A little more than a month ago, when the Oklahoma City Thunder came to Madison Square Garden to play the abandoned cat circus called the New York Knicks, the Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook invited a few of his fashion-world pals to the game. Westbrook maintains a double life as a basketball supernova and a style vanguard—he can make Ziggy Stardust look like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—and he warned his friends from labels and magazines that the fiery Russell they saw on the Garden court might not be the Russell they knew from, say, Paris Fashion Week.
“This is going to be a different Russell,’” he said.
Despite 40 points from Westbrook, the Thunder lost that game. Since then, however, Different Russell has become the NBA rage, emerging not only as basketball’s most mesmerizing player, but perhaps the most thrilling athlete of the moment, period—Must-Watch, Can’t-Look-Away, Teach-Your-Grandparents-How-to-Work-the DVR TV. Mostly in the absence of his teammate, the reigning Most Valuable Player, Kevin Durant (out healing an injured foot), Westbrook has—in a handful of weeks—electrified the sport, drained jaded Twitter of superlatives and barged his own way into this year’s MVP race.
OK, I know: I sound like an 11-year-old who has just come back from an ice cream buffet at a water slide. The Thunder—3-3 in their last six games after Sunday night’s win over the Toronto Raptors—remain a maddeningly erratic operation. But win or lose, Westbrook’s recent play has been irresistible, something that transcends the usual, rote Hey that guy played great praise. I’m not saying that on nights that Oklahoma City is playing, you should cancel your plans to watch Westbrook. But the guy had 30 points, 11 rebounds and 17 assists on Sunday. Isn’t that a little more exciting than your plans?
If you want more numbers, there are more numbers, loads of them. Before the triple double against Toronto, Westbrook recently ran off a stretch of four consecutive triple doubles (double figures points, rebounds, assists)—the first such run since Michael Jordan did it in 1989. Over the course of February, Westbrook averaged more than 30 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists—a historic month matched only by sublime Big O, Oscar Robertson. Westbrook was the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer on Feb. 1; now he’s the league’s scoring leader.
After missing a chunk of games earlier in the season, Westbrook seems impermeable. Last week, a Thunder teammate accidentally put a knee to his face, leaving a dent on his cheekbone the size of an avocado pit. Westbrook had facial surgery, missed one game, and came back the next wearing a clear plastic mask that makes him look like he is closely inspecting a salad bar. Unaffected, he dumped in 49 points versus Philadelphia, a career high.
And yet numbers don’t do the whole job here. What makes the Westbrook Experience the Westbrook Experience is the full visual—the baseline to baseline relentlessness of his play, the fierce energy, the refusal to be undone by mistakes or misses (and there are misses!). It’s the rush of seeing someone competing at the highest possible level look elevated over the field. I know: I sound like I’m back at the water slide ice cream buffet. But in the flow of an NBA game, Westbrook can resemble upgraded software, moving at twice the speed of the rest of the game.
Yes, bring on the caveats: Westbrook is taking a lot of shots, which has meant a lot of misses, and there are, at times, Thunder players standing around during offensive sets as if they’re at a birthday party for an office co-worker. Westbrook’s oversize stats alone haven’t been enough to ensure Oklahoma City victory: As NBA.com’s Sekou Smith recently pointed out, the Thunder are 2-5 in games this season in which Westbrook has scored 40 or more points.
But from a standpoint of pure entertainment, the Winter of Westbrook has been hard to beat. After all, the average sports fan really wants three things to happen during the average sporting event:
A. They would like for it to finish by midnight so they don’t pass out in their 9:30 a.m. work meeting.
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