What Russell Westbrook wants has always been less clear and less urgently felt than how desperately he wants it, which is one of the handful of things that Westbrook has in common with the rest of humanity. Moment by moment, act by act, we sort out the things we want and the things we simply want to want, and as we decide whether we want to be good or just want to believe ourselves to be, or whether we are willing to do the right thing or just want the things we do to be right, we more or less back into ourselves. One of life's great labors is learning to recognize and live with the person we reveal ourselves to be through the choices we make or don't make, about the desires that we honor and the ones we don't. We can choose to reckon with the gaps between who we wish to be and the person who makes the decisions we make, or we can choose not to. Either way, a great deal of our lives are inevitably spent in the pursuit of—or in the wreckage left by—the inconvenient or unwise or actively destructive things that we want.
Buddhism says that desire is at the root of all suffering, and it's hard to argue with that if you spend much time looking at the world, or in mirrors. But it doesn't help anyone, really, to think of wanting as a destructive or even negative thing. It simply is, and is as fundamentally neutral and undeniable a fact of life as gravity. If you are like most people—or like me, anyway—you have realized that you will not extinguish or eliminate these desires, and have moved on to trying to tame them. These inborn appetites are ferocious and hungry things, and powerful; the hope, or the most practical hope, is to domesticate them such that they can at least sleep in the house with us, without having to fear that we'll wake up one night to find them gnawing at our throat.
For the purposes of understanding the most impenetrable and galvanic basketball player currently living on Earth, we can safely stop somewhere short of that. We can just say, in this case, that where Russell Westbrook the basketball player is concerned, desire is the entire point. The power of Westbrook's want is the reason why he's so gripping to watch, if also why he can be so unsettling to watch. Game by game and play by play, Westbrook points his thermonuclear appetite towards various discrete and practical directions—getting past a defender, say, or throwing down a dunk with the unforgiving fury of six thousand scorching suns—and goes. His stylistic signature is unique even in his superhuman peer group of basketball geniuses; where his peers are known for crossovers or first steps or quick releases, Westbrook defines himself and is defined in turn by the wrathful fugue state in which he plays.
What makes Westbrook who and what he is has less to do with what he does with his want than how profoundly he vibrates with it. Westbrook is not wrestling with or negotiating with what he wants, and he is not even riding from here to there; he becomes it, and if he seems somehow other-than-human in those moments—transformed into an avenging spirit that DUNKS, or devoured by it as he seemed to be on Thursday night against the Golden State Warriors—it is because of the way that Westbrook effectively becomes his want. His desire, which is non-specific and all-encompassing and undeniable, is not so much turned outward as yielded to. Westbrook simply turns himself over to it, and that amoral and unreasonable and uncompromising and engulfing thing then finds various dazzling expressions through his channeling of it.
This is adult entertainment, even when it leads Westbrook himself into prosaic turnovers and unlovely, ultra-doomed one-on-three charges. He never quite seems to be playing with teammates, or against opponents. This sounds abstruse, I know, and too close to the new clichés of basketball as tank-topped free jazz. All I can say to rebut this is that you should watch the dude play, and then say that his basketball is not different than the game played by other players. It sounds ridiculous to say that there is such a thing as an oracular of basketball, until you see it. It's distinctive, but it is not sui generis. Every player in every game is locked in a sort of constant high-stress hostage negotiation with want, and a big part of what makes games exciting, at a level above the pomp and partisanship, lies in watching that standoff work its way through to the end.
The hype surrounding the game between the Thunder and the Warriors—or, as the more overwrought marketing stuff had it, between Westbrook and Kevin Durant—had nothing to do with the game's importance in the scope of the NBA season, which is something we don't know yet, and nothing much to do with the teams involved, one of which is expected to be historically great and the other of which is going to have to scrap for a playoff spot. The selling point was catharsis, even more than it was confrontation: some fraught emotion (of some kind), long-simmered and complicated (or not?), would erupt spectacularly. That didn't happen—the Warriors, led by a commanding and outwardly chill Durant, went on a 45-12 tear over 14 minutes in the first half and the game was never even faintly a game after that—and a lot of people wound up going to bed a bit earlier than expected. As magnetic as the Westbrook Show invariably is, it's easier for those of us outside the blast area to care when the stakes are greater and more widely shared. And for that, this week, we had the World Series.
It shouldn't be surprising that the last and most important games of a sport's season would be more crazed with need than the fifth game of the NBA season, but also baseball is baseball. At its worst, baseball is self-regarding and priggish-unto-coppish and emotionally constipated; even at its best, it is a game without much space or much patience for expressiveness. This World Series was always going to be different, because of how heavily history rode over the two teams and millions of fans involved; that the series took place at a moment of national schism and ambient panic further nudged things toward emotional overload. No one was even feinting toward the usual Just Another Game stagecraft here. The rational response to a World Series played between two teams that have not won one in several generations is to freak out, and in this instance everyone happily complied.
But what made the series and its historic, harrowing, insanely great final game so remarkable only had so much to do with the usual October stuff. That was all there, and if you like baseball you were doubtless delighted by the comebacks and the switchbacks and the hugely important plays made by fantastically marginal players. The rest of it, the best of it and the part that translated best to those least attuned to baseball's ritual and rite, was in how wildly and undeniably the whole series and everyone in it vibrated with need at a very un-baseball and downright Westbrookian intensity.
Think of Anthony Rizzo, a self-confessed "emotional wreck" in Game 7, holding his head after arriving at third base late in the game, saying, "Oh my God," over and over, or think of the millions watching him doing the same. In that moment, he and they wanted the same thing, and each wanted it as greatly as the other. It is what Westbrook wants when he turns himself inside-out with hunger, and the basic appetite we all reckon with all the time, the elemental animating thing that makes us move. It's simple and vast, and broader and less specific than the desires for more time or more life or a more full experience of all that. Rizzo at third and out of his body, and us everywhere else, always, just wanted more.
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