LAS VEGAS — As I sat at press row near the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bench, I couldn’t process what was going on right in front of me.
Deonte Burton — a man of immense physical talent — had just recovered a loose ball and slammed a monstrous dunk. This happened not 10 feet in front of me. I could easily see the sweat bounce off of Burton’s head as he returned to earth to rush back on defense.
But my mind was elsewhere. Yes, I had been sent to Las Vegas to cover the Thunder’s Summer League schedule for The Franchise, but that took a backseat. The external distractions that were playing out before me became white noise.
For the first time in 11 years, Russell Westbrook was no longer a member of the Thunder. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s tweet announcing the trade occurred with about 10 minutes to go in the second quarter of OKC’s game with Portland. It hadn’t exactly hit me minutes after reading the tweet.
It still hasn’t.
It was difficult to root for Kevin Durant in the beginning. Not because he was a bad player — we knew then he was on his way to superstardom. Not because he was hard to connect with — he embraced the challenge of competing in small market.
But he went to Texas.
Long before I became an NBA fan, I was contractually obligated to root for the Oklahoma Sooners at birth. As a native Oklahoman, I can say there aren’t many choices you have for a rooting interest. So you can imagine my dilemma when the team who suddenly appeared in my backyard was led by a Longhorn. I eventually came around of course.
That was when I noticed Westbrook. I had remembered him from his NCAA Tournament runs with UCLA. He was the guy with the awesome flames shaved into his hair during the Final Four.
Before the Thunder’s arrival in Oklahoma City, I had grown up a Miami Heat fan — I know, random right? I had become smitten with the game of Dwyane Wade. Wade’s relentless energy, never-quit attitude, fearlessness as he fell down seven times and got back up eight was contagious. I was a Wade fan from day one.
In Westbrook, I saw similarities to my basketball hero. He was a fearless. He was relentless. He refused to quit. But the other layer to Westbrook’s mystique — he was flawed.
Flawed is a descriptor that haunted Oklahoma City as a market in the NBA — a sports league played, essentially, by celebrities. We all knew the up-hill battle OKC had as they attempted to gain ground in the league. Westbrook mirrored that up-hill battle perfectly.
While Durant received the initial love as the best player on the team and enjoyed the praise of the national media, Westbrook pressed on for better or for worse. But that was okay. He was trying. He was succeeding. He was failing. He was continuing on. Exactly like the city he played for.
As the years went on Westbrook had grown into an All-Star player alongside Durant. He had done it in such a way that made him so connected to the city. While Durant’s star career was more or less preordained the minute he entered the NBA, Westbrook was anyone’s guess.
He was a shooting guard playing point guard. He was a super athlete playing a position that required more cerebral prowess than shear physical talent. These were the thoughts of many outside of Oklahoma.
Anytime the Thunder succeeded, the praise lay at the feet of Sam Presti and Durant. Whenever the Thunder disappointed like in a 2011 Game 4 in Denver or most of the ensuing Western Conference Finals, Westbrook was there to catch the malice of the masses.
It was always his fault. But Oklahoma City loved him anyway. If you were apart of it, you understand. If you were on the outside looking in, you will never know. Westbrook was OKC’s and OKC was Westbrook. We just didn’t know about it until July 2016.
I had been covering the Thunder for two seasons by the Summer of 2016. I was small time of course. Blogging and aggregating news from more established and talented people can wear on even the most determined mind. The desire was to always be in the middle of the story rather than being another bridge to the story.
I finally got my chance to cover the team in person shortly after Westbrook signed his extension with the Thunder following Durant’s departure.
The second I walked through the doors of the Thunder’s practice facility just across the street of where I would once work a few years later, I had to shed my fandom. It was easy. I took the job seriously and wanted to do the best work possible.
And that made it much easier to deal with Westbrook.
I was no longer one of the millions of fans. In Westbrook’s eyes, I was enemy number one — a member of the media at-large who had so criticized him earlier in his career. There were multiple one-word answers, eye rolls and stink-eye looks in my future.
Despite the at times unpleasant nature of Westbrook’s presence, I never lost sight of what was truly important. Westbrook stood for more than just being an All-Star basketball player. He was something that made Oklahoma puff its chest with pride. A state in the middle of the country had one of the loudest, fastest and meanest players with “Oklahoma City” across his chest.
Even during some most unsavory moments in my career did that sight not waver.
Following a game in February 2019, I had placed my backpack against the wall of the Thunder’s locker room towards the exit as I always have. Further inside, the media stood by in hushed tones as we wait for Westbrook to perform his ritual of making us wait.
After what was probably an uneventful scrum that produced little to no soundbites — unless Berry Tramel asked a question — Westbrook walked out of the scrum to talk to a Thunder team official standing near my bag.
As the two stood and talked, I waited to grab my bag. After small-talking with other team officials for a few minutes, Westbrook began to walk towards the exit. I headed towards my bag to grab it when Westbrook stopped and resumed talking to the team official.
I was caught in no man’s land. I had fully committed to grabbing my silly crimson OU bag. This was an awkward moment.
“Pardon me,” I said as I reached behind Westbrook’s back to grab my bag.
“No, go ahead and eavesdrop on my conversation, mother f*****,” Westbrook said under his breath.
I smiled, grabbed my bag and then walked towards the door. Doing my best to ignore him. You have to be numb to Westbrook’s antics towards the media and do your best to not take it personally.
But as I walked towards the door, Westbrook was walking the same direction in front of me. I couldn’t get away as more f-bombs were hurled my way. Once he got through the door, I walked in front of him and proceeded down the hallway as he slowly paced the same direction. I could still hear him complaining about someone invading his space as I got further away.
Nothing personal. Life carried on after that night.
Now as we all look back on Westbrook’s time with Oklahoma City it is important to remember that moments like the one mentioned previously don’t matter in the grand scheme.
Westbrook’s legacy is that of loyalty with Oklahoma. A state that has had an unfortunate history of people leaving for better opportunities in both reality and fiction, had a super star that chose to remain.
He never won a title. He never even got out of the first-round of the playoffs. Those bullet points will remain in the minds of people over the next few years unless Westbrook is able to win somewhere else.
But that won’t matter in the short term for Oklahomans. Years down the road, even outside voices will sing the praises of Westbrook — Mr. Triple-Double, The Brodie. He’s an icon to Oklahoma and will be an iconic Hall of Fame basketball player years after he done playing.
I was able to cover him for two years. While some days were better than others, my time with Westbrook will help my career down the road. I learned to not take things so personal dealing with millionaire athletes under tremendous pressure that I cannot begin to fathom. For that I am thankful.
As an Oklahoman, I am grateful for the 11 years of entertainment.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12, in addition to weekly guest spots on “The Franchise Drive” on Tuesdays and “The Franchise Morning Show” on Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports