This excerpt from Sam Anderson’s new book Boom Town, a book on the rapid rise of Oklahoma City and its NBA franchise, joins the team at home for Game 46 of the 2012-13 season, and considers the least-heralded member of what looked at the time like a rising dynasty.
The Thunder opened the game by running an isolation play not for Westbrook or Durant but for their starting shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha had many things going for him: his name was a perfect Euro-burble (The Lost Ogle: “Every time I say Sefolosha, I imagine that I have a mouth full of Jell-O and I’m just squishing it out through my teeth”), he had the smooth good looks of an R&B singer or a designer scarf model, and he was a first-rate perimeter defender who often hounded opposing stars into embarrassing nights. But he was not a scorer. The Grizzlies were guarding him with Mike Conley, their tiny point guard, who was a whole head shorter—basically daring Sefolosha to shoot. The Thunder accepted the challenge. Sefolosha backed Conley down near the hoop, pump-faked, spun toward the rim, and—as soon as a second defender came over to help—passed to his now wide-open teammate Serge Ibaka, who made the jump shot. It was Teamwork 101. The basketball gods were pleased, clearly, because the Thunder went on to make their first nine shots of the game, an improbable feat against the Grizzlies’ defense, trade or no trade. By the middle of the first quarter, the game was already beginning to feel like a blowout. The home crowd was burbling toward rapture.
And yet, still, there was something naggingly off. For one thing, Russell Westbrook looked disturbingly Westbrookian. He threw a beautiful pass for an Ibaka dunk, then a terrible pass directly to an opponent. He charged down the court and hurtled himself into a pull-up jumper—swish—and then Durant found him for a three—boom—and then he flung his body into another pull-up jumper: swish. Westbrook was hot, but in a way that was slightly troubling. I kept writing “uh-oh” in my notebook. He had that “Why not?” look about him.
Because of the trade, the Grizzlies had been forced to start a bench player named Jerryd Bayless, and Bayless and Westbrook had a history. Both had been drafted in 2008; both were explosive, reckless, emotional not-quite point guards. Some analysts had argued before the draft that Bayless would be the better NBA player. But this was not how it had turned out, and now it was as if Westbrook were playing against a suboptimal version of himself—an alternate-reality version, in which he hadn’t panned out—and he clearly wanted to destroy the imposter. To make things worse, in the first quarter, Bayless was just as hot as Westbrook, mirroring him on the other end: three-pointer, flying jumper, pull-up jumper, reckless layup, pull-up jumper. He was making “Why not?” shots, too, and Westbrook was taking it personally. Team basketball was turning into one-on-one. Westbrook isolated on Bayless and banked in another pull-up jumper. Again, in my notebook, I scribbled “uh-oh.” Near the end of the first quarter, when Westbrook sat down, he had eleven points, two assists, and three turnovers—an impressive but terrifying stat line for eleven minutes of work. Bayless finished the quarter with twelve points, two assists, and no turnovers. It was an unsustainable pace. At halftime, the Thunder led by twenty-four. But “Why not?” would eventually get its answer.
Whenever I saw Thabo Sefolosha, I always ended up staring at his tattoo. It was one of the great body-art masterpieces in the entire NBA. On his left shoulder, in the position of prime visibility, there was a picture of a basketball wearing a crown, and the image was surrounded by the words “The Game Chose Me”—a short text of almost biblical richness. Read one way, the tattoo was a swaggering statement of destiny: I am so perfectly suited to this sport that the game itself was forced to recruit ME in order to fully express its true nature, much like Excalibur chose King Arthur. Read another way, however, Sefolosha’s tattoo was passive, almost apologetic—an existentialist shrug: Don’t blame me. I did not choose this game. I play basketball as the gravedigger digs or the louse sucks blood. What are any of us but driftwood on the great tides of history, thrown this way or that until we are inexorably ground into dust against the cruel rocks of fate? This duality made Sefolosha’s tattoo the perfect slogan for his talent. When he harassed LeBron into a turnover or hit a crucial open three, I read “The Game Chose Me” and thought: Good job, game. When he dribbled off his foot or threw the ball into the crowd or mangled a fast break with an awkward spin move, I thought: This is not Thabo’s fault; he never asked for this responsibility—he was just standing on a street corner one day, smoking a cigarette, when the spirit of basketball snatched him up and flung him into a gym.
Sefolosha was from Switzerland—the first Swiss player ever drafted into the NBA. As the Thunder rose, in its first few years, from terrible to dominant, Sefolosha played a key role. He was the anti-Harden. He was important to the team, paradoxically, not in spite of his offensive limitations but because of them. He didn’t need the ball. In fact, everyone preferred for him not to have the ball, or at least to have it only for the fraction of a second it took him to catch and shoot a wide-open three—a skill he had steadily improved. This allowed him to focus on his defense, as well as to act as a buffer in the offense between Westbrook and Durant, a small absence between two massive presences, a little zone of silence between two walls of noise. Even in 2011, when James Harden emerged as an offensive wizard, Sefolosha held the starting spot. His presence became a signature of the Thunder’s offense: the acid of Westbrook, the base of Durant, the neutrality of Thabo Sefolosha.
In the third quarter of the Grizzlies game, all of the hovering pent-up energy finally broke loose. It came pouring out, naturally, through Russell Westbrook, and it was directed, unfairly, at Sefolosha. The Thunder had come out of halftime still dominating. Their defense was long-armed and swarming. Their offense, funneled through Westbrook and Durant, was overwhelming. The Grizzlies looked dejected and tired. Westbrook was still going after their point guards, especially in the post, down low, where he loves nothing more than publicly humiliating smaller players: turning his back and grinding them into little piles of futility. This game was a full-on Westbrook post-up party. He victimized Mike Conley with another bank shot, drawing another foul. And now he had Bayless on him again, and Westbrook clearly had the exact same thing in mind.
This was when everything went wrong.
Westbrook dribbled up the court, incandescent with confidence. Kendrick Perkins was wide open on the baseline, and he put his hands up to call for the ball—but Westbrook waved him off, and Perkins shuffled dejectedly away. Westbrook now had the entire left half of the floor to himself. He would have preferred, probably, for all of his teammates to actually leave the building, but the rules didn’t allow for that, and he didn’t have enough time to arrange the logistics, so he got to work in imperfect conditions. He turned his back and started banging Bayless toward the hoop. Dribble, bang, dribble, bang, dribble, dribble, dribble, bang. Bayless, however, wasn’t giving an inch, so Westbrook turned toward the middle of the floor to look for space. But another defender was waiting there to help. So Westbrook turned back toward the baseline—bang, dribble, dribble, bang, bang, dribble—only Bayless still wasn’t giving him any room. Westbrook turned back to the middle again. Now there was a different defender waiting there to help. Dribble, dribble. Westbrook, the indomitable, the quicksilver, found himself bottled up. What happens to a dream deferred? Where have all the flowers gone? Where are the snows of yesteryear?
The whistle blew: turnover.
The officials had called Westbrook for an obscure and rarely enforced basketball crime: Rule 10, Section 16 of the NBA rule book. (“An offensive player in his frontcourt below the free throw line extended shall not be permitted to dribble with his back or side to the basket for more than five seconds.”) It was a relatively new rule, intended to encourage team play, and it was never called, but you couldn’t blame the officials. They were doing God’s work. Westbrook was in clear violation of everything true and beautiful about basketball. He had plunged off the cliff of self-interest. He had dribbled ten times during that possession, and not one dribble had given him even a split-second advantage. Every problem he’d encountered had represented an opportunity for somebody else—that’s how basketball works—but this had never seemed to occur to him.
From roughly the third dribble through the sixth, Kevin Durant had been wide open at the three-point line, holding his hands out in shooting position, actually shouting “Hey!” But Westbrook, in these situations, has the peripheral vision of a cyclops looking through a paper-towel tube, so Durant put his hands back down. Around the eighth dribble, Sefolosha came sprinting through the lane, trying to give Westbrook a target to pass to. He was open for half a second—little Mike Conley, Sefolosha’s defender, seemed to have been hypnotized by Westbrook’s dribbling, along with everyone else in the arena. Sefolosha had scored on a similar play, on a pass from Durant, only a minute before. But Westbrook didn’t see the cut. All he knew was that Sefolosha’s defender had come over and ruined his opportunity, bottling him up. That was when the whistle came.
The referee’s whistle set off a feverish melodrama out on the floor. Every single one of Westbrook’s teammates immediately threw his hands up in disgust—not at the call, but at Westbrook. Scott Brooks, sitting on the bench, looked like he’d been hit in the back of the neck with a tranquilizer dart. He stared blankly, paralyzed with wonder. Westbrook, meanwhile, was incensed. He felt, somehow, that he had been wronged. This injustice would not stand. He spiked the ball on the court, hard, twice—even Westbrook’s rage was expressed through overdribbling—and in that moment his anger latched onto Thabo Sefolosha.
Right there in public, in the middle of 18,203 fans, in front of a national TV audience, Russell Westbrook screamed at his Swiss teammate, the very model of NBA mildness. Sefolosha, out near the three-point line, stood his ground and tried to explain himself, using his hands to mime the nature of the game as it actually existed outside of the sealed chamber of Westbrook’s furious mind. (In the optimistic early days of Sefolosha’s career, he had once described basketball as a paragon of democracy: “When you’re on the basketball court, everybody’s the same,” he said. “Everybody’s got two legs, two arms.”) Durant and Perkins were yelling at Westbrook to stop yelling at Sefolosha. “Come on, Russ!” they shouted. Meanwhile, as the Thunder conducted its Socratic dialogue about the true nature of basketball (Durantus: “Surely you saw that I was open?” Westbrus: “But can anyone be more open than a man who already possesses the ball?”), the Grizzlies had inbounded and were charging up the court to score. Bayless drove toward the hoop and, instead of forcing his own shot in traffic, passed out to Marc Gasol for a wide-open jump shot. Swish. Teamwork 101. Easy. Bayless, Westbrook’s inferior nemesis, suddenly looked like the most sensible point guard on the floor.
This was more than Westbrook was willing to endure. He took the inbounds pass, charged down the floor, leaped into two Grizzlies, and fired off one of the wildest shots you are ever likely to see in a professional contest of any kind—a leaning, flying fling that had zero chance of going in. If he was trying to prove something, he had succeeded in proving its opposite. This was the second Thunder possession in a row that Westbrook had wildcatted into smithereens, the second time in a row that none of his teammates had touched the ball. To make things worse, Westbrook’s shot missed so badly that it jump-started a Grizzlies fast break, which ended in the worst possible way: with Bayless flying past Westbrook for a dunk.
Scott Brooks roused himself from the depths of a million slumbers and called a time-out. He pulled Westbrook from the game. Westbrook went to the bench, but he was far too furious to sit, too betrayed by humanity and probability and physics and time, so instead he stomped over to the last chair in the row—Daniel Orton’s chair—and he threw it over. Orton, standing there, considered saying something, but in the face of Westbrook’s wrath he kept quiet, and he watched his point guard go charging off down the tunnel toward the locker room. Mo Cheeks, Westbrook’s mentor, hurried after him. Unless a player was injured, leaving the floor in the middle of the game was taboo. In the tunnel, Westbrook was beside himself. He couldn’t understand why everyone was yelling at him.
Excerpted with permission from BOOM TOWN by Sam Anderson. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2018 by Sam Anderson.
Sam Anderson is currently a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. Formerly a book critic for New York Magazine and regular contributor to Slate, Anderson’s journalism and essays have won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Citation of Excellence in Reviewing. He lives in New York with his family.