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"I remember everything that happened to me. Sitting on the bench in high school, sitting on the bench in college; I remember all that. I'll never forget that and that's what pushes me now to work hard and continue to outwork everyone else every day."—Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook doesn't need you to believe in him. He was 5'8", 140 pounds as a 10th grader. He sat the bench until his junior year. He wasn't a McDonald's All-American. There were no cash advances coming from the shadows on the promise that he'd one day take the NBA by storm. There were no highlight reel dunks. Westbrook couldn't jump high enough to dunk until mid-way through his senior season.There weren't even recruiting letters in the mailbox until the summer prior to his senior year. There was just Russ and his father, shooting jump shot after jump shot. Very few people believed in him then either.
However, one of Westbrook's greatest strengths—and the cause of his recent persecution—is his belief in himself.
He grew to 6'3" and a chiseled 187 pounds. Check. Not only did he crack the Leuzinger High School starting lineup, but he also averaged 25 points and nine boards, while leading them to the CIF-SS Div. I-AA quarterfinals as a senior. Check.
The letters that took so long to come turned into scholarship offers too, and he wouldn't have to settle for Creighton or Kent State. Westbrook signed with UCLA, and he—along with teammates Darren Collison and Kevin Love—led the Bruins to a second straight Final Four appearance as a sophomore. Check. He eventually managed to get a dunk or two to fall too. Check.
So you see, it's not that Russell Westbrook necessarily needs to be "the man." It's that we told him that he couldn't be. His reaction in the days and weeks since has been a purely natural one. As it turns out, no one should have expected him to tuck his tail and get back in line. The attitude, the chip on his shoulder, the fearless "Eff You" mode that he has been in over the course of these playoffs, is the same one that got him from high school benchwarmer to All-NBA guard.
If it looks like he plays mad, it's because he does. He's not mad at Kevin Durant. He's mad because Mike Conley finally scored on him. He's not mad because he's counted more No. 35s than No. 0s in the stands. He's mad at Lionel Hollins for having the audacity to think that Greivis Vasquez can play him straight up.
He's not mad at a certain member of the media's assertion that he basically just wants to be Derrick Rose. Okay, maybe he is mad about that.
But mostly he's mad because Khelcey Barrs isn't here.
Khelcey Barrs was Russell Westbrook's teammate and best friend. The two had always played together, and the plan was to do the same in college. But that plan would never come to fruition.
On May 11th, 2004, Barrs was playing pickup games at LA Southwest College with some teammates and friends. After his fifth game of the day, he collapsed. Barrs, who had an enlarged heart, was pronounced dead at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood a short time later. Westbrook acknowledges feeling the responsibility of playing for two people from that point on, vowing never again to question himself or his ability.
This incident—perhaps better than any other—explains the intensity and effort that submerses every facet of Westbrook's game. Always a hard worker, this singular event triggered his fire-fueled ascent to the apex of the basketball world. This player—Khelcey Barrs—also helps to explain why the accusations questioning Westbrook's willingness to play the "Robin" to Durant's "Batman" are unfounded.
Russell Westbrook has always been the sidekick on the basketball court. He was Barrs' wingman as a kid. He was the third option at UCLA, behind Kevin Love and Darren Collison. Because of Collison, he was never even the starting point guard for the Bruins. When the "Sonics" made him the fourth overall player chosen in 2008, he joined a roster that was already being shaped around Durant.
Nothing about his history as a player suggests an impending power struggle. Still, the viciousness of his play has been misinterpreted as being a mercenary motivated by self-interest.
Westbrook is just playing his ass off. He has been challenged by the fans and the media, Kevin Durant has been wearing Shane Battier like a t-shirt and every time up the floor he's staring at a defender that he knows he can beat off the dribble. He's "just trying to play (his) game."
Whether outsiders have recognized it or are willing to concede to it, Russell Westbrook is no longer Plan B. The league scoring champ is, and will remain, option No. 1. But his point guard is 1A. The future of this franchise is every bit as attached to Westbrook as it is to Kevin Durant.
He's allowed to shoot. He's allowed to push the envelope. He's allowed to attack the rim at will. His court presence and basketball IQ are continually improving. Attempting to curb his aggressiveness won't accelerate his maturity; it will only stunt his growth.
Kevin Durant wasn't always Kevin Durant. This time, one year ago, he was the one facing criticism for his lackluster playoff performance. Westbrook deserves to be afforded the same learning curve. If he costs us a game or a series, so be it. Because he will win us many games and many series later on.
This is Russell Westbrook's team too.