Pyeongchang Olympics Quagmire: The Crushing Success of Nearly Winning

One of the peculiarities of the Olympics is how the podium is structured, with the silver and bronze medalists typically standing at equal heights below the winning, gold medalist. Is that design meant to simulate a spirit of harmonious equality? Or is it actually a nod to the reality that silver medalists often feel more like they’re “second banana” than “second best” given high hopes of winning it all?

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The reaction of members of the women’s hockey team when Canada “won” the silver medal after a long history of Olympic success on the ice rink speaks to a common emotional reality. Note the downturned corners of the mouth of these players and their teary, unfocused eyes. Even more obvious was Jocelyne Larocque’s reaction: almost immediately removing the silver medal she received, only to later issue an apology for “letting my emotions get the better of me.” See The Washington Post’s coverage.

It’s not easy almost winning, as several studies have shown. Should you need evidence of that conclusion, check out:

Then again, coming in 3rd isn’t necessarily a picnic, either, as Slovenia’s Zan Kosir’s face confirms.

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Unexpected victories are among the sweetest, of course. The victory by the U.S. in men’s curling was astonishing, as the team’s jaw-dropping surprise looks confirm.

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To others, however, nothing has been more surprising than how much the U.S. athletes have struggled to reach the podium at this year’s winter Olympics in South Korea.  Theories of why America has been buried by Norway in the medal count range from “we always struggle” in events with names like Nordic Combined to having athletes this time around who are either too old to hold up physically or too young to handle the stress. What could be the way forward, at least emotionally speaking when buckling under stress is apparently a major issue? Based on my own studies of great athletes in my upcoming book, Famous Faces Decoded, as well as a previous blog on tennis stars, let me suggest a novel solution. Groom winners by having the U.S. Olympic trainers focus on developing athletes prone to disgust. A curling upper lip and a wrinkled nose are the classic signs of disgust, an emotion about rejecting what doesn’t taste or smell good: like not being a winner. My conclusion is that disgust, not anger, can propel athletes forward to victories as much as any other emotion around.

In that spirit, I noticed the reaction of Finland’s Livo Niskaen on winning gold in the 50-kilometer mass start event.  Note the raised upper lip that accompanies the whoop of joy.

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Michelle and Barack Obama’s Official Portraits: Emotive Pseudo-Realism

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The two smiles that stick in my memory and soul are not only Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile but also Barack Obama’s tender, joyful smile. From where Da Vinci’s masterpiece sits in its place of honor at the Louvre in Paris to a rented ballroom in Des Moines, Iowa, is quite a stretch. But in that ballroom in Des Moines the night that Barack won the Iowa caucuses contest in 2008, launching him toward the presidency, I watched and wondered at how he smiled as he greeted well-wishers. The smile on display that evening crinkled his eyes, vibrantly yet softly, with a conveyed sense of gratitude, wonder, and authenticity; absent was stern gravitas or over-the-top, hackneyed, thumbs-up waves to the crowd. Alongside him, Michelle Obama came across as even more subdued as well as humble and grateful.

So joining the nation in seeing the official presidential likenesses unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday was something of a shock. I applaud both the former first man and first lady choosing distinguished African-American portrait artists to depict them, breaking the former monopoly of white artists depicting white presidents in mostly a vanilla style. In Barack’s case, Kehinde Wiley has gone with his penchant for painting other African-American subjects prior to Barack in fairly regal poses.  At the National Portrait Gallery installation ceremony, Barack admitted that Wiley had tried putting him atop a horse and a throne, before settling for a formal chair nestled amid greenery.

As to Barack’s smile, the one I saw in Des Moines that January evening has long ago been eaten alive by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who sought to obstruct Barack’s progress in office. The smile evident in Wiley’s portrait is slight and overwhelmed by seriousness. The eyebrows pinched and pulled down, the lower eyelids raised and taut, the lips pressing together firmly enough that a bulge is vaguely evident beneath the middle of the lower lip all contribute to a sense of a thoughtful, frustrated, even brooding man. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. But where that comparison Barack invited himself by launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois a decade ago breaks down is that instead of Lincoln’s sadness, here we have disgust hinted at by a slightly raised upper lip but mostly evident from how the cheeks pouch on either side of Barack’s nose.

Why the anger shown on Barack’s face? That isn’t his most signature emotion. A joyful, eyes- twinkling smile might qualify instead, or even more so than disgust the contemptuous smirk that crept into Barack’s facial expressions repertoire the longer he stayed in the White House. Is it that anger signals being in control, as indicated by the former president learning forward in his chair rather than drifting above and away from the partisan fray, as was to a fault Barack’s natural tendency?

As for Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald, it’s if anything even more unexpected.  The striking white patterned gown is arguably as much the focal point as the woman wearing it. But for me, it’s Michelle’s facial expression that intrigues most. The pressed lips, the narrowed eye, the cheek pouched on the opposite side of her face: in those ways Michelle’s feelings are shown mirroring those of her husband. But that I think is only, in part, who Michelle is emotionally. Outer eyebrows raised higher would more faithfully reflect her tendency to be surprised, even a little fearful, which she fights through with a big hearty smile that isn’t as effervescent as Barack’s smile at its best: more like beer with a good head of foam in Michelle’s case, as opposed to Barack’s champagne smile.

That said, there’s this final oddity about Michelle’s portrait: she’s in repose. Her legs seem to be crossed beneath the gown, and her head is resting on the upside-down palm of her hand in a way that to me suggests some measure of slightly dainty passivity. In short, the two portraits are a relief from the usual, vanilla-flavored portraits of past first couples. But if this pair of portraits doesn’t quite come home for me, emotionally, it’s because whereas Barack is portrayed as too tense and assertive, Michelle is portrayed as not as wide-eyed, innocent, and frisky as I believe she’s remained.

Most Super Bowl Spots Didn’t Score a Touchdown This Year

The 52nd Super Bowl sizzled instead of fizzled, with a record amount of offensive yardage and drama down to literally the last play. Some years the ads that run during the Super Bowl are better than the game itself, but not this year. “A pretty lame year,” said one advertising agency president; “a little quiet” was the quote from another ad agency executive regarding the game’s first quarter, when often the best ads appear. Plenty of commentary will analyze why, but only here will you learn the biggest reason why so many TV spots, Super Bowl vintage or not, are losers year after year.

“I’m ready for my close-up” says the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of Hollywood’s most famous lines and yet one the agencies—and their paying clients—seem to forget all the time. With the average 30-second spot costing the sponsors over $5 million to air (over and above the production costs), Norma’s request isn’t just worth heeding; it’s essential.

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For two decades, I’ve been a market researcher using the tools of eye tracking and facial coding to learn people’s intuitive, natural, see-and-feel response to TV spots— and the results are crystal clear. As much as 70% of people’s gaze activity centers on the actors’ faces, and a similar percentage of all the emotional response to a TV spot will be linked to viewers taking in the emotions shown on the actors’ faces—especially during close-ups—because emotions are, frankly, so contagious. What the actor shows (if authentically rendered), the viewers feel because in life we’re looking for personalities that interest and matter to us. In business, never forget that the words “emotion” and “motivation” come from the same root word in Latin: movere, to move, to make something happen (whether a purchase or inspiring an employee to be more engaged).

A few spots this year heeded Norma’s request better than others. The Sprint ad full of robots with more animated faces than their stern human colleague was as close to a commercial with striking production values as any ad aired in the game’s opening moments. A Ram pick-up truck ad brimming over with Viking warriors offered us plenty of angry-faced close-ups of men who were as intense as they were lost. A T-Mobile ad used the strategy of resorting to babies or puppies by giving us a diverse rainbow of surprised, open-eyed infants.

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But against those minor successes, the commercials shown during Super Bowl LII featured the usual reliance on lots of action—too much—with often too little reason to care. A Kraft spot showed us far too many faces, and too quickly, for any of them to light an emotional spark. (When will agencies stop being so enamored by machine-gun-paced editing?) And while Intuit’s “The Thing Under the Bed” ad wasn’t so bad, its “Noise in the Attic” ad failed to leverage the power of facial expressions by showing us a cloaked ghost, then a CPA’s tiny face on a laptop computer, and finally the equally distant face of a spooked homeowner opening his attic’s trap door to see what was going on. Emotionally speaking, the answer for viewers in their homes: almost surely nothing.

In that way, “Noise in the Attic” joined many of its fellow Super Bowl spots this year in being the commercially still-born equivalent of how Sunset Boulevard opens—with a man floating face down in a swim pool, utterly, irretrievably dead.

An “Insidious Monster”: Olympics Gymnast Guru Dr. Nassar on Trial

The sentencing hearing for the disgraced sports medicine “guru” Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar has now finally ended in a Michigan courtroom, with judge Rosemarie Aquilina imposing a 40 to 175 year prison sentence. She delivered it with this news for Nassar: “I just signed your death warrant.”  In all, over 150 women—U.S. Olympic gymnasts in particular, as well as dancers, rowers and runners—testified against Nassar during the seven-day hearing, but questions linger.  How could this sexual abuse have gone on for over two decades? To what degree if any did Nassar’s employers, including Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympics Committee, turn a “blind eye” to what was happening? Those are among the obvious questions. But another is wondering what the face of the man called an “insidious monster” by the mother of one of Nassar’s abuse victims might reveal. Did Nassar show signs of remorse as he listened to his victims testify?

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That last question is the easiest to answer. As might be expected given the tear that rolled down Nassar’s cheek in court the other day, sadness and fear constituted nearly half of the emoting the guy showed in court. But right alongside those two emotions was an equal amount of surprise and anger, plus truth be told an occasional slight, would-be Mona-Lisa type smile. Remorse? Yes, apparently. Fear? Why not, given that Nassar had already received a 60-year sentence for child pornography and surely knew that the newest sentencing would be even more severe.

Nassar’s other three emotional responses, however, were at first blush bewildering. Could he actually have been surprised to learn about the physical and psychological pain he inflicted? Did the anger mean that to some degree Nassar was resisting the validity of the graphic stories being shared in court (if even just out of psychological self-preservation)? And most of all, what about the slight smiles? One can only hope that deep-seated chagrin masquerading as muted happiness explains those expressions.

One other question remains. From his photographs publically available over the past two decades, did Nassar ever betray by his emoting patterns a hint of what has ultimately unearthed regarding his abusive conduct? There, the answer is equally clear: no. Various degrees of happiness, and not enough anger or fear to raise a red flag was the emotional portrait on display in the years preceding the trial. The patterns here aren’t new. The case of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University is an obvious antecedent. But farther back in time, so is what Hannah Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution for the European Jews unfortunate enough to live—and die—within the borders of the Third Reich. Not a monster but somebody instead “terribly and terrifyingly normal” is how she described the man sentenced to hang in Israel, in coining her much-debated term: “the banality of evil.”


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Minnesota Miracle Brings Range of Emotions to NFL Fans

It takes two players, working in tandem, to complete a pass play, let alone a desperation pass in an NFL playoff game with time expiring.  But afterwards, quarterback Case Keenum and receiver Stefon Diggs weren’t on the same page emotionally.

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After the 61-yard completion, a stunned Keenum kept saying “Oh my God.”  In contrast, Diggs, devoutly assured that God’s will had shown its hand in a play that marked the first ever, fourth quarter walk-off victory in NFL playoff history, was instead proud: a mixture of happiness and resolute anger.  As for the Minnesota Vikings’ long-suffering fans, there were tears of joy and relief.  After four Super Bowl losses, four NFC Championship losses, blown field goals in playoff games (29-yards against Seattle in 2015; 44-yards against Atlanta in 1999) how could any of their fans have welcomed another field goal attempt in order to win the game against the New Orleans Saints?  The Saints’ Mardi-Gras fans often party; Vikings fans normally weep.

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Week 1, 2018: Trump and Bannon Feud, Saban and Smart Prepare to Do Battle, and Thiel Gets Even Richer

Grumpy Old Men

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While North and South Korea try talking out their differences, war has broken out elsewhere here at the start of 2018. Don’t expect Donald Trump and former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to be talking again anytime soon (except through lawyers). In Michael Wolff’s newest  book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Bannon gets quoted calling Donald Trump Jr. “treasonous,” Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick,” and the president himself likely to be in legal trouble for money laundering.  For his part, Donald Trump is suggesting that Bannon has “lost his mind” and is “simply seeking to burn it all down.” Despite the verbal warfare, it’s not just the nationalist-populist, alt-right movement the two men brought to the White House that links them, however. They also remain strikingly similar in emotional terms: precious little happiness, above-average disgust and—most of all—a wealth of sadness, all the better by which to instinctively appeal to those who want America to be made “great again.” With a now backtracking Bannon reminding folks that Trump is “a great man,” Bannon looks to be the likelier of the two feuding men to be adding soon to his natural store of regrets, disappointments and all-around woe.

Close Quarters?

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Some scores get settled in courtrooms, other scores emerge on a football field. With the national college championship getting decided this year by a game between Alabama and Georgia, the official word is that there’s “nothing personal” about a contest that pits Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban against his long-time assistant Kirby Smart. Eleven is the key number here. For 11 seasons, Smart helped Saban amass victories; and 11 times, Saban’s former assistants have come up against him and lost. Will this time be different? It could be. Already, Smart’s won one battle: Just two seasons after Smart left Alabama, Georgia finds itself now atop the 2018 recruiting class rankings, with Alabama in fifth place. So if Smart can’t win this year, maybe next. What might be helping Smart lure the best players? It could in part be as simple as the fact that emotions are contagious, a principle that carries over into happiness. Smart shows a third more happiness than Saban does over the course of patrolling sidelines and sitting in press conferences. Smart also smirks less. Are those kinds of emotional tendencies just plain, well, smart? Do they not only possibly help win over high school players and their parents, but also help settle a team down and lead to victory? We’ll find out after the kick-off if the underdog Bulldogs of Georgia can keep the game close. (Saban’s 11 victories against former assistants have all involved wins by a margin of at least 14 points.)

Serious Money, After All

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Back in my junior high days, a friend and I printed our own currency, Krump Notes, all the better by which to bet on poker games at lunchtime in the cafeteria. We didn’t want anybody’s nose getting bent out of shape by losing a pile of real cash on a losing hand. Now comes word that PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel is sort of all in when it comes to Bitcoin. Thiel’s Founders Fund has amassed holdings of between $15 and $20 million (chump change for Thiel, actually) in Bitcoin during 2017, causing the newly disclosed holdings to inspire a 13.5% climb in the virtual currency’s value after some recent volatility in its outlook. Thiel could yet take a bath on Bitcoin, but don’t bet against him. From bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s suit against Gawker to seeing his candidate take the White House, Thiel’s on a roll. What kind of person can be so successfully opportunistic again and again? To me, with Thiel it’s all in the eyes. Some years ago, I decided to investigate what might help make somebody a great lead-off hitter in baseball. The strongest statistical pattern in terms of facial expressions was a tendency to come to the plate with eyes open wide, seemingly looking for gaps into which to poke the ball. Think of hunters. Think of Derek Jeter. Think of Peter Thiel. Think about Cooperstown’s heroes or Silicon Valley’s serious money entrepreneurs, or me with my former stash of Krump Notes: same stratosphere, not really.

Gut Check: Federer, Nadal & Williams

A couple of years ago, I met Chris Evert at her tennis academy in Florida when I was there to address her student athletes on the topic of what it takes, emotionally, to be a champion player. Evert quietly joined the meeting and before long piped up to ask: “How about anger?” Yes, anger matters I answered: grit, determination—the urge to fight through tough patches and control your destiny. Yes, certainly anger matters. But where I lost Evert (I could read it on her face that she checked out) is when I added that after everything was said and done, anger was nevertheless but a part of the picture. For instance, to take the example Evert then raised—Serena Williams—disgust matters, too.

It’s hardly a complete list of the all-time greats who have won multiple grand slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open). But here are how some of the best-ever players have fared, and which of the negative core emotions they score especially high or low on compared to what’s typical over a range of hundreds of famous people, sports stars and non-sports stars alike. (As to happiness, by the way, Venus Williams and Billie Jean King distinguish themselves by feeling intense happiness much more often than is usual across the pool of celebrities I have facially coded over the years.)

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Because the Wimbledon tournament has begun, and Williams is on the cover of Vanity Fair profoundly pregnant, instead of on Wimbledon’s grass courts, let start with this year’s two resurgent great male players: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Just as Williams holds the Open Era record with 23 grand slam event titles, so do Federer and Nadal sit atop the men’s rankings as the greatest male grand slam event titleholders with 18 and 15 victories apiece.

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Federer shows the highest amount of anger of any of the 12 players in my chart, just ahead of Billie Jean King. Score a nod to Evert’s belief that anger is the key to success in tennis, but then add an asterisk that I would like to believe Evert herself would endorse. And it’s this: over-indulge in anger and you endanger success. Given Federer’s graciousness on court these days, many tennis fans might be shocked to learn that early in his career Federer was by his own admission a “hothead.” Racquets got hurled or broken, and the Swiss maestro would argue with his dad (though not with umpires or opponents). In a 2009 match against Novak Djokovic in Miami, Federer mangled a racquet while losing. But in general, after his mentor and coach Peter Carter died during a safari in South Africa in 2002, Federer has been able to honor Carter’s advice to stop wasting energy on court with temper tantrums. “I just tried to find ways to calm myself down on the court,” Federer has said of his transformation to becoming the epitome of sportsmanship on and off the court.

Yes, anger matters in terms of fighting spirit and equilibrium alike. But as my chart illustrates, don’t overlook disgust. Federer’s arch rival Rafa Nadal isn’t just the King of Clay. Nadal is also the most given to disgust of any of the players here that score high on disgust—a pattern that distinguishes the very best grand-slam winners covered here. Look at how Nadal’s upper lip curls in disgust as he goes up into his service motion or after he prevails in a long rally. Like the way Federer’s anger is self-directed, often a reminder to himself to avoid “dumb shots,” Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused. It’s a matter of an almost neurotically ritualistic Nadal willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.

“Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused, willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.”

For Serena Williams, feelings of disgust serve a similar purpose I believe: it’s inner-directed and reflects her compulsion to win. But unlike Nadal, Williams disgust often emerges in the way she wrinkles her nose accompanying a triumphant exclamation upon hitting a winner.  As any parent knows, siblings aren’t likely to be emotionally identical; and Serena shows twice as much disgust as does her older sister Venus Williams. As to Serena Williams’ amount of anger, it’s not the volume but the intensity of the anger that the younger Williams tennis sibling shows that’s noteworthy. Case in point remains the vehement outrage Serena Williams displayed when called for a foot fault during the semi-finals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Williams’ obscenity-laced rebuke of the lines judge led to a further point penalization, awarding the match to Williams’ opponent in a move you’d never see from the new, more restrained version of Federer. “An apology? How many people yell at lines people? I see it happening all the time,” an unrepentant Williams declared afterwards.

Not famous for apologies himself, John McEnroe calls Williams “the greatest female tennis player, no question,” despite Steffi Graff’s 22 grand slams or Evert’s own 18 grand slams  to go with her incredible 90% match winning percentage across all surfaces and all tournaments Evert played in. But McEnroe claims Williams would rank maybe “like 700” on the men’s pro tour. What is he overlooking? I’d start by noting Williams’ indomitable will power. When it comes to a gut-check, it’s actually Williams’ disgust combined with her fear (of losing) that is most striking emotionally about her game.  Overall, my chart suggests that disgust should join anger in being a key predictor of tennis dominance. They’re both strong, visceral emotions: it’s just that in terms of mental toughness, anger and  therefore “anger management” usually attract most of the attention.

Betrayal or Growth: Westbrook, Durant, and the NBA All-Star Game


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.