Not like this. Not like this. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Sure, I thought they might not win the Finals. I knew, deep down, that this team was fatally flawed in a way Golden State would be able to exploit. But I was so sure it would take the Warriors. I was so determined that they’d at least make the conference finals. Instead, they lost to the Jazz. Not like this.
When the Thunder’s season ended, I was sad. But, like anyone who watched their first round series, the writing had been on the wall since game 2. Clearly, this team was not firing on all cylinders. Instead, it was firing on one. That one, Russ, did all he could. He flung the ball at the rim in every which way imaginable. He even made them into the hoop a bunch of times, too. He set his teammates up with makable shots. He grabbed rebounds by the handful. He plunged face first into battle, trying to drag his teammates with him. It didn’t work.
This will be the last article I write about Russ for a very long time. It’s not easy. In fact, it hurts. I have to learn to embrace all of Russ, including his shortcomings. I don’t think he’s to blame for their loss, but it’s time I grew honest with myself. By way of example, let me discuss Kanye.
I’ve always liked Kanye. I’ve never loved Kanye. Doesn’t matter if it’s the old or the new Kanye. Yet, when he started to tweet up a storm, I saw something. Something special, magical even. What I saw was before “slavery was a choice,” before Trump and dragon energy. I saw love. If you take the time to read all of Kanye’s tweets (it’s only about 350, last I checked), you’ll find that the media attention on him has been absurdly skewed towards the most controversial of his claims. Here are some tweets that resonated with me: “You are free. You’ve already won. Feel energized. Move in love not fear. Be afraid of nothing.” “Everyone should be their own biggest fan.” “Question everything.” “Express what you feel not what you’ve been programmed to think.” “Sharing is community, holding information is capitalism.” Read those tweets, and tell me they’re selfish, racist, thoughtless or cruel. You can’t. Because they aren’t.
I read Kanye’s tweets, and I saw a philosophy of free love and free thought that I needed in my life. I saw something I was missing that would fulfill me. I tried to share what I saw with other people. As you can imagine, it did not go over well.
Met with incredulous stares and vigorous debate, I was surprised; how was everyone missing what I could so clearly see? When the TMZ interview about slavery came out I was there to defend him. Yeah, that comment was dumb. Matter of fact, it was more than dumb. It was wrong, it was hateful and it needed to be rectified. However, it didn’t mean Kanye was wrong about everything else or that Kanye was bad. The idea he was trying to communicate was that the mental prison of slavery — the mental prison of society — is far more insidious and harmful in the long term than physical slavery. Kanye, in his comment, meant that slavery is at least as much mental bondage as it is physical. Obviously, that’s not how most people heard it. Like I said, at first I was ready to jump to his defense.
That’s exactly what I did. I defended him walking around campus, I defended him sitting at lunch and dinner, I defended him on my phone, I defended him all alone … I defended him. Finally, the counter-debate was strong enough to bust through my stubborn skull, and I entered a period of deep introspection. Was I wrong about Kanye? Was he actually racist? Had he really gone crazy? Was this all a lie?
It couldn’t be. In a short few days, I had come to appreciate Kanye’s visionary thought in a way I never did through his music. I wanted to think like him, mostly. But my friends had forced me to question myself. Could I love someone who was racist? Could I love someone who was wrong? Part of the backlash against Kanye only proves his point. Society makes it very hard today to have an unpopular opinion and be able to discuss it with people who disagree. One gets demonized for having the “wrong” view. People dismissing Kanye without reading his entire body of (twitter) work exemplified what was wrong with society, in my opinion. I still think people need to search for more context and challenge their preconceptions. However, my own views have evolved as well.
At the end of this brilliant, confounding intellectual journey, I found the real Kanye. He is a lover. He believes in free thought and in breaching social norms. He knows nothing about politics. Despite being a rapper, he isn’t very good at concisely conveying complicated concepts when it comes to twitter or interviews. While I can understand his love for Trump (for he loves all people, and he is inspired by Trump’s accomplishment of something no-one thought possible), he picked a horrific example because Trump is one of the most publicly hateful people of our time. Slavery is perhaps the most hateful piece of the world’s history puzzle. Kanye revealed that he hasn’t quite figured out this philosophy of love and free thought as much as I thought he had. Maybe he isn’t even the best messenger for it. As a starry celebrity, though, he still is responsible for being a good person. He failed to do that recently. I think he should apologize. I still think he’s magical, but I can’t say I’d follow him.
I wouldn’t have been able to write that paragraph two days ago. I was too enraptured with the beauty of the best of Kanye West. Likewise, I now have more perspective on Russ. Russell Westbrook is my favorite player in the NBA, bar none. He is easily my second favorite player of all time, slotting in snugly behind Steve Nash. His foaming passion for the game buzzes through my body sitting on the couch as he blitzes through defenders and hammers the ball through a hopelessly thin rim. I still don’t know what Kanye meant by dragon energy. Whatever it really is, Russ has it. Or maybe he’s just a dragon. I love Russ, and I will continue to love Russ for as long as he plays. After this past season, unfortunately, I have to open my eyes a little wider. I have to stop distorting reality, ignoring the plethora of bricky pull-ups. I need to remember the lazy defensive possessions or insane gambles for steals that allow him to streak across the sky like a meteor when he gets the ball but all too often end up in an easy shot for the other team. Russ is flawed. He still is a top 5 NBA player, and he absolutely earned his MVP award last year. In order to make it back to the finals, he probably has to evolve as a player. Like Kanye, I still believe in the good in Russ. I know he has what it takes to be the best player on a championship team. I’m worried. I’m worried because he is sorely flawed and because he does not seem to realize it. His next season might just determine his legacy. Just as Kanye’s next album will determine the same.
Contact Jack Golub at email@example.com.