Russell Westbrook and the Ruthless Competitor

Reckless? Ruthless? Frustrating? Fantastic?

If one were to ask National Basketball Association (NBA) spectators their thoughts on Russell Westbrook, those are the juxtaposing responses you would probably get. Rarely does a sportsman come along whose performances are arguably more polarizing than Brexit.

Since his professional debut in 2009, the divisive Westbrook has made a name for himself as an extraordinary athlete in Oklahoma City. Standing At 6 foot 4, he possesses explosive power as well as being a relatively taller player for his position of point guard. Although his intense style of play constantly divides opinion, it is with his intangibles where Westbrook truly towers over his peers.

Westbrook is a ruthless competitor. Every time he dribbles to the baseline, the Los Angeles native morphs into a cold-blooded assassin, wholly unsentimental on his path to victory.

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He is not the first in sport, or even the NBA, to foster such an unforgiving competitive drive. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and the iconic Michael Jordan are a few names who come to mind that possessed, what is often called that ‘killer instinct’ – showing no remorse for their opponents, as they strive to reach their goal by any means necessary.

When each of these generational talents graces the court, beyond their athletic prowess, it is their unspeakably compelling mental approach that mesmerizes spectators. Although he has some catching up to do with title wins (Westbrook has none so far in comparison to Kobe’s five and Jordan’s six), in terms of mentality, ‘Russ’ is certainly cut from the same merciless cloth as these past legends.

For starters, Westbrook is unapologetically relentless. There is a common agreement among basketball circles that it does not seem to affect him, be it a championship final or practice – Westbrook plays with the same uncompromising intensity on every possession.

In the NBA, like any sports league, players rarely stay consistently motivated. Some only kick into gear once crucial, season-defining games are on the horizon, often labeled as ‘playoff mode’. Others seem to find increased impetus in the final year of a contract, as they look to secure their future (and bank account). Understandably, maintaining the same commitment over the course of a grueling 82-game season is not a menial task by any stretch, even for these freakish athletes. Many have, at some point, fallen guilty of what psychologists call ‘social loafing’ – the idea of an individual exerting less effort into their work when in a group, as opposed to when on their own.

In sports these can often be seen in more subtle cases, for example through athletes who transition from offence to defending. Rather than busting their gut at all costs to prevent the opposition, they simply cover the distance. The lack of determination might be because the potential outcome of that half-hearted moment probably will not define their season, or even that particular game. Hence, they undertake the necessary action required, while their desire lacks.

The Times columnist Mathew Syed uses an apt analogy when describing this psychological phenomenon. He compares it to looking after your own child, as opposed to caring for a friend’s offspring. With your child, every interaction is meaningful as love courses through your body. However, with a friend’s child the activities might seemingly be the same to an outsider but unknowingly you are loafing. There is something missing. As Syed claims, you are giving your time, but not your soul.

Contrastingly, Westbrook’s engine, for better or worse, seems to have no brakes.

His unequivocal desire is why the volubility of his fandom is ever more fervid. Whether you buy a ticket to the Chesapeake Arena, stream the game or tune in your radio (If that is still a thing) – you are practically guaranteed to always get your money’s worth with ‘Russ’, on effort and will alone.

Yet, it is his flaws that really define him.

There might be no nights off but it is that very same tunnel vision focus that has led to Westbrook being countlessly criticized.

The circulation of critiques regarding the charismatic point-guard’s play are a common part of American sports punditry discourse. A firm backhand of adjectives such as “inefficient”, “selfish” and “stubborn” frequently rally against any superlatives or praise. In fact, Westbrook might go down in history as the most polarizing player, not only of his generation, but also in the history of the NBA.

More often that not, he invites this criticism upon himself and by no means is ‘Russ’ the best player in the NBA. In reality, despite being a phenomenal athlete, he may never actually win a championship. Yet that is what makes Westbrook such a captivating figure. A constant reminder that for all the ferocious dunks and highlight reels, he is human.

But the question still begs, what attracts spectators to such ruthless competitors, even if they aren’t always victorious?

In sports, very rarely does solely the instrumentalist bottom-line of winning inspire us. Often we seek to embrace a wider ideal, a deeper meaning. It is Westbrook’s infectious self-belief and risk-taking that make him greater than any accolades.

His insatiable hunger allows us to peak into witnessing how far this bold attitude can take oneself. Just ask OKC fans. They passionately chant his name today, knowing that through every missed shot and lost possession, they have witnessed Westbrook evolve from a turnover machine in his rookie season into a bond fide superstar and surefire future Hall-of-Famer.

Only Westbrook would dare leap over players almost a foot taller for a rebound to gain possession for his team. Only Westbrook would have the audacity to miss all his 3-point attempts in a match and then go on to score the game-winning buzzer beater from beyond the arc. Only Westbrook would dare play out of his skin to win MVP in the (usually light-hearted) NBA All-Star Game for not one, but two seasons.  The fearlessness of Russell Westbrook is both a rarity and a beauty.

One cannot help but wonder where he finds this unquenchable desire.

A quick scroll through his social media and you will see the phrase “Why not?” plastered all over his timeline.

“My friends and I started that motto early in high school,” Westbrook told GQ in 2016.

Since then it has been the mantra that has embodied his philosophy to life.

“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 any given day I could be. And that mentality is what helped me get over the hump each and every day to get to where I was meant to go.”

In a world where so many of us spend our lives being largely risk-averse, preferring to stay within the shells of safety and certainty, the audacity of players like Westbrook enthralls us.  Watching him is a roulette wheel of sorts. Each time he attempts a ridiculous dribble or takes a seemingly irrational shot, the pure disregard for logic mesmerizes fans and casual spectators alike.

It is that essential lunacy, teetering on the verge of sociopathic tendencies, to ignore surface rationality and strive towards a goal, while countless others doubt, scrutinize or mock you. That is when the currents of greatness spark.

So is he reckless? Sure. Ruthless? Undoubtedly. Frustrating? Consistently. Fantastic? Definitely.

But for all his inconsistencies, there is something deeply empowering we can learn from Russell Westbrook.

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By fearing the unknown and being overprotective, we often pull away from the very outcomes we crave. It is not until we rid ourselves of inhibitions and embrace risks that we have the potential to better ourselves. Yes, there might be some missed shots, but there will also be some life-changing ones.

After all – why not?

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