When Donald Trump was elected, a man accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women became the most visible person on the planet. Like plenty of other self-styled progressives living in large cities, I took the news pretty badly, even though I'm not a woman or LGBTQ or Muslim or a person of color. I was 28 years old and determined to achieve some measure of maturity before my 30th birthday—yet Trump's ascent made the whole project of adulthood feel, at least for a moment, pointless. Why bother with the hard work of growing up if that guy could win America's highest office?
But there was a competing vision of what it means to be decent man in modern America out there, and he responded to a terrifying moment with sustained greatness. Asked about an election result almost as unlikely as the incredible season he'd just begun, NBA superstar Russell Westbrook said on November 9, "I didn't vote for Trump, I'll tell you that much."
Despite dressing in impeccable and outlandish fashion and having a propensity for saying "fuck" on national television, there is something reassuringly traditional about Westbrook. Even though he is the first pro basketball player to average a triple-double over an entire season since John F. Kennedy was president, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard practices like he's a rookie. He seems to spend all his free time with immediate family, to the point that his Instagram is composed largely of photos of his newborn child, his wife Nina Earl, and his kid brother, whom he famously high-fived on national TV during last year's playoffs after knocking down a dagger three.
Westbrook's conduct might be unremarkable were there not a man who defies every norm of civil society—and represents the very worst of manhood—living in the White House. But amid all of his talent and flaws and shout-outs from rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Westbrook became the symbol of nontoxic masculinity that I desperately needed to see this year. When he won the NBA Most Valuable Player award on Monday, crying as he called his kid brother his own role model, Westbrook showed young men across America that you don't need to be misogynist or cruel to succeed in life.
This is important because young people really do take after the people they obsessively track on social media—iconic cultural figures matter, not just for their own star power or wealth or immediate impact on the zeitgeist, but for the generations who follow them.
"Manhood and masculinity are fluid, and what's considered normal is socially constructed," said Charles Schaeffer, a clinical psychologist on faculty at NYU whose work focuses on male development. "Whoever has the most power in the social sphere can have a real impact on how men and boys act and behave, aligned with what they think masculinity is and being a man is."
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Of course, there will always be a debate about Westbrook as a basketball player. Critics say he has poor "judgment," and question whether he should be shooting transition pull-up jumpers from 30 feet (I think the answer is yes). Even so, the sports world has generally reached a consensus about a few of Westbrook's key attributes: He plays with more intensity and flare than anyone else on Earth. He hurls expletives at refs and other players and no one at all. He explodes to the rim with such relentlessness that you genuinely fear for the safety of the people around him, his sheer athleticism the stuff of nationalist propaganda films. If men can be scary, powerful, and strong, Russell Westbrook is one of the manliest men on the planet.
But Russ, as we admirers call him, is also a sweetie. He defends his teammates and takes responsibility for his own failures rather than blaming subordinates, as Trump does. He seems committed to playing an active role in the life of his young child and remains close to his parents. And unlike so many modern sports stars, and so many famous men in positions of power in American life, from the top of the government to Cool Brands like Uber, Westbrook has never been accused of sexual harassment or assault. This star of his field, this massive success story, actually appears to be a decent guy who lives a private life of solemnity and respect.
"This is a big deal not because he's a great basketball player but because he shatters these masculine tropes that we have," said Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Plenty of other athletes, musicians, and film stars come across like great people, of course—Westbrook's MVP competitors James Harden and Kawhi Leonard among them. Last year, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James spoke powerfully about the poison of police brutality, and for the past decade, Barack "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like" Obama was the most visible man in American life.
But I was inspired by the way Westbrook responded on the court this season to recently crowned Finals MVP Kevin Durant's departure from the Thunder to the Warriors. It felt like his historic greatness came just in time.
In the months since Election Day, as Trump has continued to behave like an angry boy and ensnared himself ever deeper in the Russia FBI probe, Westbrook has served as a totem of dignified manhood, an example children and young men can't help but notice. He's everywhere, from TV ads to rap songs to Fashion Week to PEOPLE magazine. It's especially important in a culture so dominated by men with reputations for sexual assault and harassment, from Bill Cosby to Bill O'Reilly, that young men have role models worthy of emulation. Westbrook isn't the only one, but he sure is fun to watch.
I may never get to meet Russ in person, but this basketball player from thousands of miles away has already changed me. If Westbrook can dunk in such outrageous fashion as to make me jump up screaming in my apartment more than once in the same night, I can spend 30 minutes at a gym three times a week. If he can make himself peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches before every game, I can cook actual meals for myself with some frequency. And if he can post heartwarming odes to his dad for father's day on social media, I can go home for the weekend and put in more time with my own father, who's nearly 80 and helped shape me into the man I am today.
Obviously, there's a certain amount of projection going on when impressionable millennials like me latch onto celebrities. Stars aren't necessarily what or who we wanted or hoped they would be, Cosby being perhaps the most devastating disappointment of our lifetime. But this past winter, incredulous that someone so vile as Trump could grow so powerful, I needed Russell Westbrook to be greater than he had any business being.
His season ended with an early exit in the playoffs, but Westbrook rose to the occasion in what was surely the most spectacular chapter of his professional life. Along the way, he offered me—and young men everywhere—an unforgettable glimpse of what healthy manhood looks like.
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