Throughout Russell Westbrook’s career it’s been easy to be anti-Russell Westbrook. Although it’s impossible to ignore his game- averaging triple doubles and breaking records all over- it’s been the way he’s carried himself on the court, with the media, and with the fans that’s made him an easy target for haters like me.
I’d preach all day that Westbrook’s style of basketball isn’t suited for the playoffs (which may be why the Thunder are on the brink of elimination this season), that he’s the reason KD was willing to become a league villain to join the Warriors, and that his overall demeanor makes him fundamentally uncoachable. But in 2019- in our volatile social and political climate- in a world where we unjustly build heroes from sports stars and turn a blind eye to them as humans, we’re at a crossroads of public scrutiny and Russell Westbrook has firmly chosen his path. He’s chosen to live against the grain of the “golden boy” mentality. He’s not shaking hands or kissing babies. He’s here to play at an insanely high level, answer to no one, and react like a Black athlete in America who simply refuses to ‘shut up and dribble’.
Fanaticism for American sports truly caught fire during Hoover’s failed presidency, continuing after the Great Depression when FDR’s Fireside Chats gave Americans hope. People found hope and happiness in rooting for their sporting heroes- by celebrating moments of grandeur such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s long ball race. The rest is history. And while being a fan is a major part of life for many Americans, there’s just as many who don’t follow sports. The tie that binds us is the unholy media machine that for better or worse illuminates and celebrates the flaws of the famous across countless platforms that inundate our daily lives.
Fast forward to the end of this NBA season where an entitled, white, arrogant Utah Jazz fan taunted Westbrook repeatedly from the expensive seats. Westbrook snapped and his reaction was captured live and direct for the world to see. The cell phone age has ruined moments like these- moments where only those in earshot would have been able to justify Westbrook’s violent retort of “I’ll fuck you up, and your wife. On everything I love”. And while many, including myself, were quick to condemn Westbrook for his empty threats, there’s so much more to unpack in order to make sense of it all.
The shitty fan had social media accounts full of racist, xenophobic, and homophobic slander, so it’s no surprise he shouted that Westbrook should “get on his knees like he’s used to”. Whether that’s a reference to sucking dick, or some sort of slave slander, it was enough to elicit Westbrook’s now famous response, as well as a lifetime ban from what I imagine to be the only thing to do in the entire state of Utah. And because I’m someone with a brain, someone who’s dedicated his career to helping at risk teenagers in an overcrowded, often violent, politically desecrated public urban high school, I should have been quicker to come to Westbrook’s defense- knowing that so frequently people of color are antagonized with the anticipation of a stereotypical reaction. But the kicker is, I don’t need to come to Russell Westbrook’s defense. No one does- because Russell Westbrook has made it clear that his path is not defined by the preconceived notions of White America.
Westbrook has almost certainly dealt with different societal expectations his entire life. White students can wear clothing, make remarks, and exhibit behaviors that teens of color cannot. That’s a fact of life- a dangerous and powerful fact of life that exists in the simplest of settings. Stroll around any mall in America and watch the way security deals with groups of Black and Brown kids. Chances are you’ll see those same behaviors and suspicions coming from groups of white kids, who are likely left alone. And before you choose to debate me on this point- keep in mind that I’ve experienced these situations every day in my career for the past 12 years. Change hasn’t permeated the halls of urban schools and for the most part a stronger racial divide has developed.
Typical knee jerk reactions to Westbrook’s outburst were plentiful. Fine him! Suspend him! What a disgrace to the game! Looking further proves that white America tends to react to thirty second clips (and interactions) without a deeper understanding of how racial circumstances and lowered expectations trigger behaviors that are perceived detrimental in “every day society”. In order to understand someone’s reaction-Russell Westbrook’s included- you must first understand the circumstances which surround that individual. The behavior cannot be judged without first investigating and discussing the social context of that person’s world. Poor kids act out. Lonely kids act out. Angry kids act out. But who’s taking that next step to unpack the “why” behind those reactions and more importantly how race unfairly tips the scales?
Russell Westbrook is a multi-millionaire; a professional athlete who has transcended the fear of public scrutiny. Unfortunately, there are millions of Black and Brown kids who will take his outburst out of context. His behavior will be validated (and rightly so) because the perception of his anger is relatable. An average teenager (especially one of color) cannot and will not be excused for violent threats like the ones Westbrook made towards that racist fan. And while common sense tells us that athletes are just people with a highly specialized skill set- we know that the light shines brighter on their every move.
Westbrook’s achievements this year, including his 20-20-20 night dedicated to the memory of his friend Nipsey Hussle, cannot be understated. His efforts have reached epic heights and his value to the game cannot be translated in simple dollars and cents. But what’s most impressive is the manor in which he’s continued to carry himself, in spite of people like me who are quick to put him under a microscope. That microscope is exactly where the issue lies. It’s not fair to judge Westbrook for his outbursts or his scowl without having some idea of where it comes from- in both a historical and contemporary context. It’s ignorant to pretend to know what it feels like to be stereotyped or ostracized because of the color of my skin. That microscope so hastily employed by the White media pretty quickly becomes irrelevant when considering the history of racial intolerance in America and the blind eye so clearly and frequently turned towards the true issues facing our communities.
Go ahead and say ‘it’s only basketball’. You’re wrong. It’s so much more- but only if you’re willing to be brutally honest with yourself and the world unfolding around you.