The Doubling Down of Russell Westbrook
There are three things you learn about Russell Westbrook before you leave Oklahoma City.
One: his face will tell you, at all times, with zero ambiguity, exactly how he’s feeling. Two: he really, really likes Chick-fil-A’s Polynesian sauce. Three: he’s been raised to double-down on himself, and, since it’s got him this far, he’ll keep doing that, thank you very much
March in Oklahoma City is a prolonged tease. Winter weather is flirting with spring – there are moments, in the sun, where a light jacket would totally suffice. But then a crisp-AF breeze reminds you: whoa, whoa, whoa – we’re not there yet.
March here is all about the wait. For the weather to change. For the mood to lift. For the NBA playoffs to begin.
There’s no bigger show in town than the Oklahoma City Thunder. And, despite the arrival of small forward Paul George in 2017, Russell Westbrook firmly remains the ringleader – the guy who’s got his number plastered on the backs of kids, grown men, and pickup trucks alike.
Westbrook 101, for those who need it: imagine hacking a basketball video game, creating a player and turning the dials of explosiveness and personality to max. Westbrook is stupidly athletic, with court vision and instinct to match. He’s got a physique that looks like it was 3D-printed. He’s the kind of player that, with regularity, wills his team back into a game, then finishes the opponent himself. He asserts himself every second he’s on the court – equal parts emotion and electricity. This year, he’s pulling in $35 million – the second-highest paid player in the NBA – and you’ll rarely find a night where he doesn’t earn every cent of it. He’s maximalism realised in an athlete.
Blazer, t-shirt, trousers, sneakers, prices on request, Louis Vuitton
In 2017, at age 29, he was crowned the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, beating out maybe the most talent-stacked league in the world. That season, he averaged a triple-double – more than 10 rebounds, points and assists per game. For the basketball agnostic, a triple-double in a single game is reason enough for most players to celebrate. It’s enough for Ice Cube to rap about. Until Westbrook came along, the notion of averaging that across an 82-game regular season was mind-bending. It had never been done before. Then – why not – he did it again the next season, and this season too.
There’s a yin and yang to Westbrook – this thing that makes him outrageously watchable and intensely divisive: his emotions. He plays through himself, running the Thunder on both ends of the court with cellular-level willpower. Sometimes, that willpower leads to a physics-bending steal and thunderous dunk, or a millimetre-perfect lookaway pass that ends with a three-pointer. Other times, that force of will leads to a head-scratching pull-up shot from way, way downtown – and a miss that turns the momentum of his team for the worse. It’s a pull between light and dark. It’s what creates fans and haters in equal measure. It’s the magic and the mystery of Westbrook.
As ever, memes – our cultural overlords – sum it up best: “If you can’t handle me at my Worstbrook, you don’t deserve me at my Bestbrook.”
Westbrook reached the NBA Finals once, in 2012, as part of an overachieving Thunder team with a wildly young, wildly talented core of three. Since then, he’s lost the other two members of his trio: James Harden was traded to Houston, Kevin Durant defected to the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors, only weeks after they and the Thunder were wrapped in a seven-game epic. All three players went on to win MVP awards separately, and that young 2012 team became one of sport’s greatest “what-if” questions.
Shirt, $65, Zara. Jeans, $740, Amiri at Matches Fashion
The question that remains, then, is whether or not Westbrook’s individual greatness can propel the Thunder to those heights again. Whether he can harness and translate that frenetic energy to an NBA title. The season to date has shown flashes of potential – inklings that the NBA’s power hierarchy may soon be blissfully disrupted.
Westbrook runs his life by a two-word mantra: why not? It’s been his Northern Star for nearly two decades. He has it emblazed on t-shirts. He has it etched into wristbands that sit on both his hands. It’s the antidote for the criticism – and the perpetual momentum for the greatness.
“It came from back in high school, me and a couple of buddies – we’re still friends to this day – just kind of used the phrase, ‘Why not?’ as a joke. We’d say whatever, and then say, ‘Why not?’ ‘Let’s go over here!’ ‘Why not?’ We just kept saying it as a joke. Then, eventually, we used it as inspiration,” he says at one point in our afternoon together. “We all grew up in inner city Los Angeles, in poverty, and trying to figure out the best way to get our families help – to get them out of whatever they were in. A lot of people in the world will constantly tell you, ‘Oh you can’t be this. Oh, you can’t do that. You’re not going to be able to do this.’ Why not? Why not me? Why not you?”
Westbrook knows that the voices of critics won’t dull. Not in this league. Not on this stage. “That’s why you’ve got to keep the same mindset. My mindset never changes. It’s been very, very helpful for me.
“Regardless of what somebody’s telling you, it instils confidence in yourself and your abilities and gives you personal strength. I think that’s what a lot of people in this world need: to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I can do it. I can make it happen. Why not me?’
“That’s just what it is. That’s how I live. That’s what I believe in. For me, it’s so powerful. It’s just two words, but they are very, very powerful.”
Jacket, $2500, t-shirt, $195, jeans, $395, Alexander Wang
You know the end of the film Moneyball? Where Brad Pitt – the coach of a perennial underdog team that overachieves – has a dream job dangled before him, only to remain stubbornly loyal to his team, and his mission? How you feel about Brad Pitt’s decision is probably how you feel about Westbrook. Either he’s irrational or a genius. A hothead, or a romantic.
Thankfully, Westbrook is totally at his Bestbrook when he bounds into a dusty, serviceable studio in Oklahoma City, one wedged between signs pointing to both Tom’s Pawn Shop and Tom’s Barber Shop – because Tom has earned the right to flex a little.
There’s a sign that reads, “CASA DE CHAOS” as you enter the studio. At Westbrook’s request, there’s a bountiful spread of Chick-fil-A to greet him at his GQ shoot – but the Polynesian sauce and a sweet tea lemonade mixer are missing, he notes. This will soon be rectified.
“Tomorrow I’m gonna be moving in slow motion,” he says with a grin, after inhaling a second chicken sandwich.
Westbrook hops up and inspects the racks of clothing meticulously. His face lights up. He nods and vibes and considers and puts his head together with GQ’s reigning style elder, Jim Moore. Then Westbrook hops on FaceTime – he knows a few pieces that could help tip these looks over the top.
There’s no stretch of the NBA season that is more diabolical than late March. By then, playoff seeding is more-or-less settled, star players are often put on ice, and the jostling for playoff home court advantage is really the only tension left in the regular season.
Jacket, $1600, t-shirt, $300, trousers, $380, Acne Studios. Sneakers, $515, Pierre Hardy
It’s also a profoundly stupid time to brag, flex, or make sweeping declarations. The eve of the playoffs is the moment players go dark – in the case of LeBron James last year, a total social media ban.
So, no thanks, Russell Westbrook isn’t super keen to break-down last night’s playbook, or the put-back that cost the Thunder a game. Nor is he interested in revisiting the verbal altercation with a fan in Utah who made a comment that was widely condemned as racist. (That fan, and another, have since been banned from the arena for life.)
No, this isn’t a moment to deep-dive into the NBA season. (Even hinting about talking about basketball will make Westbrook cringe a little, and look around the room.) But Westbrook is really, really happy to break down his other passion.
“You know what? It was good,” he says of Daniel Lee’s first showing at Bottega Veneta. “The potential and the upside, I think was amazing. I’m all about risk-taking, so I definitely understand that.”
If the intersection of sport and fashion is at an all-time high, Russell Westbrook is the trailblazer dancing on that apex. His fashion-world orbit is not something to be underestimated – he counts the likes of Kim Jones and Virgil Abloh as friends, has launched his own clothing line, Honor the Gift, and recently became the face of ever-buzzy Scandi label, Acne Studios.
Westbrook entered the fashion circuit in his early 20s. There, he found himself in glorious, gilded company. In New York, he mingled with the likes of Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley.
“I didn’t want to just sit down at the show and look, take pictures, get up and walk away. I really wanted to understand what I was looking at: understand materials, understand the history of fashion, where it began, who are the tastemakers, who are the leaders, who are the editors of different magazines,” he says. “I think a lot of athletes – even celebrities – just go to the shows, sit down and take pictures. I don’t want that.”
Jacket, trousers, prices on request, Overcoat
Everyone needs a style inspiration – a figurative or literal Pinterest board that pushes our style forward, and keeps our swerves fresh. For Westbrook, that was his mum.
“To this day, every time I see my mum, I just be like, ‘Damn, okay mum, you still got it.’ She never ceases to amaze. She always shrugs it off. She’s very stylish in her own way – that’s where I got it from, that’s where it all started for me,” he says. “She’s always been my style icon. Growing up, obviously, we didn’t have a lot of money. My mum made sure me and my brother had whatever it was we wanted. But she’s taught me that, you know, you can dress really nice, and it doesn’t have to be very high-end – because we couldn’t afford it. My mum would still look good in something that had highs and lows. I like to do that. I wear Zara. I wear Topshop. I wear vintage clothes. I wear whatever. And then I’ll wear Acne or Vuitton. That’s just what it is – that’s the most important thing about fashion: you can do and wear whatever you want.”
And if we are living in the “whatever you want” era of style, Westbrook, all maximalist, brash and unapologetic, is as worthy an ambassador as any. ‘Why not’ might as well be the unofficial slogan for this menswear era.
“I think from different brands and designers around the world – even photographers, stylists – all aspects of fashion are becoming quite diverse,” he says, between waffle fries. “It gives people an opportunity to be able to understand different people’s backgrounds, understand why they may design something a certain way. I think it’s a great thing for fashion.”
To be clear, Westbrook sees his place in the fashion world as hard-earned: the result of experimentation, networking, grinding and studying. Not unlike his place in the basketball world. And, just like his place in the basketball world, he has a singular belief in backing himself and his own vision.
“I can’t tell you one person that dresses like me, or who has the same sense of fashion as me,” he says.
Which other NBA players are style inspirations for you?
“Honestly, I don’t look to anybody else for inspiration.”
Okay, which NBA player has style that stimulates you?
“It’s very hard to pick, because a lot of athletes have stylists. Yeah, I don’t have a stylist. It’s me.”
What’s something that you want people to know?
“That being different and unique from other people is okay. As it pertains to fashion – and in the world – I think it’s important that people understand that’s okay to do. Being yourself is the most important part: through thick and thin, constantly lean on what you believe in. Stand up for it.”
And this, really, is the Westbrook funnel: the secret, maybe Polynesian, sauce that makes everything pop – the unwavering self-belief that he has. Everything, in some way or form, whether artificially or through natural Bestbrook physics, finds its way back to that.
Jacket, $760, hoodie, $580, Acne Studios. Trousers, price on request, Overcoat
What did you learn from meeting Anna Wintour?
“As you know, Anna at shows can be kind of intimidating. You know, just by sitting there. I had an opportunity to talk to her, to get a chance to see her open up and talk to me about different things about fashion. It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
But what was the biggest thing she taught you?
“Continue just being yourself.”
The next night, a Saturday night, the lights are turned on high. The crowd is raucous. The reigning-world-champion Golden State Warriors are in town.
The first quarter quickly takes a turn. Steph Curry, the Warriors’ deadeye shooter, drains a three-pointer seconds into the game. It only gets worse from there.
Jacket, price on request, Bottega Veneta. T-shirt, price on request, Honor the Gift. Trousers, price on request, Louis Vuitton. Sneakers, $85, Converse
Westbrook really does look like he’s playing in slow motion. Where there have been splashes, there are bricks. He hesitates where there is usually zero hesitation. He gets frustrated. He gets a technical called on him. He shoots terribly from the field.
The Thunder lay an egg. The crowd thins out. The game ends in a blowout. Tortured Thunder fans on Reddit brand it one of the worst games of Westbrook’s career.
But this much is obvious: in an 82-game regular season, a dud game will happen. You will come in, and play crappy. It’s a low for Westbrook – but a low that you know will be erased. You’d be a verifiable fool to bet that Westbrook would stay down. A Westbrook who’s had his colours lowered is a dangerous one.
In the hours after the game, the Thunder’s locker room is mellow. Paul George gets dressed and talks to reporters, solemn in his vibe. Kevin Durant is lingering in the hallways outside, saying hi to old friends.
And a little while after that, Westbrook comes out. He lopes over to the gaggle of reporters, each bearing a camera or iPhone or mic. He avoids eye contact through two, three, four questions. He nurses a Gatorade. He answers in generalities, in clichés – he looks every part a man that wants to get outta there, get home, recharge, and come back with a vengeance. You get the sense that he’d drop everything to play another 48 minutes, right now.
Jacket, $605, 1017 ALYX 9SM at Matches Fashion. Jeans, $395, Alexander Wang. Sneakers, $65, Converse
At last, a reporter asks something that piques his interest.
“Russell, when you have a night like this, where you shoot the way that you did, do you change anything? Or do you continue to do what you’ve been doing, considering the defence they were running at you?”
Westbrook finally lifts his head up a little.
“Do you change the way you approach your shooting, when they were sagging-off?”
And finally, Westbrook lifts his head fully, and laser-focusses his eyes on the reporter.
“Have I changed in 11 years?”
The NBA Playoffs begin April 13.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jasper Soloff
STYLING: Jim Moore