Let Russell Westbrook’s comments be a lesson: Athletes don’t have to meet your expectations

Russell Westbrook made an exceptionally powerful point last night while wearing a silly hat.

Russell Westbrook made an exceptionally powerful point last night while wearing a silly hat.
Screenshot: Washington Wizards

Russell Westbrook had 35 points, 21 assists, and 14 rebounds in a 132-124 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night.

We’ve already seen this movie with Westbrook, long before he joined the Washington Wizards. He has been doing some variation of this routine for at least seven years, most notably during his historic 2016-17 MVP season. At this point, even now in Westbrook’s career, it’s damn near expected that he’ll still have one of these monster efforts every once in a while. At age 32 and in his 13th NBA season, he’s averaging 21.8 points, 10.6 assists, and 10.3 rebounds per game. But at 43/32/62 shooting splits, and on a team that’s 17-29 and 12th in the Eastern Conference, his play hasn’t been conducive to much winning in the post-Kevin Durant portion of his career, which Stephen A. Smith was quick to highlight on ESPN’s First Take the morning after his performance.

Smith first credited and extended “the utmost respect” for Westbrook as a man saying before noting that the numbers meant nothing to him.

“When we look at his game, it’s the same stuff every year,” Smith said. “Might get a little bigger, strong, athletic, can take it to the basket, still hasn’t gotten that shot going … that three-point shot.”

Smith later pointed out that Westbrook has been, over the course of his career, teammates with Durant, James Harden, Reggie Jackson (???), Serge Ibaka, Victor Oladipo, Paul George, and now Bradley Beal.

“I mean, damn, you’ve played with some great, great players over the years. Talent. And not a single title to show for it.”

Smith later doubled down on his ESPN+ show, Stephen A’s World.

“I don’t give a damn,” he said of Westbrook’s performance, then basically reiterated the same points above.

Westbrook provided an in-depth response following last night’s 114-104 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

“A championship don’t change my life. I’m happy,” said Westbrook. “I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion.”

“I watch these college games, and I watch these kids, and these announcers, man, they get on the TV and just say anything about a kid. They don’t even know him. They don’t know his family. They don’t know where he’s from. They don’t know what he’s been through. They don’t know his troubles. They don’t know his pain. They don’t know anything about the kid, but one thing said on TV can determine how you perceive this kid on TV, which will allow him to be able to reach his goals, which will allow him not to get drafted, which will allow him not to take care of his family, which will now not create generational wealth, which now makes our people and the minorities, underserved communities — this is way bigger than basketball.”

You could argue, and many on Twitter (“shockingly!”) have argued, that Smith’s comments aren’t out of bounds. They could be backed up by facts, and it’s entirely likely that Westbrook never achieves the championship that Smith is challenging him to obtain. But, to Westbrook’s point: so?

In sports, we often lose sight of what really matters to specific individuals, and we’re distorted when our ambitions for select athletes don’t line up. What Smith is saying isn’t invalid, but if Westbrook doesn’t care, that’s fine, too. In any profession, there are people who want to climb the ladder in a way that previous generations have encouraged them to do so. There are people who reject that and want to rise in their own uncommon, valiant, and fulfilling way. And then there are others who see just getting to a destination as good enough. It’s all rooted in unique perspective, which is what Westbrook is articulating. And if you don’t comprehend that, the point is that you’re probably not built to.

“Wanting it all” could come in various forms, and they’re rarely the ones sports commentators outline for certain athletes. Maybe Westbrook gets a championship one day, but he’s content not being defined by that, so we should be content with that, too.

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