know? I just want to be a homer for a second. Drop a little confetti. Celebrate. And there will be flutes playing and trombones and flowers and garlands of fresh herbs. Absolutely I’ll leave some Rare Earth right here. Why not?

II. A Cool Dunk Against Sacramento

Marcus Thornton picked Kevin Durant clean. This was in 2012. He picked him clean and took off in the other direction, handling it, feeling strong, out on the break with the wind in his hair and hope in his heart. Serge Ibaka ran right with him. So did Thornton’s teammate Jason Thompson. Ibaka’s a man of integrity. He pressured Thornton and frightened him, made him share the love, throw it away. Durant grabbed the lost ball and brought it up the floor. Two Kings waited. They were clothed in purple and merely put up with each other. One was Isaiah Thomas. The other was DeMarcus Cousins. They stood in the lane. Two guys in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kendrick Perkins was in the short corner to Durant’s right. Cousins cheated that way. Ibaka had caught back up to the play—young Serge was like a racehorse—and cut a path down the middle of the floor. On the left wing was Westbrook. He was on his way to the cosmos.

Durant let the ball go when he got to the right elbow, and Westbrook took off. In the mornings, the Oklahoma sky opens slowly, takes on paint, oranges and violets and blues and pinks. Empyrean leap. He floated up, and eyes followed him. He makes it hard not to pay attention. Westbrook’s eyes got big like he saw the future. Then there was that moment before the noise. Then there was the noise.

Westbrook caught the ball with one hand and sent it in with a scream. He was indignant about it. It was like the rim outraged him. He tried to rip it off. He always tries to rip it off. When he landed he continued the roar. The crowd joined him, and he tried to stomp holes in the earth.

III. The First Round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs Featuring the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Lakers were the 1-seed in the West. This edition of The Buss Brigade featured Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Derek “You Up?” Fisher, Shannon Brown, Metta World Peace before the name change, etc. The Thunder were the 8-seed. This was Westbrook, Durant, James Harden, Ibaka, Uncle Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, Nenad’s bald spot, and so on. The Lakers were the defending champions, having downed Matt Barnes and his pass fakes the year before. The Thunder were supposed to just be happy to be there, merrily ahead of schedule, dipping their toes into the playoff waters for the first time.

Skip ahead to Game 4. Watching it now is an exercise in making yourself sad. Or, I shouldn’t speak for you. I have no clue how it’d make you feel. It made me feel like someone took one of those captive bolt stunners like Chigurh uses in No Country for Old Men and shot my dick off. The Thunder were new then, and exciting. They’d lost the first two games of the series in Los Angeles, but won a tight one at home in Game 3 and came into Game 4 with a chance to knot the series at two games apiece.

The thing about Game 4 was, it was a waxing. The Thunder destroyed them. They were up 29 at one point, and on multiple occasions the shaking camera would find Phil Jackson’s face and linger there a while. If I can be frank, reader, he looked decidedly down in the dumps. He looked how Charlotte Rampling looks at the end of 45 Years, just chock-full of the blues, a Gloomy Gus with smoke in her eyes. Jackson spends his days in Montana now. He’s moved on to better things like Capri sweatpants and cornflower-blue long-sleeve T-shirts and crew-cut socks and black tights and navy Chucks. I throw no stones at Phil for the fit. It is exemplary. It is historic. It is supreme. I, too, try to dress as comfortably as possible every second of the day. The moment I arrive home from work, I immediately go to the bedroom and put on athletic shorts. That’s something really cool about me. I own multiple terry cloth shirts. That’s back-to-back really cool things. Every season is comfy season.

Some of the surreal from Game 4: With a little over seven and a half minutes left in the first quarter, Durant grabbed a rebound and pushed it up the floor. He crossed up World Peace around the timeline, got into the lane with some steam, and sent a tomahawk in over Gasol that turned the Spaniard red. Chesapeake Energy Arena was the Ford Center then, and the place burst open, a blast of sound, 18,000 mouths screaming “Oh my God.”

Five minutes and 53 seconds left in the second quarter. Harden—and this was Harden’s headband era, one that’s not discussed enough—backpedals into a 3 from the right corner. Kobe flies out at him. Harden goes down. Kobe gets called for a foul. The shot goes in. It’s a brief look at what’s to come. There’s something trippy and depressing about watching Westbrook sprint over to Harden, clap twice, and help him up. Same when Westbrook passes to Durant for a dunk in transition. As a Thunder fan, seeing it now, I’m really thinking only one thing as I watch: Cut my head off and throw it at my dead body.

Westbrook had it going. He did things that made Dan Shulman say, “Oh my.” He did things that made Doris Burke say, “Come on, fellas.” The final score was 110-89. Westbrook had 18, 8, and 6 on only 11 shots, and even still it was the full Russ experience. He’d take a horrible shot but get his own rebound and hit somebody for a layup plus the foul. He’d bank in a long 2 from the left wing. He’d start fast breaks after makes. I’ll mention his speed because it’s absurd. Set the cheetahs on the loose. Westbrook’s proud of his speed. He’s proud of a lot of things. He’s a great fan of himself. I’ve searched the world over and can’t find a reason to blame him.

Let’s go to Game 6. The Lakers held a 3-2 series lead. I was a senior in college then and watched the game with friends. The Thunder had existed for all of two years, and we still couldn’t believe there was actually a pro team in our state. That they were legitimately exciting made it all the wilder. They’d been nothing when they arrived, 23-59 in their first season in Oklahoma City. P.J. Carlesimo was the head coach for the first 13 games of the season. The team went 1-12. Carlesimo got the boot. Scott Brooks took over. Did you know that every time you type the name “Scott Brooks” a basketball dry-erase board shatters into a million pieces? The Thunder were 4-29 when the new year hit, and, I’m going to be honest with you, that’s a bad record. The next season they made the playoffs as an 8-seed. They played the Lakers. That’s what I’ve been talking about during this entire section and what I’ll continue to discuss in the next paragraph.

We were at my friend JD’s parents’ place. They live in Peggs, Oklahoma, population 813. This was the country. Pond beside the house. Pasture behind it. Pumped up dogs that run out to greet arriving vehicles. There were probably eight or nine of us there. I don’t remember exactly. I do remember drinking several Mountain Dew and Jamesons and screaming so hard my head hurt. I remember standing shirtless in the living room and violently blocking out a recliner. I remember yelling at Gasol, referring to him as delicate and flimsy. I remember his beard sucked. I remember him exacting his revenge with that tip in to win it at the end, and then again years later when he was a free agent and decided to play for the Bulls instead of the Thunder because, what, Oklahoma City didn’t have a quality opera, Pau? There weren’t an adequate number of 70mm projectors in town? The AMC inside Quail Springs Mall has 24 screens and fantastic programming. There’s an arcade right nearby and an El Chico near the JCPenney. Food court’s got a Raising Cane’s. I mentioned the JCP. At one point during Game 6, Gasol threw a wildly charming no-look bounce pass to a cutting Odom, and Jeff Van Gundy said the words “ridiculously multifaceted.” Shortly thereafter, Gasol caught the ball out of a roll and dunked on Krstic. More from Van Gundy, on the way to commercial, absolutely smitten and with all the gusto he could muster, “I say ridiculously. You say multifaceted. Ridiculously. Multifaceted. Ridiculously. Multifaceted.” I graduated a week later.

There was the time in Game 3 when Westbrook crossed up Fisher and put Odom in the rim. The Oklahoma City crowd lost its collective mind again. It was an irate dunk and wrathful and kind of came out of nowhere. One time I typed my name in on one of those Wu-Tang Name Generator sites, and it said my Wu-Tang name was Irate Hunter. I don’t really like it that much. I went to another site. That one gave me Coyote Tall. That made me happier. Coyote’s a cool-looking word. I’m tall. Back to the dunk. It’s not that it came out of nowhere because you didn’t think Westbrook had it in him. He’s had it in him since he was at UCLA. Ask Jamal Boykin. Westbrook baptized him in the name of the father, the son, and the holy brodie. The Odom dunk just happened so fast. He rises in such a hurry. With young Westbrook, you sometimes got the sense that he put up with gravity, but didn’t respect it. He had this endless energy that was backed by a brashness typically reserved for gunslingers. He hunted posters and played mad, threw his body around. He dented his face. He ripped up his knees. He broke his hand. He’d lose his head and find it again and lose it again and find it again and the middle-school basketball coaches among us would wring their hands and shake their heads and complain about shot selection and the benefits of making the extra pass. They’d speak longingly of the honest, patient floor general. The coach on the floor. The maestro who controls his team and knows when to pick his spots. The thing about Westbrook is, he’s not interested in tradition. He never has been. He’s about the present and he’s always himself, for better and for worse.

IV. Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals Featuring the Miami Heat vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder

There are times when Westbrook’s energy seems misplaced. This is when it can get a little rough. Game 4 against the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, for example. Ricky Rubio had put up a 26, 11, and 10 line in Game 3, and in the press conference afterward Westbrook had guaranteed he’d, quote, “shut that shit off next game.” Cut to Game 4. Westbrook’s overly aggressive defense had him called for four fouls in the first half. He shot the ball poorly. The Thunder got routed.

But there have been plenty of times he’s channeled that energy for good. Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat was one of them. This was the Heatles’ second go-round. They were a year removed from getting rolled by Dirk & Sons and especially hungry. After winning Game 1, the Thunder lost closely in games 2 and 3. In Game 4, another nail-biter the Thunder wound up on the wrong side of, Westbrook went for 43, 7, and 5 on 20-of-32 shooting. He had everything working. Stuff fell from all over the court. He was hitting from the midrange. He got to the rim whenever he wanted to. He was relentless. He didn’t stop. Van Gundy also called this game. After one particularly bonkers Westbrook finish, Van Gundy said, and there was awe in his voice, “I mean that’s remarkable individual athleticism.”

Once more, though, we were given the full Russ experience. You got all that good. And then this bad.

I cannot properly put into words what a massive bummer that play was. I mean this sincerely, I won’t even try to.

V. You Sit There in Your Heartache

Westbrook’s lost some of his explosiveness as the years and knee surgeries have mounted, but it’s something to go back and watch how bouncy he was at his peak, when his skill level started to catch up to his athleticism. And, dude, his athleticism. Jesus H, man. The dunks, they are a’raging. There’s a good chance he believed he could fly. There’s a good chance he still believes that. I’m not entirely certain he’s wrong, either. I’d define this as soaring.

My favorite type of Westbrook dunk is the one where he drives middle from the right wing, launches off two feet, and takes someone’s head off. Try to meet him in the air. Jump, stupid, and watch him get cruel. The list of victims is long. Shane Battier was one. So was Kawhi. And Omer Asik. And Thon Maker. And I’ll stop, because you get the idea.

VI. But Uncontested Rebounds!

The triple-doubles have taken over so much of the Westbrook discussion—and there has been so much Westbrook discussion, all of it very smart and rational and worthwhile and energizing—that it can be easy to forget he was an All-NBA guard back before July 4, 2016. It can be easy to forget he’s been an All-NBA guard since July 4, 2016. This is what he’s done during his 11 years in Oklahoma City.

VII. The End of It

If you watch the NBA with any regularity, you most likely have an opinion on him, and that opinion’s most likely intensely held. Westbrook has a way of making people operate at extremes. He incites big reactions. The volume is always maxed out with him. The man does not inspire apathy. At the very least, he makes you feel something.

One of the joys of watching Westbrook has always been that he’ll try things other players won’t. He’ll try things others wouldn’t think of. He’ll try things others couldn’t think of. How else do you get this?

I could go on and on bringing up other memories. Or what was it Durant said during his MVP acceptance speech? I could speak all night about Russell? There’s that last game in Denver at the end of the 2017 regular season, when he set the record for most triple-doubles in a season with 42 and hit a 35-foot bomb at the buzzer to win the game. It was so impressive that Nuggets fans cheered. I could talk about the game-winning free throws he hit in Game 5 of the Western Conference semis against the Clippers back in 2014. Do you remember those? Durant couldn’t bear to watch, so he sat down at the other end of the floor and faced the opposite direction. In retrospect, how weird that he did that. I could talk about the 20-21-20 line he put up last season to honor Nipsey Hussle in the wake of his sudden passing. There’s the “Do What I Want” Jordan commercial. There’s the triple-double he had against the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the Western Conference semis back in 2011. There’s the triple-double he had against the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs back in 2014. There’s the meniscus tear and the time he told a reporter, “No more questions for you, bro.” There’s the cupcakes and The Little Ark and the official photographer vest and that leopard-print basketball he was holding on the cover of the November GQ in 2016. There’s the clothes and the scowls and the flaws and the screams, the anger and the joy and the buckets and the pain.

He leaves town the most beloved player in Thunder history and an Oklahoma icon. It’ll be a long time before an athlete means more to the state. He gave everything he had every time he played. Those blemishes in his game, the idiosyncrasies that exist within his skill set, those rough edges—those are the things that make him so fun to watch. He’s an original and a contradiction, at once fallible and overwhelming. He deserved to go where he wanted, and I’m glad he got to. I’ll be at the bottom of the ocean listening to sad songs about the unrelenting nature of time and how fast it passes. He was strange. He was beautiful. He was human. He was ours.

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.

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