The Greatness Of Russell Westbrook

Will Pennington - Millennial Milk

The Setting…

The Oklahoma City Thunder led 107–106 against the New Orleans Pelicans on a Sunday night in Oklahoma in February. Just under 3 minutes were left in the game as the Thunder’s leading man, Russell Westbrook, dribbled the ball up the court.

Oklahoma City has had to fight this year. Without the help of Kevin Durant, who left to join what was already one of the best teams in NBA history, the fate of the franchise has fallen on the shoulders of the mercurial Westbrook.

As Westbrook crosses the midcourt line he pauses for a moment, surveying the defense. Lurking in the paint are the behemoths Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins trying to stop him.

Cousins was recently traded to the Pelicans from the Kings. After years of butting heads with teammates, coaches, and officials; Demarcus wore out his welcome in Sacramento.

Cousins and Westbrook are both prone to wear their hearts on their sleeves, ranking first and second in technical fouls this season respectively.

The Climax…

OKC big man Steven Adams sets a good screen on Davis, and Westbrook darts past his defender, leaving only Cousins between him and a 3-point lead for the Thunder. The 6’3” Westbrook explodes towards the rim, colliding in the air with Cousins.

Demarcus Cousins is not a small man. He towers above Westbrook at a listed 6’11” tall and 270lbs.

As the unstoppable force meets the immovable object the crowd rises to its feet. Westbrook changes hands in mid-air, slamming the ball through the hoop with a ferocity that is palpable.

A whistle blows, a shooting foul on Cousins, his 6th, he has been ejected. As the New Orleans big man pleads his case to the officials, Westbrook descends to earth.

Russell struts, snarling almost definitely at the raucous home crowd. He has fouled out Cousins, scored, and now will go to the line where he sinks the free throw to put OKC up by 4.

The Interpretation…

In this moment I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite books, Ender’s Game:

“He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.”

Westbrook had Ender’s kind of anger, a cold, rational anger that he used to impose his will on the basketball court. Westbrook’s dunk wasn’t just spectacular. It was purposeful, it was expressive, it had meaning, it was artistic. And that is when I realized…

Sports are one of the world’s great art forms, and Westbrook is one of America’s great artists.

Now I realize that this could ruffle some feathers, but bear with me.

The Definitions of Art…

Art comes in all forms and fashions. From painting, or sculpture to dance or music. Art is not just objects to be gawped at in a museum, it is often performed live, as in the case of theatre.

Art can be improvisational; take jazz, or improv comedy.

Art can be competitive. Every year the world’s best films compete for awards that will give them substantial financial gain, yet we consider film to be art.

If art can be diverse enough to include everything from dance, to film, to music, to sculpture, to any of the myriad of mediums we accept to be art, why can we not also include basketball or baseball. Surely there is poetry in America’s pastime.

According to an Art History Class I took in College, the working definition of Fine Art was “Art that people will pay a lot of money for or that they put in a museum.” Sports satisfies both these requirements. Steve Ballmer paid 2 billion dollars for the right to say he owns the Clippers. Also we build museums to sports, just take a trip to the MLB Hall of Fame.

Ask any Cubs fan about last fall. Ask Red Sox fans about 2004. Tell me that Jackie Robinson didn’t advance the national dialogue on race.

Understanding the Art of Sports…

Sports are so entwined in American culture that they have become our most popular art form. And as with a lot of art, most of the meaning can be derived from the context of the performance.

It isn’t just what happens on the court or the field that tells the story, it is what has led to those moments.

Understanding the context of the performance on the court in the greater narrative of the career of the player, or the team’s season, offers greater perspective on the art of sports in the same way that understanding the circumstances of a painter’s life can help unlock the meaning in their work.

Knowing what twists and turns brought Westbrook and Cousins to that intersection is key to appreciating its intrinsic artistic beauty. Understanding the long suffering of the Cubs allows us to experience the euphoria felt in Chicago last November. Understanding Vincent Van Gogh’s life lets us appreciate his paintings as more than just something pretty. In this way, as with the others listed above, sports consistently adhere to the definitions of what is or is not art.

Sports as a Global Art-form

Sports are an art, and not a new one. Sports, or athletic competition have existed in some form or fashion in nearly every culture on earth since the dawn of time. Just as architectural styles differ from country to country, or region to region; so too do the styles in which the same sports are played vary geographically.

Ask any FIFA fan the differences between the styles of play of say Spanish, Brazilian, and German teams. They would be able to give you a stylistic breakdown as detailed as a discussion on the architecture from those countries. Even in basketball, comparing the American style of play to that favored in Europe is like trying to compare Gershwin to Mozart.

Back to Basketball…

The Thunder beat the Pelicans that Sunday night in Oklahoma City. Westbrook collected another triple double in his quest towards history. As of this writing he has 32 on the season, second all-time and 9 shy of Oscar Robertson for the record.

Every night that OKC takes the floor, fans are treated to another chapter in Westbrook’s saga. It is a story of perseverance, a tale of a man stubbornly fighting against what seem to be larger forces.

It’s the greatest story being told right now in one of America’s greatest art forms. Sports.