Russell Westbrook is notoriously private. He keeps his responses short, choosing to answer only the question at hand. And If you ask him about something he doesn’t want to discuss, he won’t—no matter how many different ways you phrase it.
Westbrook’s relationship with the media teeters between tepidly cordial and downright hostile, worn down, it seems, by years of scrutiny about his on-the-court play. Though he’s said the criticism doesn’t get under his skin, it’s difficult to imagine it not affecting him.
“I find that hard to believe for a guy who came into the league at 20. It had to be difficult for him, and I’m sure it took a toll,” says Darnell Mayberry, senior assistant sports editor of The Oklahoman, who has covered Westbrook since he was drafted in 2008. “He was never an outgoing guy with the media. Over time, I think he realized that if he didn’t want to talk about certain things he didn’t have to, and no one could make him.”
These days, the Oklahoma City Thunder front man regularly dodges reporters’ post-game questions with memeworthy looks or launches into his own version of former Seattle Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch’s famous line, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” In one 2015 interview after a win, Westbrook answered every question with some variation of “We did a good job of executing,” before telling one local reporter, “I just don’t like you.”
Like Lynch, Westbrook is all about that action, especially on the court, where he seems to have only one speed: possessed. The 28-year-old guard furiously sprints down the hardwood, slashes to the hoop, crashes the boards and throws lightening-fast passes to his teammates. The result? He did the near impossible: average a triple-double during the season, a feat that hasn’t happened since Oscar Robertson became the first NBA player to do so in the 1961–62 season.
Although supremely impressive, Westbrook’s basketball prowess isn’t what lured EBONY to OKC in the middle of winter. No, we were in search of a bigger prize, one that seemed to elude many journalists in the past: to meet the real man behind the meme and get him to talk openly about life, marriage and who he is when the world isn’t watching.
Westbrook strolls into Studio XII on a chilly Saturday after having rallied the troops to victory over the Memphis Grizzlies the night before. The megastar slips in the door unannounced, handing out handshakes and daps as he moves through the room. It’s typical for a celebrity to roll with an entourage, but Westbrook arrives alone, dressed in nondescript gray sweats and a black T-shirt, a far cry from the colorful haute couture outfits we’re used to seeing him wear.
He’s not a diva, as he has been called by teammates. He’s not “bizarre,” as he has also been described. Instead, Westbrook is disarmingly normal, and the disconnect between the Russell we see on the court and the one behind the scenes is mystifying.
Gone are the repetitive answers and wilting looks. This Russell raps along to Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” while smoothly dancing to the bass-heavy beat. This Russell’s eyes light up when his wife, Nina, walks into the room. This Russell is (gasp!) fun and not as guarded as others have made him out to be.
This Russell is different—but why do we rarely get to see him?
Read more in the April/May 2017 issue of EBONY Magazine, on newsstands now! Click here to subscribe.