In sports, as in life, we get so used to certain presences that we’re unsure what to do once that presence fades. Tonight will be the first game Russell Westbrook has missed not just in his professional career, but in his entire sports career, high school included. That a player so devilish and reckless, so bruising and physical would be so immune to injury is somewhat unfathomable. Just as unbelievable will be tonight, when the Thunder takes the floor without Westbrook.
Two years ago, my parents, sister, and both grandmothers came in town for my college graduation. At dinner the night before the actual ceremony, my mom looked at me and asked where I was going to get my haircut from now on.
“What?” I asked, bemused. My mom had always had a propensity for asking questions that seemingly had little to do with the current conversation, and I figured this to be another instance. The beat of puzzled silence that follows these questions came, but the laughter that usually comes after, from both my mom and the rest of my family, didn’t.
“What?” I asked, this time concerned. I turned to my dad, but in the time it took for me to make eye contact with him, my brain had pieced it together. So, when I came face to face with my dad, instead of asking “what?” again, I simply, quietly, said, “no.”
“Jerry passed away,” my dad said, confirming my fear. Jerry, my barber for the better part of my entire life, had suffered a massive heart attack following a tennis game with his friend and business partner a few weeks prior. My dad waited to tell me because he didn’t want the news to interfere with school.
The loss of a barber may seem inconsequential to some, but it was profound to me. He wasn’t just a barber; he was my friend. We’d talk about the Chiefs, the Royals, the Jayhawks, fishing, movies, school and all of the common topics of conversation between men. Jerry had been there through all the phases, and corresponding hairstyles, of my life, from the short, simple “Princeton” haircut, to my unkempt, knotty, unmanageable Jewfro that required the use of a machete just to trim, and back to a shorter cut, less Slideshow Bob and more a shorter Harpo Marx.
I’d go off to summer camp, come back, then visit Jerry in the next few days. I’d go off to college, first at UConn then Tulsa, and almost every time I returned home, I’d call Jerry and ask if he had anything open. Usually, he did. He was always there, the very definition of a constant. And now he was gone.
Westbrook, for so young a player, has been a pivotal figure in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2008, a franchise cornerstone for a franchise that was soon to end. He was there for the Thunder’s inaugural season, a miserable, and turnover-prone one to be sure, but formative and integral to the development of the team and specifically the chemistry between Westbrook and Durant. He was there for the Thunder’s first playoff appearance, for the Jeff Green/Kendrick Perkins trade, the emergence of James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and started (and starred) in the NBA Finals just four years after being drafted. And through it all, he has been maligned, celebrated, jeered, scapegoated, praised, and an overall polarizing figure.
More than any other player on the Thunder, Westbrook has been the team’s constant. Nick Collison, though fully embraced by the Oklahoma City fans, will never wholly belong to them, as his history is just as much with the specters in Seattle. Jeff Green and James Harden were traded (to decidedly different fanfares, of course). Even Kevin Durant, the face of the franchise and the second best player in the NBA, has missed a few games because of injury. But not Russell Westbrook. He’s always been there, night in and night out, bad game or good game. He may cost them the game with a silly mistake, or he may win it with a daring feat of athleticism and skill, but either way, his presence has always been undeniable.
Good or bad, he was always there. It never crossed the minds of Thunder fans, and basketball fans at large, that he would ever not be. He’s fallen down hundreds of times, grimaced, limped, doubled over in pain, but he’s always come back, no matter what. His presence, nearly as much as his production, is what made him Russell Westbrook.
A few days after moving back to Kansas City, I made an appointment at Bock’s, where Jerry used to work. Pulling up to the shop, nerves, like so many corn kernels in a microwave, jumped and bounced and wrecked their way throughout my stomach. I pulled open the front door to see Bernie and Maurice, two other barbers, one of whom, Maurice, was Jerry’s brother.
Maurice tended to the first chair, while Bernie was stationed at the third. In the middle, unoccupied, untouched, was the second chair. Jerry’s chair. My appointment was with Bernie, whom I’d known just as long as Jerry. Inevitably, we talked about Jerry, and through the entire haircut my eyes rarely strayed from Jerry’s vacant chair, magnetic in its emptiness.
It was all so wrong, and I kept expecting Jerry to come out of the back room, or walk through the front door, or just be there. And every time I go back, I still wait for him to appear, and every time reality disappoints me.
When the news broke that Westbrook was out, first indefinitely, then later for the rest of the season, we were introduced to a reality we never thought could possibly exist: a world without Westbrook. It’s as uncharted a territory for the Thunder as it is for fans, navigated easily by neither. But navigate it they, and we, must. That means more Reggie Jackson and (unfortunately) more Derek Fisher, the former unproven, the latter far past his prime, and neither enough to compensate.
It doesn’t, and won’t, seem right for the Thunder to play without Russell Westbrook. We’ll look to the court, wondering where the dynamic guard is before catching ourselves and remembering that the Thunder’s greatest constant is now, in more than one way, their greatest absence.