Russell Westbrook leaves OKC Thunder as an icon

Russell Westbrook leaves Oklahoma City an icon, whether fans like him or not.

NORMAN — Those fawning over Russell Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City, apoplectic that cheering for him now means rooting for a different uniform and it’s all unimaginably horrible, are wrong.

Those who’ve, not without cause, grown tired of so much of Westbrook’s act, pilloried him even as he put together a trio’s worth of triple-double seasons and are joyful in his exit are also wrong.

Those understanding there’s merit in both directions, able to coalesce their coexistence into their melancholy Thunder heart, are nearer the truth.

Oh, Russell …

We hardly knew ye?

Or we knew you too well?

Hard to know.

What makes Westbrook tick might be the most unanswerable question in sports.

All we really know is, whatever it is, it sends him every direction fiercely: with the ball in his hands and to the basket; in his yearning to make the shot which leads to bad shots; in his charity work, from which we may have seen more and deeper smiles than we ever got from him on the basketball court; in his determination to not make nice with local media, despite it giving him a fairly free ride for more than a decade.

I’ve been thinking about it and, yes, not only should his No. 0 be raised to the rafters of Chesapeake Energy Arena, but he gets a statue, too.

He gets it because he deserves it, the fans deserve it, the city deserves it, because claiming an icon is a meaningful thing and why not immortalize that icon in bronze.

He played 11 seasons in OKC and made every game he played exciting.

Exciting because he was a freak and force of nature.

The fastest guy on the court with the ball or without.

Sometimes it felt like he could will comebacks into being and so often, he was just a part of everything.

Everything.

That was Russ at his best, playing everything ball, not hero ball.

We may have seen him at his very, very best only last season, from Jan. 24 through Feb. 14, a run of 10 games, triple-doubles all, when the feeling delivered wasn’t one of domination but omnipresence.

He took and made fractionally fewer shots than his season averages and scored almost two fewer points. His turnovers were up from 4.1 to 5, yet so were his assists, from 10.7 to 13.5.

It felt like 90 percent Russ rather than 110 percent Russ, and it felt like he’d finally found the sweet spot between himself and his team. The Thunder won eight of those games.

It was a time that made everything seem possible, not a time to be reminded that OKC had been eliminated from the first round of the playoffs the previous two seasons, nor a time to fret about it happening again, which it did.

He was part of a team that went to the Finals and part of a team that would have gone to the Finals had Kevin Durant — perhaps not right with himself, maybe knowing he was going up against a team he would soon join — not gone 10 of 31 from the field in Game 6.

And he chose OKC twice, the last time for a maximum max deal for which he’s still owed $171.2 million over the next four seasons.

Still, he chose us.

In the end, that’s why he’s probably owed a statue, too.

When he chose to stay the first time, I wrote, having been witness to Westbrook’s post-signing press conference, “We are all capitalists and still there is no currency like appreciation.”

The line was directed toward Westbrook, who was so clearly loving the moment, a moment money couldn’t buy.

Yet, the thing of it was, it could just as easily have been about the fans he’d slapped fives with on his way into the building, or the hundreds of thousands — millions? — of Thunder fans who felt so appreciated, too.

It was a moment.

Think about who else is statue-worthy.

Bird, Russell, Cousy, Havlicek in Boston. Kareem, Magic and Kobe in Los Angeles.

The Doctor in Philly. Dwayne Wade in Miami. Michael in Chicago, LeBron in Cleveland, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier at the Garden and Dominique in Atlanta.

Stef in Oakland, maybe nobody in Denver, Stockton and Malone in Salt Lake, the Admiral and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, Dirk in Dallas, maybe Steve Nash in Phoenix. And, what the heck, Kareem in Milwaukee, too.

Being an icon is tricky business. It demands connection more than reverence. Being part of the fabric, not a hired gun. Commitment more than greatness. Deliverance.

Paul George will get a statue nowhere, nor will Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving or Anthony Davis. But Damian Lillard in Portland?

Sure.

If he sticks around.

It’s unclear how close Russell Westbrook ever came to being responsible for guiding OKC to a championship.

It’s also unclear, given the way he sometimes chose to play, how much he stunted those same pursuits.

What’s not up for debate is the mesmerizing experience watching him play could be, the thirst for imagination he has always quenched and the bond created with fans, for whom he chose to play again and again.

It’s enough.

Maybe everything.

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Russell Westbrook’s statement to fans, posted to his Instagram account Friday:

“I can’t even begin to put into words all of the emotions I have right now. It’s been one heck of a journey Oklahoma! When I came here, I was 18 years old, bright eyed, and completely unaware of all the amazing things that would soon take place. I grew up in Oklahoma with an amazing bunch of people. The people here are what makes this place so special. From the fans, my coaches, my teammates, the entire Thunder organization, Mr. Bennett, Sam Presti, my friends, and everyone in the entire community. You are all what makes Oklahoma such a beautiful place, and the reason I’ve loved playing here all of this time.

“You have supported me through all of the ups and the downs, and stood by me through the good times, and tough times. For that I am eternally grateful to you. I’ve met so many amazing people who have helped shape me into the man that I am today. I hope I have impacted the Oklahoma community as much as Oklahoma has made an impact on me and my family.

“I’m leaving Oklahoma with so many friends and so much gratitude. I could never thank you all enough for sticking with me. It’s been a dream and a whirlwind. #WHYNOT”