"Now more than ever, we need leaders,” Russell Westbrook tells me on a video call from his Houston living room. Behind him are two of his framed jerseys, one from the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, the other from the Oklahoma City Thunder, his home for 11 years before joining the Houston Rockets in 2019. “We need people to step up and be leading the charge. And I feel like it’s my duty. I’ve been blessed with a platform to be able to help other people out.”
If Westbrook is leading the charge, get ready to pick up the pace. An important thing to understand about the nine-time NBA All-Star is that he enjoys shattering expectations. He was a late bloomer growing up in South Central L.A., neither marked for fame from a young age nor an obvious recruit. When he played basketball at UCLA, he didn’t even start. The fact that he is now the only player in NBA history to win the scoring title and the MVP award as well as average a triple-double in the same season (to choose an arbitrary accomplishment off a long list) is a testament to one thing: He works harder than everyone else, all the time, at everything. And because of that, he makes his own rules—on and off the court.
If not him, then who? That’s the driving principle behind his Why Not? Foundation, which is named for the mantra he and his friends came up with in high school. “When you grow up as Black men in an inner city a lot of people tell you the things you can’t do,” he says. “We came up with Why Not? Why can’t I go to college? Why can’t I play professionally? Why can’t I be a doctor? Why can’t I be a lawyer? Why not me?” The foundation aims “to impact and inspire as many people as possible” and has interests almost as broad as its founder’s, from putting free computers in kids’ hands to feeding the hungry and donating PPE. Why Not? serves, he says, as a reminder that “you can wake up in the morning and believe that you can do something that nobody else believes that you can possibly do.”
Success is part of what Westbrook is about, but it’s not the point. For him, it’s the work ethic that matters. That’s why he named his four-year-old line of affordable statement-streetwear Honor the Gift. “I just want to make sure my message stays the same,” he says. “That’s the most important part. I never want that to change.” The latest addition to his professional portfolio is a docuseries he’s executive-producing, Terror in Tulsa, about the 1921 race massacre in Greenwood, then known as Black Wall Street. “It allows people to not just understand what’s going on now but understand the history of it,” he says, “to understand how important black businesses are, how underserved the community is.”
It’s why his foundation joined with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s Angeleno Campaign at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide money to families hit hardest by the crisis. It’s why he personally delivered meals to nurses and ICU workers in South L.A. It’s why he partnered with Scholastic to put Russell’s Reading Rooms in underfunded schools and neighborhoods. It’s why he joined the Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles in June, taking to the podium to call on those gathered to “continue to fight for one another, continue to lift one another up” before leading the crowd in a moment of silence, a fist in the air. Anyone with even a glancing awareness of Westbrook’s style of play—hard-driving, uncompromising, unapologetic—knew he was always going to lead by example, making a difference just like his parents taught him to, way back when they first impressed upon him the importance of giving back. “And not just giving back by writing a check, or sending a tweet, or an Instagram post,” he says, “but by actually being there, actually speaking, actually letting people know that I do care, that I understand the struggles, that I understand what’s going on.” If he’s done the most that he can do, he’s honored the gift.
Westbrook is utterly unafraid to be himself, “no matter the backlash, no matter the criticism,” whether that means wearing a paint-splattered jumpsuit of his own design, or working on projects highlighting the deep-seated injustice in this country, or eating the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich before every game he plays (toasted, sometimes buttered wheat bread; Skippy; strawberry jelly; always cut in half). It’s what makes him the rare player who’s thrilling to watch both on the court and off. What will he do next? “You have to be willing to step outside the box to make actual change in today’s society and be a leader. And I’m willing to do that,” he says. “Day in and day out.”