TULSA — The ink was barely dry on whatever paperwork had delivered Russell Westbrook to Houston.
Comedy fans (or Westbrook fans) slowly streamed into Cain’s Ballroom, the iconic dance hall on the north edge of downtown, thinking not about tonight’s show but rather simply buzzing about the news. Many wandered aimlessly or sat in their seat, soaked in stunned silence.
Then, like a stylish apparition, their hero came in, suddenly, from behind the curtains, gliding among the ghosts of Hank Williams, Bob Wills and country music’s other kings of swing. And they cheered.
And just like that, Russell Westbrook’s last official act as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder was underway.
Westbrook had signed up long ago for Thursday’s “Layups2Standup” Pop-up Comedy Show as part of his Why Not Foundation’s visit to Tulsa to benefit NFL wideout and Tulsa native Tyler Lockett’s Light It Up Foundation.
With the news still fresh of OKC’s trade with Houston — Russ for Chris Paul and two first-round draft picks, plus two draft swaps — Westbrook entered the front of the ballroom, then quickly and predictably changed his mind about doing any pre-show media interviews. He then walked onto the stage and thanked everyone for coming, then introduced his co-host (comedian Demetrius “Juice” Deason), then exited stage right. He later briefly returned to the spotlight to thank the crowd, but didn’t exactly express his feelings about the sudden turns in his meteoric basketball career.
Once the world learned five days ago that Paul George had gone to Thunder general manager Sam Presti to request/demand a trade to the L.A. Clippers, the end of Westbrook’s tenure in Oklahoma City seemed all but imminent. Still, any foreknowledge of an impending Westbrook trade hardly lessened the impact of Thursday’s news. The storm, dark and powerful, clearly loomed, but it never felt real until the bolt of lightning struck with a sudden and thunderous force.
Only minutes before ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the Westbrook news on Twitter, waiting media gathered on the side was still speculating whether this show and this week’s youth camp at Bishop Kelley High School would be Westbrook’s final act as an Oklahoman. One even astutely predicted the news would break during the show. It did, or just before.
So Oklahoma City’s halcyon days are over, nothing now but pictures and memories, not unlike the long-dead crooners hanging in portrait inside Cain’s Ballroom. James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant and now the most loyal of soldiers, Russell Westbrook, are Thunder history.
How best to remember Westbrook, then?
As a surly interview subject? As a wildly ambitious but ultimately inaccurate 3-point shooter? As a ball-dominant teammate that either couldn’t sustain or couldn’t create enough good vibes and locker room harmony to keep generational teammates like Kevin Durant or Paul George from wanting to play elsewhere?
No. None of those.
Westbrook should remain indelibly in our minds as a wholly unique talent, the most athletic point guard in NBA history and an utterly fearless competitor who, like it or not, did things his way. From a 19-year-old rookie to a 30-year-old veteran, Westbrook played angry for 11 unforgettable seasons in Oklahoma City. He snarled odiously after dunks, his stink-face twisting with malice, and he beamed his Hollywood smile upon his teammates’ humblest accomplishments.
He also redefined a largely arbitrary and nearly forgotten stat — the triple-double — making it cool again and showing us all what was possible if we only ask, “Why not?”
Westbrook should stand forever in Thunder lore as the last trooper, resolute, alone in his MVP season, warning Durant that he was, indeed, coming, despite insurmountable odds. While it was Harden who always wanted to put on his own show and Durant who fled OKC to play a part in someone else’s and George who just wanted to go home to Los Angeles, it was Westbrook who chose to stay. It was Westbrook who re-signed with the Thunder. It was Westbrook who convinced George to stay another year to try to build again. It was Westbrook who lifted OKC’s increasingly one-dimensional roster for a yearly spot in the playoffs as things slowly, almost imperceptibly, eroded around him.
It was Westbrook. It was always Westbrook.
He once famously said the ball is his only friend on the basketball court, and maybe that’s what finally ended his days in blue.
Westbrook, an L.A. kid with dreams of New York and Paris, made his home in Oklahoma City. He endeared himself to a community, to a state, to a culture, and he embraced it all as his own.
So celebrate and revere Russell Westbrook’s legacy in Oklahoma. Appreciate the heart and the hustle he gave to a neophyte fan base, both on the floor and off. Thank him for his philanthropic outreach, and for his prodigious talents.
Elite players will come and go in Oklahoma City. But we will never see another Russell Westbrook.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.