From his relentless on-court game to his audacious off-court style, OKC Thunder guard Russell Westbrook stays on point.
This feature appears in Complex's April/May 2013 issue.
It’s the fourth quarter inside the Staples Center. The Lakers are clinging to a six-point lead with a minute remaining in the game. L.A. fans wait with bated breath while the fate of 37,994 tacos hangs in the balance—and it all depends on Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
He stands at the free-throw line with the ball in his hands. A sea of gold and purple jerseys shake their white cheer sticks, doing their best to break Westbrook’s concentration. California fast-food staple Jack in the Box will give two free tacos to every fan in attendance if the beleaguered Lakers can pull off a win. Kobe Bryant and company are riding high off two straight victories, but the Thunder have bested them in their two previous contests. If the Lake Show can beat their conference rival, 18,997 attendees will go home a little fuller.
Despite the rowdy fans’ best efforts, Westbrook calmly nails the first shot. But the second clangs off the rim, right into the hands of Metta World Peace.
This Los Angeles game is a homecoming of sorts for Westbrook, who hails from South Central. Some of the Staples Center crowd surely remember when he led the UCLA Bruins to two consecutive Final Fours. But they’re not trying to be robbed of their meat-filled tortillas. Not after that stunt Westbrook pulled in Denver.
A week earlier, the Thunder’s unapologetic star drew the ire of Denver Nuggets fans after foiling another fast food giveaway. At Nuggets games, Denver’s mountain lion mascot Rocky takes half-court shots to net fans free nosh. With the Thunder looking on and bowls of Qdoba Queso on the line for every man, woman, and child in the building, Rocky heaved two shots that appeared true—until Westbrook jumped up and snatched both out of the air, drawing audible boos from the Pepsi Center crowd.
“I take risks, but I don't think of it that way.”
Such hijinks have earned Westbrook a reputation as the NBA's reigning iconoclast. No matter what box you try to place him in, this natural-born non-conformist refuses to stay in it. “I take risks, but I don’t think of it that way,” he says with a smile that’s both charming and devilish.
Running point for the defending Western Conference champions, Westbrook has what many basketball diehards regard as the easiest job in the world: getting the ball into the hands of OKC scoring machine Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is no Steve Nash, the archetypal selfless point guard. In fact he's the highest-scoring point guard in the NBA. This year he’s taken more shots than his smooth-shooting teammate; for what it’s worth, he also has nearly three times as many offensive rebounds as the much taller Durant.
“Westbrook’s style is not always pretty, but most of the time it’s effective,” says Darnell Mayberry, who covers the Thunder for The Oklahoman newspaper. “He competes like few other point guards in this league.”
Russell Westbrook is fast—ridiculously fast. He attacks the basket relentlessly, finding ways to create offensive opportunities and excitement. Spry and gangly, he’s built like an upright cheetah and armed with a 36-inch vertical, a 67 ¾-inch wingspan, a fiery temper, and a zero-fucks-given attitude. If Kevin Durant is the NBA’s white knight, Westbrook is the dark horse. He won’t let Lakers fans have their tacos, Nuggets fans their queso, or basketball purists the self-effacing Durant sidekick they hoped for. But he will play his ass off for a championship ring, albeit on his own terms.
Doing things his way certainly hasn’t hurt his bottom line. “His athletic ability is off the charts,” says Brian O’Connor, global VP of marketing for Jordan Brand, which recently signed the three-time NBA All-Star to a multi-year endorsement deal. MJ himself has praised Russell’s “style, both on and off the court,” adding, “we love the drive and passion for basketball that Russell brings.”
When number zero’s on the floor, he moves like the Tasmanian Devil—a 6-foot-3-inch tornado who slashes to the rim with boundless energy. He isn’t afraid to play rough either, like when push literally comes to shove with Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center. While trying to steal the ball in the third quarter, Westbrook is called for a foul, earning a shove from Bryant; Westbrook shoves right back. After the two are separated, Bryant catches a technical foul. “I don’t mind talking,” Westbrook says afterwards, “but I don’t like nobody putting their hands on me.”
When the final buzzer sounds, Westbrook’s racked up 17 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds. Still, the Thunder fall to the Lakers, 105-96, their third L of a six-game road trip. But while L.A. may have revived their Showtime heyday for a moment, the post-game show belongs solely to Westbrook.
Exiting the locker room 20 minutes later, Westbrook looks like something from the street style blog The Sartorialist. In fashionable cities like New York and Paris, stylish people stick out like manicured thumbs. In a hallway full of security guards with ill-fitting sport coats and blasé basics, Westbrook is literally shining.
No, really: There’s a lustrous, metallic square on the front of his Neil Barrett sweatshirt, one of the more striking pieces from the designer’s fall/winter 2012 collection. Light bounces off the shirt in waves. It fits Westbrook perfectly—snug but not super tight. The sweater gives way to a slim pair of Hugo Boss 708 jeans, the color somewhere between seafoam and minty toothpaste green. On his feet are spiked Louboutin sneakers, more extravagant than menacing. A Fendi belt peeks out from underneath the sweatshirt, and he’s holding a brown Louis Vuitton leather dopp kit by its thin strap.
Westbrook is at the forefront of NBA fashion. His approach to dressing up is as fearless and aggressive as his derring-do in the paint.
After the loss, Westbrook is not as light-hearted as usual. “There’s no joking when the game starts,” he says, his outfit much brighter than his disposition. Fortunately, his parents are waiting to greet him upstairs. “My family’s always been supportive of me and what I was doing.”
His dad, Russell Sr., helped him perfect his game, but Westbrook’s sense of style clearly comes from his mother. Shannon Horton wears skinny cuffed polka-dot pants almost the same shade of green as her son’s. On her feet are coordinating Air Max 2012 sneakers, which she picked up in London while watching Russell win a gold medal during the summer Olympics. Her purse is by Hermés. The former cafeteria worker is absolutely killing it today.
“That’s where it all started,” Westbrook admits. “She used to shop for us growing up. But then it got to a point where I was so picky about my clothes that she stopped shopping for me. I had a sense of the style I was gravitating to. I worked for stuff I couldn’t afford.”
Having signed an $80 million, five-year contract extension with the Thunder last year, Westbrook can now indulge his luxurious tastes without limits. “Some people may be scared to wear something,” he says. “I obviously don’t care.”
When the Thunder beat the Lakers to clinch last year’s Western Conference championship, their win was nearly outshined by Westbrook’s post-game outfits, particularly his glasses. The Miami Heat went on to beat the Thunder in the Finals, but there was no question who won the Playoffs’ fashion MVP.
When superstars like Dwyane Wade or Lebron James get dressed up, they put on slim, conservatively designed suits and shirts by classic American menswear designers like Michael Bastian or Ralph Lauren. Westbrook favors outside-the-box pieces like a spread-collar shirt emblazoned with patches of denim, plaid, and flannel from forward-thinking Japanese designer Junya Watanabe.
A disciple of legendary Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo, Watanabe’s deconstructed garments are not the sort of thing you expect to see on mainstream celebrities, let alone NBA players, who typically rock big labels like Gucci. But all that is changing. Since the 2005 dress code, NBA style has evolved from Allen Iverson’s baggy sweats to Shaq’s egregious affinity for sleeveless suits to Russell Westbrook. Just as A$AP Rocky predicted, clothes are getting weirder, and while Knicks players like Tyson Chandler are experimenting with capes, Westbrook is at the forefront of NBA fashion. His approach to dressing up is as fearless and aggressive as his derring-do in the paint.
“He’s got a fierce curiosity about how far he can push the limits, and anybody who appreciates personal style can appreciate what he’s been doing in the NBA,” says Ryan Bowling, owner of Oklahoma City’s Black Optical, the eyewear boutique where Westbrook bought most of the frames he wore during the playoffs.
“When I met Russell, I was wearing a pair of Barton Perreira Joaquins,” Bowling recalls of their chance encounter at the mall. “Russell was on his phone. He told the person he’d call them back and he was like, ‘What are those?’ ” Bowling offered to let Westbrook try on the $400 glasses, and they snuck into a fitting room at Ann Taylor so Westbrook could see how they looked on his face. “Two weeks later,” says Bowling, “he and his brother rolled in the shop and picked up a few pairs.”
Westbrook caught flack for wearing glasses in spite of his perfect vision. “No lenses at all,” he confirmed in an interview with Ahmad Rashad. “It’s my own flair, man. I know what looks right and what looks crazy.”
When Russell Westbrook and his best friend, Khelcey Barrs III, made Leuzinger High School’s varsity team in their freshman year, Russell was only 5-foot-8 and 140 lbs., with huge hands and feet that he hadn’t grown into. Then in his junior year, Westbrook sprouted.
“My body caught up with me,” he says with a laugh. “I grew into my body, and I had a little bit of muscle.” The growth spurt also helped his style. “I was able to fit into stuff easier,” he says. “When you’re small and skinny, clothes look extra big on you.”
Back in those days, Westbrook was far from a clotheshorse. “I was wearing XXXXL T-shirts; I’m barely even a large these days,” he says. “I used to wear a lot of FUBU stuff, Ecko, Phat Farm.”
If you think about what other people say, then you have a problem. When it comes to dressing up, a lot of people are worried what others think.
You just gotta go with it.
Westbrook’s game improved dramatically in high school as well. His father shot with him at a nearby park late into the night. His younger brother Reynard ran with him on Manhattan Beach during the off-season. “Russell became more confident in himself and his game, and it made him, and our family, change our vision for his future,” says Russell Sr., a former airplane technician.
The younger Russell’s future changed forever in 2004 when Barrs died from an enlarged heart. His death affected Westbrook profoundly. The two had lived across the street from each other in Lawndale. After Barrs’ passing, Russell would go to his house to do his chores. He still wears a white bracelet marked “KB3” as a tribute to his friend.
“There’s not a day when I don’t think about what he could’ve done,” Westbrook says. “He was a good guy, my best friend, and he would’ve been a great player.” Westbrook’s gone on to greatness himself, but he takes Khelcey’s memory—and the knowledge that life is short—wherever he goes.
The day after the Thunder’s loss in L.A., Westbrook is back in Oklahoma City, at U.S. Grant High School on the city’s South Side. Inside, Thunder players have taken over the gym for a fitness clinic. While Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson run students through drills, Westbrook stands at a nutrition station, talking about healthy eating habits and confessing one of his vices. “I have a candy problem,” he admits. He finds Payday bars particularly tempting.
He’s in a noticeably better mood than yesterday, quizzing the students and high-fiving them when they get the right answer.
Westbrook’s just-go-for-it style extends to his charitable endeavors as well. Last year he started the Why Not? Foundation to help underprivileged families. The name comes from his favorite Twitter hashtag: #whynot. He and some friends at UCLA came up with it. “It’s how we live,” he says. “It’s how we thought about school, life, basketball, and it works, especially when it comes to fashion.”
The size 14 Jordan IVs on Westbrook’s feet are recognizable from a distance. Westbrook pairs them with gray elephant-print Jordan Brand socks, referencing the pattern that first adorned the iconic Jordan IIIs. Even when he doesn’t have to stunt, he still manages to. “It’s natural for me now,” he says. “I don’t leave the house like, ‘Oh, let me get something crazy.’ I just go with it and see what happens.”
Unlike celebrities who rely on personal shoppers and stylists, Westbrook has a keen eye for how he wants to present himself. He shops strategically, going hard in L.A., Chicago, and New York—and supplementing those purchases online. “All of it gets worn, but only once,” says the certified retail fiend. “Nine times out of 10, if I’m wearing something crazy, I can’t wear it again.”
Westbrook’s out-there style has earned him both fans and critics. The Lacoste shirt adorned with all manner of fishing hooks that he sported during the Playoffs left many sportswriters befuddled. But he doesn’t pay attention to the opinions of those who don’t know Thom Browne from Tom Ford. “If you think about what other people say, then you have a problem,” he says. “When it comes to dressing up, a lot of people are worried what others think. You just gotta go with it.”
And go with it he does. Last September, Westbrook found himself at his first New York Fashion Week, sitting next to Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley. “That was my first opportunity to see the process that goes into a show,” he says. “I was backstage a lot.”
Beyond how the clothes look on him, Westbrook takes an interest in construction and materials. This summer he will attend fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, where the taste level is light years ahead. But if Westbrook is intimidated, he’s hiding it well. “I gotta make sure I’m fresh for that,” he says, smirking. “That ain’t gonna be that hard.”
I gotta make sure I’m fresh for [Paris and Milan fashion week]. That ain’t gonna be that hard.
A sleek white Jaguar XF rolls into the parking lot at Oklahoma’s Harn Homestead, the historic farm that’s serving as the backdrop for Westbrook’s cover shoot. Asked how many vehicles he owns, he shrugs and says “a lot,” adding, “cars and clothes are my problem.” Given the Thunder’s success last season, he may also be burdened by great expectations. It doesn’t help that some blame Westbrook for the Thunder’s loss in the pivotal Game 4 of the Finals. He put up 43 points but committed an ill-advised foul in the final seconds, sealing the Heat victory. But he shows no signs of bowing to pressure. “We just play one game at a time,” he says. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
On the farm, Westbrook greets the crew and goes right to work picking out the outfits he’d like to wear. Even with an array of designers like Kenzo, Givenchy, and Giuseppe Zanotti at his fingertips, he’s come prepared with his own Lanvin sneakers, navy suede Polo Ralph Lauren wingtips, and some exclusive Jordans.
It’s evident that Westbrook’s mind for fashion operates on another gear. He knows when a pair of jeans won’t fit him just by looking at them. “Those are gonna be baggy,” he says of a pair of Levi’s 514s. When he sees the skinnier 511 cut on the rack, he proclaims, “That’s my fit.”
Another benefit of his svelte body type is that he can wear garment samples—a serious advantage if you hope to get free clothes. “I can fit into almost everything off the rack,” Westbrook says. He wouldn’t look out of place on the runway, and he says he’s considered modeling in the off-season.
Like many celebrities, Westbrook has also thought about starting his own line. He talks about button-down shirts with zip-off sleeves and creating his own all-over print. He wants to make women’s wear, men’s wear, and even try his hand at children’s clothing. The only rule? “It’d have to be something that catches your eye.”
Of course. Russell Westbrook, basketball star becomes Russell Westbrook, fashion designer? Why not?
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Rose Garcia. (PROP STYLING) Colin Warde. (GROOMING) Karen Snyder. (CLOTHING) OPENING SPREAD: (LEFT) Sweatshirt by Kenzo / Pants by Dries Van Noten / Shoes by Ralph Lauren / Sunglasses by Silver Linings (RIGHT) Shirt by Kenzo / Jeans by Naked & Famous / Sneakers by Lanvin. PREVIOUS SPREAD: Polo Shirt by Raf Simons for Fred Perry / Pants by Lacoste L!VE / Glasses by Silver Linings / Shoes by Ralph Lauren. THIS SPREAD: Shirt by Saint Laurent / Pants by Paul Smith / Sneakers by Guisepee Zanotti / Sunglasses by Dior / Jacket Stylist's own