The former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates briefly shared the court at Sunday’s 66th annual NBA All-Star game, leading to Russell Westbrook scoring off a pass from Kevin Durant. After that play, you could feel a sigh of collective relief all the way from the West team’s bench as they huddled up in New Orleans, back to the NBA’s head office in New York City. Let’s not feud, guys. That’s the high road, but the main road of the human heart in situations where the word “betrayal” is in the air heads straight back in history to gut-wrenching analogies like Brutus and Caesar or Judas and Christ.
Westbrook and Durant were never an obvious pairing, emotionally. Westbrook’s eyes glint when he’s ecstatic. Durant instead broadly smiles when things are going well. Westbrook’s mouth drops wide open in joy or amazement. When Durant’s mouth sits open, he’s pondering the situation. When Westbrook’s angry, he scowls, eyes hard and wide – staring you down. Durant can get annoyed, but he’s just as likely to look down or away as straight at another player on court. And that’s just the facial expressions. Westbrook doesn’t ever just walk around. The spark-plug guard swaggers, struts, stalks and prances, whereas Durant glides or ambles when the lanky forward isn’t sweeping toward the basket.
Betrayal would be Westbrook’s word for discovering – via a text message – from his teammate of eight years that Durant was going to sign with the Golden State Warriors instead of renewing with the Thunder. Durant’s move westward could be ridiculed. After all, at Durant’s first Warrior press conference he insisted that “This was the hardest road because I don’t know anybody here.” Never mind that the Warriors sported four players on the West’s All-Star squad this year, including Durant. But Durant was serious, echoing other statements he’s made about seeking personal growth.
“I’m trying to find out who I am,” Durant told The [San Jose] Mercury News in an interview conducted after his move to the Bay area. Clearly the move Durant had in mind transcended mere geography or perhaps even winning a trophy, as important as that is to him. Of Westbrook, Durant said: “He knew who he was. He knew what he wanted to do. He got married young. He met his girlfriend in college. I didn’t have none of that. I didn’t have two parents in a home with me. I’m still trying to search and find out who I am.”
“I’m coming,” Westbrook yelled at Durant during a testy timeout.
“So what,” said Durant in reply.
Confidence is a tricky proposition for any of us, especially great athletes who need all of it to achieve their dreams. Westbrook got snubbed as a starter in the back court for the West, losing out to Warrior star Stephen Curry based on an All-Star voting formula that gives the fans’ votes the edge in a tiebreaker situation. On a pace to become the first triple-double player in the NBA since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-1962 season, Westbrook responded by, first, warming up alone at the far basketball from his West teammates before the game, then scoring 41 points in a high-scoring game where somebody actually playing some defense would have been charged with a crime.
Westbrook’s lonely, even if he’s got his wife and his scoring, rebounds and assists to the less-talented teammates Durant left behind. After their lone collaboration in the All-Star game on Sunday night, Durant and Westbrook were part of a high-fiving huddle but continued to stand apart from one another. Westbrook had posted a photo on Instagram of miniature cupcakes after Durant’s move out west, echoing a term a Thunder player has used when the team is playing soft. “Some run, some make runways” Westbrook said in a commercial for his new Jordan brand shoe around the same time, a likely reference to Durant.
A week before the All-Star game, the Warriors came to Oklahoma City. The fans wore “Cup-Cake” tee shirts and chanted the dessert at Durant, who was booed on being introduced for the game. “I’m coming,” Westbrook yelled at Durant during a testy timeout. In typical Westbrook style, the lone remaining Thunder superstar repeated his words with a nodding head-thrust for emphasis. “So what,” said Durant in reply.
An aggrieved, forlorn, betrayed, rock-hard Westbrook and, off-court, a more tentative, plaintive, forever evolving Durant: that’s the enduring contrast. Anger and joyful happiness are Westbrook’s principal emotions. They’re both approach emotions (as opposed to fall-back emotions like disgust), befitting the hard-charging guard. Normally, Westbrook’s routine is that anger leads to success, making him happy as a result. Or to state things a little too simply, getting angry can make Westbrook happy. But in this case, brooding resentment doesn’t offer release. No victory will bring Durant back into the fold. If loyalty is a feeling, acts that feel like betrayal are thunderbolts none of us ever quite forget being the victim of. One completed pass in the New Orleans arena named the Smoothie King Center can’t possibly heal the rift.