Sports figures and the media are notorious for carrying on a fractious relationship.
In the NFL, Marshawn Lynch is as well-known for spawning the catchphrase “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” as he is for anything he has done on the football field.
In the NBA, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is an infamously difficult interview, often stonewalling reporters in press conferences and always dealing curtly with sideline reporters during the league’s mandated between-quarter interviews.
Add Russell Westbrook’s name to that list, as the Oklahoma City Thunder standout has carried on a feud with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman for years now.
Tramel asks Westbrook something, usually a well-thought-out question reflecting Tramel’s 40 years in journalism, and Westbrook dismisses him, without exception, every time, with a simple two-word response:
It’s annoying, but in a small market such as Oklahoma City that struggles to attract free agents, the fact that Westbrook chooses to play and make his home there means local media and the team itself tolerates his behavior.
But lately, “Westbrick” has gone out of his way to single-handedly shoot the Thunder out of their playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Westbrook this series
Bout to be knocked out in the first round for the 3rd straight year
— NBA Buckets (@NBA_Buckets) April 22, 2019
He’s enlisted teammate (and similarly low-efficiency shooter, at 37.0 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three) Paul George to help him stonewall the media.
Russell Westbrook & OKC reporter Berry Tramel
2015: I just don’t like you
2017: Hold up Steven
2019: Next question pic.twitter.com/RNCpinyLZ9
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) April 20, 2019
Tramel even offered his own take on why he continues to do his job despite Westbrook’s standoffish nature with him.
“I keep asking, with no hope of getting an answer, because the media shouldn’t give in to Westbrook’s desire to control everything,” Tramel wrote.
Tramel got to the heart of the issue; that the Thunder, possibly out of a sense that this is the only way they can keep Westbrook from bolting town, have given him the run of the place.
“Westbrook long ago was given the keys to the franchise and controls most everything around the organization, from brand of mustard at the concession stand to who sings the national anthem.
“I’m not even saying the Thunder was wrong to cede that control. It has kept Westbrook here for 11 seasons, with four more years under contract, and that’s a great coup for the franchise.”
Tramel even pointed out that any perception that the beef is personal or that Tramel and Westbrook legitimately dislike each other are misconceptions.
“The idea that Westbrook has some personal issue with me is misguided. That’s not true. Westbrook’s issue is with media in general. I don’t know from where his original distrust came, but I know he’s allowed it to fester over the years, with no guidance from Thunder officials. It’s too late – far too late – to do anything about it now. But Westbrook has been disrespectful to the Oklahoma City media going back almost a decade. And the OKC media has not been disrespectful back. Westbrook has been treated well by the people who cover the Thunder, both in personal deportment and in the content they produce.”
Westbrook just needs to assert himself, so he throws a fit when being asked questions — win or lose, good question or bad question. All the same, the Thunder are getting a serious case of watch-what-you-wish-for. The team looks to have hit its post-Kevin Durant ceiling, and while Durant has won back-to-back Finals MVPs in Golden State, the Thunder have foundered in Mediocrity Hell.
Over the past three years, they’ve won 47, 48 and 49 games. They are a combined 4-11 in the playoffs without Durant and look an awful lot like they’ll be 4-12 once the Trail Blazers get through with them in Portland in Game 5.
Westbrook is shooting 36.3 percent this year. He shot 39.8 percent in the Thunder’s loss to the Utah Jazz in 2018. And he shot 38.8 percent against the Rockets in 2017.
At no point since Durant left has Westbrook been good in the playoffs. He hasn’t even just been “below average.” He has, bluntly, stunk, and he’s earned the “Westbrick” moniker the same way George’s “Playoff P” self-imposed nickname has been a source not of marketing but of mockery for the former Indiana Pacer.
Yet Westbrook continues to stonewall the media, and the team continues to give him the run of the place because when you move a team from the 13th largest media market (Seattle) in America to the 45th according to Nielsen, you’ll take a playoff gate and enough national TV appearances to sell No. 0 and No. 13 jerseys outside of your own pro shop on game night.
Plenty of other cities have this same problem, of course — look at Indianapolis, where the Pacers seem perfectly content to have a 4 in the tens place of their win total every year while getting bounced from the playoffs in the first round — but Victor Oladipo isn’t starting a beef with reporters from The Indianapolis Star on a regular basis, and no reports exist of his mustard brand preferences for the hot dogs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
So, what are the Thunder supposed to do to resolve this standoff?
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