James Harden and Russell Westbrook on the Great Houston Rockets Experiment

By Mark Anthony Green

Photography by Sebastian Mader

The biggest surprise of the zaniest NBA offseason ever was the reunion of James Harden and Russell Westbrook—two former teammates who happen to be two of the steeziest brodies on the planet. With a couple of MVPs, almost 200 triple-doubles, and a gazillion wild tunnel outfits between them, the question remains: Can the great Houston Rockets backcourt experiment actually work?

Russell Westbrook and I used to have fashion beef. On the great Fashion Feud Intense-O-Meter, our beef sits somewhere between Yves Saint Laurent versus Tom Ford and Dwayne Johnson versus shirts with sleeves. Which is to say it wasn’t that serious. But here’s what happened: Six or so years ago, when a certain stylist who works with NBA players claimed on Instagram that a client of hers was being copied by other players, I chimed in. The post was ridiculous. (She was taking credit for pink pants, among other things.) But she was a friend, and as one does with friends, I made fun of her. Russell saw my comment and, for whatever reason, thought I was making fun of him. In other words, it was a misunderstanding. After years of back-and-forth through publicists and agents—and several awkward run-ins at Fashion Week events—we buried the hatchet. I asked him about it in December, before James Harden met us at the most generic hotel banquet hall Houston had to offer, and Russ went postgame-interview mode on me. “You’re passionate about something, I’m passionate about something,” Russell said. “And that’s fashion. So if you like it, you’re going to have a strong point of view, just like I’m going to have a strong point of view.”

This indiscriminate intensity explains why Russell Westbrook should be beloved, protected, and celebrated by every true sports fan. (He isn’t. More on that later.) Watching Russ play is like watching a kid who just discovered his superpowers. It’s as if a radioactive spider bit him a few hours ago and he can’t quite control the new muscles fully, but holy shit—did you just see that backflip?! Last summer, in what was the most entertaining shuffling of free agents since Chappelle’s Show‘s Racial Draft, the superhero rejoined forces with arguably the greatest scorer to ever play the game. (As I write this piece, James Harden is averaging almost 40 points a game. And yet, Vegas gave the Rockets only 14-to-1 odds to win the Finals.)

Part of what the doubters were reacting to is that as NBA players become more empowered to choose where they play, more superteams are going to fail. Like the stacked ’18-’19 Warriors, who fell to the Raptors. Another thing that sports outlets and barbershops across America are reacting to is how unorthodox both players are, especially James Harden. A few seasons ago, they debated whether his step-back was a travel or not. Now it’s a move just like any other that players are incorporating into their games. Still, can a team actually win a championship with a point guard as unpredictable as Russ and a shooting guard who averages 700 dribbles a game? As they teeter between third and sixth in the Western Conference, we won’t know the answer until the playoffs.

But Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who’ve been friends since they were children playing AAU ball in Los Angeles, couldn’t be more confident. About everything. At the top of that list are the unabashed fashion choices: madras robes, safety vests, distressed shirts that reveal under-cleavage…and that’s just Russell, who was one of the first players to turn tunnel walks into fashionable moments. James Harden has quickly earned his place as one of the most fearlessly stylish athletes of all time, one snakeskin two-piece at a time. When I asked them if they’ve ever regretted an outfit they’ve worn, they battled over who could say no faster. The sartorial spectacle currently known as the Houston Rockets is almost as fun as watching them play.

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Despite losing Kevin Durant and preparing to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder on his shoulders, Russ hasn’t lost his swagger.

Russell Westbrook can be stingy with his words, but lucky for us his facial expressions give like the Gateses. There’s the face, meant for the opposing team’s bench when he dunks over their tallest player, that says something like, “I just scored two better points than you’ll ever score in your career.” There’s the face the Oklahoma City Thunder star makes when he’s high-fiving his teammates and one pulls his hand away too soon, a face that says, “I will bite your fucking pharynx out if you don’t march back over here and make contact with my hand.” There’s the face when a reporter asks a question he doesn’t like that says, “I know you have young children, which is why I’m not gonna humiliate you in a viral Vine.” And sometimes, as now, on this open-air patio in Beverly Hills, a long way from a packed NBA arena, there’s the face I’ve seen a bunch this afternoon: head canted, nostrils flared, eyebrows appealing to all possibility—a 3-D emoticon shrug that says: “Why not?”

It’s a mantra that’s governed his disposition as long as he’s been in the spotlight, evident in the unflinching way he both plays the game and picks his clothes (fashion’s his other fixation). But his embrace of the phrase Why not? goes back to well before he was famous. “My friends and I started that motto early in high school,” Westbrook says. “That attitude, that mentality, from way back then: Want to go to Stanford? Why not? Want to play in the NBA? Why not? I was never the best player. Not ever in my life. Though even when I was younger, I felt that on any given day I could be. And that mentality’s what’s helped me get over the hump each and every day to where I was meant to go.”

To UCLA. To Oklahoma City. To the NBA Finals, five All-Star teams, an All-NBA First Team. And now, to a lonely new altitude—the sole superstar on a team that forever had two, the odds-on favorite for league MVP. Here is someone who hasn’t been the best player on his own team since high school, and all at once he’s poised to be not just the focal point of a franchise, but perhaps the best player in the entire league.

There’re those giant shoulders shrugging and that face again. Why not?

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