Human After All: On Russell Westbrook, Knees, and Possibility
Nothing in sports is immune to over-narrativization as it provides such a tidy — if situationally incorrect — picture that quickly surveys the immediate past and tosses out probable directions. These are not always right but that’s not really the point. They are manifested on multiple timescales and carry with them all kinds of strange baggage. LeBron James always turns back into a frog at midnight, Paul Pierce is a proud Eskimo alone on an iceberg over and over again until it isn’t true. When their careers are finished, these noble warriors of meaning have redeemed themselves and won solace, or they have failed because of tragic flaws or whatever and they’re free to unmoor themselves and float off into the sunset. If you didn’t win a title, well you can still be in a slideshow. You are a story.
Almost no real-life cases exist in such a linear space of course; theory inherently rounds corners that are naturally jagged in order to provide methods of stacking things up. This is not to say that NBA basketball is complicated beyond any hope of solid classification or analysis, but more often than not, chaos triumphs over schematics. The trick of narrative-centrism is that any new developments simply get folded into the existing story. New plot points to fit preconceptions, or prove the fabled haters wrong.
The rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder from awful 3-29 team led by P.J. Carlesimo to perennial challengers for the championship is such a popular and ingrained story-arc because it happened so fast. Teams who make the leap from slumping around the bottom of the standings in hopes of assembling an able core to playoff berths usually run into all kinds of trouble, and the process usually takes a few seasons. Conventional narratives render this period as a time to pay dues, where a team must ‘earn’ their place in the postseason before usurping an older team’s playoff spot. The appeal of the Thunder was that they spit in the face of ‘tradition’ and overcame older, wiser teams on their way to the NBA Finals. They were anti-heroes, but only in the sense that they were preternaturally talented whippersnappers.
Another crucial element of the Thunder mystique was that they were all nice boys, good guys who would carry your groceries off the court but apparently had a switch they could flip at will and transform into ruthless basketball demigods when they chose. This is who we are told our athlete idols should be. Hypercompetitve and merciless when playing sports, and genteel, selfless, and humble everywhere else. This distinction is an iffy binary, but Oklahoma City — at least Kevin Durant — seemed to fit into the schema perfectly. When Russell Westbrook refused to defer to his leader in the postseason, he was castigated for daring to step outside the ‘natural’ order of the team. Of course, it turns out that more Westbrook is a good thing for the Thunder, evinced by numbers and the Thunder’s quiet exit from the 2013 playoffs. It says a lot about the fiery, seemingly irrepressible Westbrook that such an elite team fell so quietly. Before Westbrook’s knee crumpled, his 2012-2013 season was probably his best ever and the team had it’s best regular season in their current incarnation. However, what makes Russell Westbrook so refreshing and lovable is his violent, lurching style, able to render any team of defenders into a pile of jelly and bones. He is everything right about sports.
And now he’ll miss his first season opener ever due to knee surgery. An essential part of the myth of Westbrook was that he’d never missed a game, and the shattered streak is reminiscent of a sadder truth about the complex, entropic world of the NBA. These streaks rarely work out in the long run, but Westbrook felt like a superhero. His game is built upon an overlapping series of clashes and explosions, mutually eroding interactions that would not normally be sustainable. Westbrook endured the externalities of his violent drives with no problems for long enough that it seemed he was immune to human unravelling. However, now the secret is out. Westbrook isn’t an alien or a robot and he can’t float above bad fortune forever.
What happens next is that thing where narratives contort over themselves to incorporate new data next to the old stuff. If Westbrook comes back from his injury with the same genius and scowling athletic menace that preceded it, well then, Westbrook is once again exalted. The narrative confirms itself and we all go home happy. If it turns out his meniscus tear costs him some of his springs or lateral freedom and his team suffers, characterizations of Westbrook will be scrambled and basketball fans will have to settle for a less-athletic version of one of the best guards in the league. This projecting of the future is a silly game to attempt. The only truly scary scenario is the one where Westbrook is plagued by chronic injuries, a la Penny Hardaway, and he never graces the court without an assemblage of knee braces and only serves as a depressing touchstone of his past triumphs.
Regardless of how much new Russell Westbrook looks like pre-injury Russell Westbrook, the Thunder will probably be able to retain their place towards the top of the Western Conference. Reggie Jackson is good at basketball, even if he isn’t a shapeshifter, and Kevin Durant is still going to shimmy his feet together and articulate his limbs to form an array of unreachable and accurate shots. What’s at stake isn’t team wins and losses, but a sense of possibility. Basketball is full of spectacle, but Westbrook is way off the bell curve. Aside from the glum feel of a Westbrook-less NBA, a league without Russ is a league that feels a bit more earthbound. The sense of creative possibility and magic that comes with basketball would fade, even if only temporarily. Westbrook isn’t the best player in the NBA but he is the most fun, and that can sometimes be even more important than being the best.