- Sam Alipour
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This is an extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 15 Photo Issue. Subscribe today!
AS OKLAHOMA CITY marches into the NBA playoffs, questions will swirl around point guard Russell Westbrook. Will he shoot the Thunder to a title, or in the foot? Will he blow up the scoreboard, or just plain blow up? Will he revisit those camo pants from All-Star Weekend, or could he possibly rock Jeggings? Behold the wonder that is the NBA's biggest enigma -- sartorially, too.
First, a bit about Westbrook, the style icon. For the cover story of our Photo Issue, The Mag aimed to run a spread with a fashion-forward athlete who also happens to play a sport pretty well. Enter the NBA's freshest- and, at times, wackiest-dressed employee, a man Kevin Durant likens to Beyonce's alter-ego. "Oh, he's a diva," says Westbrook's co-star for the Thunder. "I call him Sasha Fierce. On the court, he's a fierce competitor. Off the court, he's chilling in front of the mirror, making sure he got the right lip balm on."
Indeed, Westbrook, 24, takes his look very seriously. Rather than employ a stylist, he shops on his own and works his closet like a math problem, mixing bottoms and tops, the louder the better, until an answer emerges. (Typically by the third try.) The key to Westbrook's look, though, is also the key to his game: fearlessness. That's how a 6-foot-3, 190-pound, shoot-first point guard defies the critics, lands a five-year, $80 million deal and winds up as the league's fifth-leading scorer.
Go ahead, call him out -- Westbrook can't hear you. "He don't care what people say when he plays or when he dresses up," says teammate Thabo Sefolosha. Adds Nick Collison: "He does what he likes to do. He knows what he is and he doesn't care what other people want him to be. That's how he plays and that's how he carries himself."
But beyond his sartorial guts, on-court surliness and explosive, play-how-I-wanna-play game, let's face it: We don't know much about Russell Westbrook III. To wit: The "Personal" section of his Wikipedia page consists of two notes. One mentions his fondness for lensless eyewear. The other, oddly, makes it very clear that he is not the cousin of former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. That's it.
"And that's great," Russ says with a chuckle. "That's the way I like it."
Westbrook's lesser-known cuddly side made an appearance the night before this interview at the 2013 Heart Ball, a black-tie gala held to raise awareness for heart disease and related research. It wasn't some random philanthropic venture for an athlete in search of positive publicity. Westbrook's childhood pal and teammate, Khelcey Barrs III, passed away from an enlarged heart when the boys were high school sophomores.
The interview with Westbrook was to take place after that gala, on The Mag's first night in OKC. It promised to be a palatable ordeal for the fiercely guarded baller -- ours is a fashion spread, and the accompanying interview would focus on his style. But Westbrook later admitted to actually enjoying the talk -- so much so that our dialogue, at Westbrook's suggestion, grew to become a series of chats. ("That," said a Thunder official, "is a first.")
It began with a sit-down at my hotel's watering hole, the Red Piano Bar at the Skirvin Hilton. The hotel teemed with heavily inebriated 30-somethings who were on hand for a fraternity reunion, so I suggested a table in the corner, well out of sight. Instead, Westbrook fearlessly chose a table that hugged the lobby, at the center of the action. Still, he fielded only one photo request, which he politely declined so as to not appear rude to his visitor.
I'm going to start at the beginning, with a vague question, because nobody knows a damn thing about you.
I know, and that's great. [He laughs.]
How would you describe your childhood?
My childhood was interesting. I was born in LA, at Long Beach Memorial, and we moved around inner-city LA. Lawndale, I didn't necessarily live there, but that's where my high school was and where people think I'm from. I lived at 83rd, and 66th and Normandie -- the inner city.
Yeah, virtually. I was in Hawthorne when I got to high school, and it got rougher and rougher as I got older. My childhood, I wouldn't say it was bad. It helped me grow up. I stayed out of trouble. My parents taught me what's wrong and right, and knowing that I had a little brother following me, I had to make sure I was doing the right thing so he knows what's right, too. I was in the house nine days out of 10. There wasn't nothing good outside for me.
So, let me tell you what I've heard about you -- that you're actually pretty shy.
And you're fiercely private.
Yup. If I get to know somebody, I'll open up, but other than that I like to sit back and observe things.
When did that start?
I always felt like that growing up. I've always done my own thing, not really out there -- real low key. Sometimes I'm in my head, thinking about certain things, and it may not always come out.
So you didn't have a crew growing up?
Naw, not when I was young. It was just me and brother. That was it. When I got to high school, my crew was my teammates and my brother.
And that crew included your teammate, Khelcey Barrs?
Yup -- when I got to high school, especially because he lived across the street. That was real convenient for us. We were freshman together.
And he passed away a short while later. You still wear a wristband with his initials.
Just to let people know he's never forgotten. He'll be a part of whatever I do, whatever that may be.
Tell me about your brother, Raynard.
We're two years apart -- I'm 24 and he's 21, but his birthday's coming up. We're real close. He lives with me now in OKC.
What's it like living together?
It's real cool. We're older now, so I know how he is, he knows how I am. We click.
I want to strangle my little brother more often than not. You guys don't butt heads?
When we were young, we'd butt heads if he told on me -- for something he did, of course. There was this one time -- we used to play basketball in the house, even though our mom told us not to, and he knocked over a vase. My mom comes home, yelling at me and all this stuff. He told on me. But it's cool, I got him back.
Nope --can't tell you. [He laughs.] But I got him back.
Any nicknames growing up?
Just Russ or Little Russ. My dad was Russell. He's a Junior, I'm Russell III.
What did your parents, Russell and Shannon, do for a living?
My dad worked at a bread factory -- loafs of bread, pound cake and stuff. And my mom worked at the school cafeteria back then.
Mind if I ask: Are they still together?
Oh, yeah, my parents are married. They've been together for a long time.
Let me tell you something else I've heard. I knew you were sharp, but this blew me away: Is it true you could've gone to Stanford for academics?
Yeah, I was about to go to Stanford out of high school.
For basketball, too?
No, for academics. Stanford didn't recruit me for basketball. In high school, I was honor roll, sixth or seventh in my class GPA-wise, a 3.90 overall, but I got 4.0s all the time. And I wanted to go to Stanford. I mean, I wanted to play basketball, but my parents would always say, 'Without school, you'll be stuck.' So I started paying more attention to school, and I played basketball along with it. But I was just getting noticed in basketball and I had to figure out what made sense in basketball, so I put a hold on school stuff. I wanted to go to Stanford, and my dean told me with my grades I was in good shape. But they didn't want me for basketball.
Math. There's something about solving problems -- math problems or whatever it may be -- that makes you feel like you accomplished something. I remember taking algebra, an advanced class -- those were hard problems. And I was, just, interested.
Let's fast-forward. Again, we don't know much about you, so, who the hell are you today?
[He laughs.] I chill at home. I bowl a lot here. I play video games. I shop 'til I drop. And I like to hang with my brother and my parents. We're really close. My parents are in LA but they visit all the time. I visit, too. I got a little place, close to UCLA. When they're around, it's always fun and laughs. I just like hanging with my family. That's when I'm happiest.
What do you bowl?
I bowl, average, probably 190. But I've had a lot of high scores, I'll tell you that. [Laughs.] I'll be by myself and
Wait, you bowl by yourself?
I've done that many a times. I'll bowl by myself and get in a full-on sweat. I'll usually go in the afternoon when nobody's there.
So, when you're home, you're playing video games?
Yup. I don't know the last time I watched the news -- I should, probably. And I don't watch ESPN.
Who's your crew now, besides your brother?
My mom, my dad, my girlfriend, and a few close friends from high school or AAU ball.
Who's your first call or text after the game?
My first text is my girlfriend. My first call is my mom and dad. We talk after every game. We talk before every game.
My mom would love you right now, and hate me, if she heard that.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I talk to my parents every single day.
Tell me about your girlfriend.
Whatchya wanna know?
Whatever you want to tell me.
Her name is Nina Earl. We met at UCLA.
I'm terrible at math, unlike you, but that sounds like a long-term relationship.
[Laughs.] Something like that.
Oh yeah, for sure. For sure.
What kind of boyfriend are you?
I'm simple, man, real simple.
Not the flowers and candy type?
Naw, not from me.
I'll give you an opportunity to win some points here -- what do you like about Nina?
Yeah, win some points or [He laughs.] But she's a smart girl. She's in school right now, trying to get her master's in psychology. She knows what she wants to do in life, which is great. That's easy for me to cope with.
You hearing wedding bells?
We shall see. [He smiles.] We shall see.
So, you're among the most viral-worthy NBA players today -- between the whistles, too. Let's talk about some recent YouTube moments. First: You swatted the Nuggets mascot's half-court attempts. Even Denver players told me that was hilarious. What were you thinking?
I was just having a little fun during the game. I wanted to get my team hyped, get them riled up, and it helped us out, got us into overtime. I think we went on a 13-2 run after that. You never know, certain things can spark your team and help you get over that hump.
Cameras recently caught you singing the words to Ke$ha's jam on the bench. What's up with that?
Eric [Maynor] dared me. Said I didn't know the words to the song. I told him, I listen to it all the time -- I know every word. I wouldn't have sung it if he didn't dare me.
And you were all over the blogs when you fired back at a reporter in the locker room. What annoyed you?
Some questions don't need an answer. That's the way I look at it.
What other things annoy you?
Messy stuff irritates me. I don't like messiness. If you leave something around my house, I'll tell you to move it back, clean it up, throw it in the trash -- don't matter, just get rid of it. I need stuff neat, organized. And once I start cleaning stuff, I don't stop until it's done. Otherwise I'm irritated all day.
Do you have any phobias?
Yeah, like, hair s---. I don't like that.
Wait, what do you mean? Like, you hate when there's hair lying around your place?
Naw, there ain't no hair at my place, I promise you that. But, you know, if there's hair around, I can't handle that. If I find somebody's hair laying on me, I'll lose it.
Growing up, did you know anything about fashion?
I mean, I knew cool clothes -- I just couldn't afford them. I'd go to the mall, walk into the fancy stores and walk my ass right back out. [Laughs.] My mom would shop for us, and she always dressed us nice when it was time for school. If I asked for something, my parents would try their hardest to get it but I didn't ask for, like, Jordans. I wouldn't do that.
What was your dress like in high school?
Baggy clothes, sweats, stuff like that. Didn't dress up much, except for prom. I won Best Dressed with a white tux, long jacket and custom turquoise shoes -- that was my color, same color as my shirt and tie. My date had on turquoise and white. We were a good match.
That was the first time you flexed your sartorial muscles?
No, wait -- what dance was that? Oh, winter formal, halfway through my senior year. I wore pinstripes, brown, with brown shoes and shirt. I didn't have a date to that one -- that's how clean I thought I was. [Laughs.] I didn't want a girl to mess me up. Those were the only two times I went to dances.
What sparked that first outing?
When I was a senior, my brother was a freshman, so that was the only time we could do a dance together. That was cool.
Next in your evolution: your dress in college?
I liked dressing up for class in the mornings. History of Rap, of Jazz, the classes I enjoyed, I dressed up for those. I wore jean shorts or cargo shorts, with my Air Force Ones and a few different button-ups. For college, that's pretty dressed up.
I'm sorry, did you say jean shorts?
I have jean shorts even now.
I don't believe you.
[Laughs.] You've got a lot to learn.
Clearly. How did you dress as a rookie?
I was pretty chill then. The couple years before, they could wear caps, chains, white T-shirts, throwback jerseys. I was trying to figure out the dress code and not get fined.
You're happy with David Stern's dress code, I take? Without it, I'd imagine players would still be wearing that stuff.
Well, I wouldn't dress like that even without the dress code. Don't matter to me.
When did you start taking an active interest in high fashion?
Active? I started wearing it my second year, with my Gucci shirt, or a Louis Vuitton belt.
How would you describe your style now?
All over the place. It's based on what looks good on me. It varies based on how I feel that day.
You don't work with a stylist, unusual for a star. You do your own shopping then?
Yup. from all over the place. I do a lot of shopping online. I know people in LA, New York, everywhere. On road trips I'll go to the mall on my own or sometimes with our security guy, [Mike] Flash. I like Zara, Barneys, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges from the U.K. Nordstrom, sometimes. I do a lot of bargain shopping at outlets, too, high end and low end.
Guys like Amar'e Stoudemire go to Fashion Week just to talk to Anna Wintour.
Yeah, I'm on the road to that. I'm getting there. Slow motion.
Ever been to Milan?
No, but I'm going this summer. Don't know much about it but it should be fun.
Who from your personal life is allowed to chime in on your wardrobe?
I ask my mom. She knows what's up. Before a game, I'll walk over to her and she'll tell me no or yeah or to change my shoes. Or, if she's not in town, I'll text her a picture. I'll also ask my brother or my girlfriend, but she's grown to like my style.
But everyone says you don't care what people think.
I don't care what outsiders think. Family is family.
Now, if you would, walk me through your process when you're getting dressed up for a game.
On game days, I don't do too much. I shower and then I nap for an hour or so. Getting dressed takes another 45 minutes. Ten minutes after that, I brush my hair and I'm out the door.
Hold up -- KD said you try on different lip balms and stuff.
[Laughs.] He was probably just making fun of me. I do Chap Stick, nothing special.
Pluck your eyebrows?
From time to time. Feet aren't a big deal to me.
Flip-flops on dudes, yes or no?
Well, what type of flip flops? Gym-type flip-flops are OK, but not thongs.
Noted. Back to your process: When you're staring at your closet, do you put on your math-geek cap and see it as a problem that has an answer?
Yeah, actually, that's exactly right -- great way to describe it. I buy a lot of different stuff -- not just outfits. If I like it, I grab it and throw it in my closet. Later, I'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, I have this,' and then I figure out what goes with what. It almost always takes me three changes to figure out what I'm wearing.
Most important item?
Shoes make an outfit. You can throw on a crazy shirt and crazy pants but you add those shoes -- done. I actually have a closet that's all shoes, maybe 700 pairs. Got my Jordans and lots of dress shoes. I don't have a favorite. I'll wear anything.
C'mon, not anything.
No, you're right, I wouldn't wear your shoes. [He laughs at my Timberland boots. And now I want a refund.]
You're known for your crazy shirts. That's your loudest item, right?
Yeah, for some reason my eyes shift toward them when I'm shopping. It catches my eye. That's probably why I like it. If I see a black shirt and then I see a polka-dotted black shirt, I'm going with that one.
Charles Barkley once joked that you buy your shirts from T.J. Maxx, but I guess he was right, no?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I got a few things from Marshalls. Not in a while.
Do you step it up for national TV games?
Some people do, but not me. I might step it up a tad for the playoffs.
How about for the Finals?
No, in the Finals I'd wear sweats to the game. I'm ready to play. You have to pay attention to what you're doing.
After losing in the Finals last season, did you put a moratorium on dressing up?
No, I like to dress up. I spent money on my clothes. I'm going to wear them.
Back to your process: You've picked your threads. What's next?
Glasses are next. I've got maybe 100 pairs, different brands -- Warby Parker, Tom Ford, Barton Perreira.
Not all, but eight out of 10. The rest are clear glass.
Let me you ask you something: What's your vision like?
I have great vision. What's above 20/20?
What I got: 20/15.
That was it last time I got it checked, right before the season.
Right. So, why the glasses?
It fits me. It looks better. It adds sophistication.
There was a little stink during the Finals over who started the faux-glasses trend. LeBron said it definitely wasn't you.
I don't know.
Do you care?
Nope. I don't care who started what. I do my own thing. I don't try to start trends.
What trends are you into now?
I like cutoff jean jackets, jean shorts, too. I liked metallic leather for a while but I'm over it now. Now I'm into cotton pants for some reason. Cotton, light gray, but they look dressy, with little pockets and zippers. I'm getting some made.
When you're walking through the arena tunnel, do you see it as a runway?
These days, it is. The camera is there right in front of you -- you see it. But I'd dress up if there weren't cameras there.
Now you're in the locker room. Who do you hear it from? Who gives you s---?
Nobody. Honestly, my teammates even ask me where I got my stuff from. I try to help out the younger guys on the team with their nonsense. Like, Jeremy Lamb, one of our rookies, he used to wear these slip-on, slide-in shoes with nice pants and a shirt, so I told him to switch the shoes to maybe some nice wing-tips.
Do you pay attention to your fashion critics?
No, I didn't pay attention to that.
They were all over you for your camo pants.
I honestly don't know what the big deal was. Do you know how many people wear camo pants? It's weird just because it's me?
Have you ever thought about the correlation between your style as a player and your style off the court?
Hmmm. [He ponders this for a moment.] Not really. But I guess it kind of goes.
Kobe and so many others suggest that you play without fear.
Yeah, that's the only way I know how to play.
Have you ever been scared on the court?
Similarly, you don't have any fear about your look, do you?
No, not at all. If it looks good, why not?
What does scare you?
My biggest fear, for myself, is not doing well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well.
On the court, you're always getting criticism for shooting too much, for not being a traditional point guard. It seems to me that your reaction to that criticism -- and your style of play, in general -- is basically this: "Oh, OK, cool. Now f--- off and watch this."
[He laughs.] Yeah, that's on the money. [He's laughing, still.] That's very fair. One thing about me, I don't pay attention to the outside stuff. If people aren't talking about you, you're doing something wrong, especially in the basketball world.
And in fashion?
Do you feel you play angry?
I do play mad. On the court, there's no friends for me. My dad always taught me, "When the game starts, the basketball is your only friend." I mean, I know a lot of guys [in the NBA]. But maybe I'll talk to you afterwards.
When people, years from now, look back on your style, your fashion, what do you hope they'll say?
That he didn't care about what nobody else thought. He dressed how he felt.
Do you hope people will look back on your game and say the same thing, like, "That guy did not conform -- he did his thing."
I don't know, man. The position, everybody plays it different. Everybody has their own style. According to the media, I guess, there's a specific type of point guard. But I don't think that's necessarily true. I think, however you get it done, just get it done. That's it.
2hMichael C. Wright