July 11, 2019, will forever be a bittersweet day for Thunder and Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK will always be a bittersweet location for Thunder fans as general manager Sam Presti decided to pull the plug on an 11-year partnership with the face of the franchise and city, Russell Westbrook.
The news broke just before the Russell Westbrook & Layups2Standup Why Not? Pop Up Comedy Show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. That made for an awkward, turned appreciative atmosphere when Westbrook walked onto the stage to welcome the crowd to the show.
The bittersweetness of July 11 represents the end of OKC’s first era of basketball. The day this small market really became a big-league city. While it’s tough to see a player like Westbrook go, especially to a rival team in Houston, it’s the least Presti could have done for the one who remained loyal to the franchise through all of its ups and downs.
In 2008, right before the Thunder relocated from Seattle to Oklahoma City, I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, embarking on a new journey. With that new journey came a multitude of struggles and uncertainties. This was during the same time-frame of the Thunder drafting then 19-year-old Westbrook fourth overall from UCLA.
I remember (and don’t try to deny it), Thunder fans being disappointed in Oklahoma City for drafting Westbrook, especially as early as they did. He was a true shooting guard that was drafted to be the future point guard of this relocated franchise. You have to remember, point guards in the mid-2000s were completely different than they are today. They were seen as distributors first, and strictly that. If you could score, you were a treasure, but your primary duty as a point guard in 2008 was to distribute the ball and run the offense.
Point guards that were leading the league at the inception of Westbrook’s career were Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Devin Harris, Andre Miller, and an aging Steve Nash. Though all five of those guys were offensive virtuosos, they still fit the mold of a traditional point guard. Westbrook certainly didn’t fit that mold and it’s human nature to be skeptical about the unknown, which was him at the time.
I just happened to become a Westbrook fan while he was at UCLA, which was the only reason I welcomed the idea of the Thunder drafting him. Though I mostly saw him in highlights, only watching a full game when UCLA was in the NCAA tournament, I enjoyed seeing what he did and admired his authenticity.
It’s that authenticity that made him the subject of criticism early in his OKC career. In his rookie season, he averaged 15.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, so the promise was there for sure, but the majority of the NBA and Thunder fans still critiqued his style of play and demeanor quite critically.
Everything was against Westbrook.
He was a very young, black male with everything to prove, yet he appeared arrogant and unapproachable, two things that typically represent an NBA superstar, which wasn’t him at the time. That rubbed people the wrong way. Not to mention, he was in Oklahoma, a very conservative state that wasn’t accustomed to young [rich] black men in the public spotlight that walked around town with the confidence and flare as Westbrook did.
To make things worse, he was playing second-fiddle to Kevin Durant, who Oklahomans were a bit more comfortable with because he was a proven upcoming star after an impressive rookie season in Seattle, didn’t appear as flashy as Westbrook did and was more approachable. Kevin Durant fit in better with the OKC community off the rip.
The cards were stacked against Westbrook from day one and only a select few Thunder fans saw and appreciated what he brought to the table early in his career. It wasn’t until his second season, the 2009-2010 season when the Thunder went on to win 50 games to clinch a playoff birth that a mass amount of fans started to appreciate what Westbrook brought to the court night-in and night-out.
Through the ensuing nine seasons, Westbrook has slowly but surely won the hearts of Thunder and NBA fans. Everyone learned to deal with his personality and his style of play, and those that didn’t were forced to respect the dynamic player he’s become.
While representing the city of Oklahoma City, Westbrook has revolutionized the point guard position, revolutionized this era of NBA fashion and culture, much like Allen Iverson did in the early 2000s and played a lead role in creating a true culture and fashion scene in OKC.
Westbrook is an OKC legend that means everything to this small city. He helped empower me and many other young black boys to be ourselves, unapologetically and to continue to chase our dreams no matter what they are. Westbrook dared to be different and dared us to do the same.
Although this isn’t the end of Westbrook’s NBA career, as he’ll embark on the second half of his prime with the Houston Rockets, this is the end of Oklahoma City’s first era of basketball. Though bittersweet, it’s time to reboot this franchise and unlike the 2008-2009 season, they won’t be starting from the bottom this time.