Thank You Russell

Forget the dramatic buzz beaters, the scintillating dunks or the record setting steam of triple doubles. My favorite memory of the newly minted NBA MVP came in a bank parking lot on a dreary September afternoon in Oklahoma City.

Russell Westbrook vs. Kobe Bryant

A few months removed from a hotly contested playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers(the eventual NBA champions in the 2009-2010 season), Thunder-mania had swept the Oklahoma City metro. If you wore a Thunder t-shirt or jersey, chances were good you’d strike up at least one conversation with a random stranger in line at the store. The blue and orange were everywhere, flying on car flags or emblazoned on hats or even painted on the faces of particularly passionate fans.

To celebrate the upcoming season, the team organized what they dubbed a Thunder Rally in the parking lot of a local bank. True to form, the Sooner State greeted the news with ominous gray clouds in the sky, a light drizzle at first but threatening a torrential downpour at any second. Hundreds of fans showed up regardless, shaking hands with Rumble the Bison or swaying in time to the music of the Thunder drummers, but all hoping to catch a glimpse of the team’s stars, Kevin Durant and a third year point guard from UCLA who’d come up big in the playoff battle with the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook.

I’d come to take some photos and maybe even get the stars to sign the ticket that scored me entry to Game Four of the Lakers series, a surprising rout of the defending champs by the home team. But the rally was rightfully geared around kids, with a few mini courts along with carnival games for the youngsters to play. And when Durant and Westbrook entered to a huge ovation from the gathered fans, they joined the kids to teach them basic ball handling skills and play along to the carnival games.

Russell Westbrook at the Thunder Rally

I happened to be standing nearby as Westbrook watched some of the kids play the bean bag toss. A little girl, maybe six or seven, didn’t play very well. In fact, she missed the target every time. She took it really hard and was crying as she started to walk away. Russell stepped away a minute and knelt beside her. I couldn’t hear what he said, but by the time she returned to her parents, she was grinning from ear to ear.

But I did overhear her as she returned to her parents and talked about how he’d told her to never give up and to always believe in herself. She pointed to a wristband she now wore, one which had the words “WHY NOT?” written on it. Westbrook had given it to her, not because cameras were pointing at them or because he wanted to impress the crowd. He’d done it to make a sad girl happy.

I’d been a Russell Westbrook fan since the team that would become the Thunder drafted him, but that day he became my favorite professional athlete.

I can’t say exactly why I became a Westbrook fan so early on. Maybe it was his college, as I debated applying to UCLA’s film program out of junior college, and can even remember wearing a UCLA backpack as a kid in elementary school. Maybe it was because he was the first draft pick who started his career in OKC after the team’s move from Seattle, or maybe just because I liked what I saw of his game from the highlight clips. No matter the reason, Russell Westbrook was my favorite player on the Thunder.

It wasn’t a popular choice.

Westbrook at the free throw line

It started with his selection with the fourth pick in the draft, which some Oklahoma City sportswriters lambasted as a guaranteed bust. For some, Westbrook could never do enough. When his game showed growth, they’d only project him as a backup. When he became the starter, he wasn’t meant to be a point guard. Every step along the way, with every criticism he answered, certain local media would respond with “Yeah, but…” Westbrook even lampooned it with shock at thanking the media during his acceptance speech at the NBA Awards.

No doubt as fans digest Westbrook’s MVP win, there will be a number of articles written that will talk about his incredible season. They’ll mention his record setting triple doubles, or how he led the league in scoring or about the come from behind victories he orchestrated. They’ll weigh in on whether or not Westbrook will sign his contract extension and remain with the Thunder or if he’ll leave the team like Kevin Durant.

And many of those articles will talk about his remarkable journey from an undersized, under-recruited high school player. They’ll talk about his friend Khelcey Barrs, a Leuzinger High teammate who tragically passed away after collapsing during a pick up basketball game. They’ll talk about the importance of his family or of the remarkable charitable efforts he’s taken part in. Inevitably, they’ll mention the two words that Westbrook has forged into his motto.

“Why Not?”

It defines the attitude with which Westbrook has approached every challenge, the retort to every doubted along the way. He spoke those words to a little girl in a bank parking lot when she was upset over a carnival game.

Those words mean a lot to me, as well. But to understand why seeing Russell Westbrook with the MVP trophy brought me to tears, I need to take you back a few years.

I remember looking back out across the parking lot on a cold Oklahoma morning. The sun had started to rise, the moment photographers like to call the Golden Hour. I couldn’t help but pull out my cell phone to snap a quick picture before I slid it back into its holder and turned to take my future wife’s hand and step through a series of doors that had become all too familiar over the last year and a half.

The first trip to the Baptist Medical Center emergency room almost didn’t happen. I’d been diagnosed with an unusually high white blood cell count by my physician, and we’d scheduled a CT scan in the coming weeks to try and locate the cause. After a particularly rough night at work, I made the call to head to the ER just in case. I thought a “quick stop” that morning might reduce my pain and help me get through the work week easier.

By that night, I had my own room in the hospital with surgery scheduled the next day.

The whole ordeal belongs in its own post, or more likely a series of them. By the time all was said and done, I’d traded a good section of my colon for some impressive scars, a few nightmarish bills and a long, difficult recovery after each of the five surgeries I endured(it was supposed to have been three, but a complication sent me from my celebratory meal right back to the ER and eventually into a second emergency surgery).

The recovery was particularly difficult. You can’t appreciate how much you use your abdominal muscles to walk until they’ve been cut through. I staggered through the ER with my IV rack for support, and even after release a simple walk through a department store would exhaust me. Everything hurt, and there were points when neither I nor my doctors knew how complete my recovery would be.

After the second emergency surgery in particular, I found it hard to get out of the hospital bed. I felt like I was starting over from scratch, all the hard work and expense of the previous surgeries for nothing. I kept up a brave face around my family, but when I was alone in the room I questioned if I could keep going.

Around this time, I saw a post from Russell Westbrook on social media where he referenced “Why Not?” For whatever reason, it resonated with me more than ever before. I surprised the nurse on duty the next morning by forcing myself out of the bed and made it through the entire hallway of my floor. I won’t say I didn’t have my difficult moments going forward, but I distinctly remember that post helping to motivate me to keep going.

When I went in for the fifth surgery, I once again wore one of my Russell Westbrook jerseys to the hospital, as I had for every scheduled procedure. I wore a wristband I’d bought with Westbrook’s logo as well, and gave it to my wife to wear while I was in the OR. And I wore it again when I left the hospital.

And after that fifth time, I didn’t have to go back.

I’m amazed by what Russell Westbrook has done on the court. The MVP Award shows what an amazing season he’s had, with likely many more to come. But I’m just as much a fan of Russell Westbrook the person. There are his well documented projects, such as the amazing work of his Why Not Foundation including the creation of Russell’s Reading Rooms in schools. But many people in Oklahoma City are aware of many things he does without publicity to help people who need it. There are kids who are being given a brighter future thanks to his efforts, and that might well be his most valuable contribution of all.

I’ve never had the chance to meet Russell Westbrook, not even at that Thunder Rally all those years ago. And while the fan in me thinks it might be cool to ask for an autograph or pose for a picture, I’m not sure I would. More than anything else, I’d like to shake his hand and tell him how much his example inspired someone he’d never met.

Truth is, I doubt I’m the only one.

Congrats, Russell Westbrook. You deserve this.

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