And Lo, With Russell Westbrook, Humanity Outpaced Science
Consider the gravity. Monday night, Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard whose manic, irresistible brilliance made him one of the NBA’s most divisive figures, was awarded the league’s highest individual honor: Most Valuable Player. The coronation was in some ways a fait accompli; the closest rival for the award, James Harden, could only muster a halting, staccato approximation of Westbrook’s ability to take a game’s outcome into his hands. Yet, it was no less welcome. In a year defined as much by political strife and fear—what the singer and activist-poet Gil Scott-Heron might term a time of “frozen progress and frozen ideas”—Westbrook gave us something to look forward to.
We live in dizzy times, and counternarratives like Westbrook’s quick-stepped gambit toward NBA deification became a rare kinetic rebuttal to the dark shadow of political unsurety and widening social disunity. Throughout the 82-game regular season, he served as a precise metaphor for an imprecise moment in the American chronicle: heave yourself forward, against outwardly impossible hurdles, against cynicism, against disbelief, and even then, when the road ahead remains too nightmarish to navigate, continue on, fight, move forward.
In a teary-eyed eight-minute speech during the awards ceremony, the always dapper point man—who had foregone his usual fashion risks for a reserved look—was backed by his teammates onstage as he spoke to the importance of support and sacrifice. It was a vision of Russ in reverse: emotional and heartfelt, giving every bit of himself to viewers, but this time with measure and composure. Where on the court he hungers after the ball and the basket and the next play and everything between him and a victory, here he was content, brimming with joy, full. “I feel like I go out every night and compete at a very, very high level,” he said, later describing the record-breaking year as “unbelievable—just a true blessing for me.”
The dazzle of Westbrook’s pure athleticism seems to defy the limits of human physiology, the very laws of motion. Even the most casual basketball observer would estimate Westbrook—a 6'3", 200-pound quasar—to be more natural phenomenon than flesh-and-bone mortal. Which is not to say he didn’t labor for it, day in and day out, for 29 years; he did, with a work ethic that’s become the stuff of legend. But watching him make his will manifest, scoring 12 points in the final 90 seconds of a show-scorching performance against the Celtics in December, conjures a prodding, almost insane thought: Has humanity outpaced science?
Science tells us our bodies will inevitably fail us. History has vetted that statement: Sometimes in an unexpected flash, sometimes after more than 90 years of life, we expire. Still, watching Westbrook, one can’t help but wonder about the boundaries of human will. “I don’t think we’ve hit our limits yet,” Peter Weyand, a professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at SMU, said in 2016. Although he was speaking in relation to how scientific resources might better unlock the body’s full capacity, I couldn’t help but think of Westbrook. All season he flopped, erupted, contorted, and surged feverishly up and down the hardwood: In March, rallying from 13 points down against the Mavericks in a matter of 3 minutes, hitting a game-winning shot with 7 seconds to spare; in April, racking up 50 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists for his 42nd triple-double of the season, outdoing Oscar Robertson’s near-mythic 1962 achievement. We watched and wondered: What could he not do?
By the close of the regular season, Westbrook hadn’t just singlehandedly willed an unexceptional Thunder team to a playoff slot in the grueling Western Conference. He’d become the only person other than Robertson to average a triple double (31.6 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds). “Averaging a triple-double is like having a helicopter that is also a boat that can also write the Great American Novel,” Sam Anderson wrote in a New York Times Magazine profile of Westbrook earlier this year. “It is more than just an engineering impossibility — it is an existential cheat.” But even a virtuoso is not without his detractors. Westbrook was constantly labelled a ball hog, his style considered self-absorbed and ultimately unhealthy for the team.
Consider, though: The last time a player averaged a triple-double was in 1962, three years before blacks would be granted the right to vote and more than half a century before Barack Obama would disrupt the arc of American politics. In that 55-year span, basketball bore witness to Wilt Chamberlain, Bird and Magic, Jordan and Kobe and LeBron: players of such revelatory talent that they changed the sport forever. Yet it wasn’t until Russell Westbrook came along this season that the record seemed in the least bit conquerable. Consider, too, this happened in his first year without Kevin Durant, the slick-limbed partner he had come to rely on for nearly a decade—and who fled the Thunder to join the immeasurably talented but algorithmically heartless Golden State Warriors, who would go on to win the championship and, perhaps finally, cement their NBA antihero veneer.
Just how did Russell Westbrook defy gravity, then? By pushing forward, never stagnating. Forces worked to ground him; history pressed against him. But there he was, single-minded and unyielding, moving with graceless velocity toward the basket—rising and rising against it all.
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