Toppling the oligarchy: Russell Westbrook and socialism in American basketball
I was having a drink at a bar that was like the place in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon schools the annoying Harvard guy on American history and picks up the “I gotta see about a girl” girl. The OKC Thunder was playing a Memphis or Milwaukee-type team.
“He’s the best player in the league,” I said, before taking a long, arrogant swig from my oaky stout.
I felt like a finance bro buying low. Even better actually, because the worst thing that could happen is that my bar-buddy wouldn’t remember me saying it. The best thing that could happen is me reminding him later that I said it before anyone else did. Is this what ‘hedging’ means?
I get it from my dad. It’s somewhere between contrarianism and bumptiousness, and it makes me feel good.
“If I were coaching…[insert the last thing a reasonable sportsfan would think or say here].”
I was talking about Russell Westbrook back in 2012. At the time, he was seen as a ball-hogging Scottie Pippen—more so than today—and the second best player on the team, known primarily for stealing touches from Durant. But I knew different. He was the modern day B-52 bomber invading the socialist landscape that is American basketball.
Basketball in America from pre-K to senior year at Duke is ironically one of the purest expressions of socialism in the world. All locker room speeches would be appropriate material for the next Fabian Society meeting. Part of the reason is that coaches are the only adults on the court, really. And you definitely don’t overrule an adult in basketball as a 16 year-old. Like many socialist leaders, coaches need to hide behind a system for their ego, and the players that execute that system by robotically following the dashed lines on the chalkboard are the ones that play. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed the bizarre scene of a coach scream at a player, after making a hell of a shot, because he shot out of turn. Why? Because the player violated the system. It was like making a better dinner than Mom. The ideal team in our socialist basketball era would do the 3-man weave every play until someone just happens to be under the basket for a layup. Actually, the ideal team would just play defense the entire time. God, they love defense.
If you learn to play basketball in America (like, at a YMCA), the first thing they teach you is how to set a fucking pick. Then, every “play” that your oversized-Nike shorts-wearing team runs involves some idiot at the top of the key standing there like he’s in line to pee. The point is to teach all these kids that will never play in the NBA (or after 5th grade) is that all five players have a role, even if it’s just standing there. If you even dream of shooting before you run the “play”, you either missed practice last week, or you’re deaf. The problem is that this basically continues until the NBA, and it’s pathetic.
But let’s dive a little deeper into why Westbrook and not, say, LeBron, is the Ayn Rand protagonist here. Go to the top ten scorers from last season and notice that every player except Westbrook has had free Nike gear since they were a pre-teen. They avoided basketball socialism by joining the oligarchy early on. It’s kind of like being at IG Farben pre-3rd Reich. But here’s what’s important: the players from the oligarchy are boring. They didn’t have to defy the dashed lines on the whiteboard once again pointing to the coach’s son like Westbrook did. Like I wish I did. There’re no rags to riches stories, and if you haven’t figured it out already, that’s basically my theory here. You might be good, but to be idolized by me, you gotta defy the socialism of American basketball that I grew up in like a bald eagle staring down Lenin.
Westbrook rode the pine until his junior year at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, CA. I’ll repeat this again: he wasn’t getting any papercuts from opening scholarship letters; he was doing suicides with the JV. Like me! Russell Westbrook! His high school team probably didn’t iso for him until his senior year. So how did Westbrook go from being a soldier raised in the socialistic American basketball system to launching tomahawks on seven-footers in the NBA? This sounds like a bad Cold War movie.
It’s not even necessary to go into the details (though they’re important and interesting). The Machiavellian in me (yeah, shut up) knew he was great after finding out where he was 10 years ago (the JV team!) and then watching a replay the other night where he almost, but not quite, amputates his left hand on the rim during a breakaway dunk. The means didn’t matter after I saw that last replay because I understood in that moment that he was the only superstar right now who lived and defied our socialist basketball system. And if he could do that, then he was the best player in the league.