The trouble for most sports is that their records just aren’t going to mean as much as baseball’s. However broken it may be now, the country’s sporting landscape was shaped by baseball, because it really was the only sport anyone cared about for so long. That will change more and more, but those are still the roots. So the urge is to try and treat records in every sport like they mean the same as the numbers we all grew up with, but they just don’t.
So when a league, or more often the network covering whatever sport, tries to make a big deal out of someone breaking the NFL’s rushing record or receiving touchdowns or the most three-pointers made, it just doesn’t matter as much as the home run record (or at least as much as it used to matter) or hitting .400 or 20 strikeouts in a game. And hell, as baseball has evolved and what observers value, even some of those records don’t quite matter as much as they used to.
A lot of these boil down to uniqueness or statistical oddities. So what does Russell Westbrook’s setting a new record for triple-doubles in a career mean? That’s assuming sports records mean anything anyway. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s just assume they add some greater context about the player.
The fact that Oscar Robertson’s mark stood for 47 years says a lot. By definition that makes it pretty hallowed. That’s a pretty good indication of just how much of a mountain this was to climb.
Many have derided Westbrook’s production for the past five years as soulless, empty stat chasing. The point they will always make is that OKC, or Houston, or now Washington, haven’t been all that good with Westbrook putting up boxcar numbers every night, so they can’t mean all that much. No sport defines its stars through their teams’ performance more than the NBA, because individual players can make such a difference. The thinking went that if Westbrook was doing all this and the teams still were middling at best, then it just can’t be important.
The other side of the argument was that there wasn’t anyone else on the Thunder to do much, so Westbrook had to, and he took them as far as anyone possibly could. Clearly something was already broken in Houston by the time he showed up, and the Wizards have been the hottest team in the league over the last month or so. But they’re still under .500 by five games.
Having read all of these debates over the years, I’m not sure the answer isn’t both, or some combination of elements of both. Even if Westbrook is solely interested in only filling up the sheet, regardless of what it means for the team, or is still on a Fuck You World Tour after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for The Bay, the accomplishment is still bewildering. There has been an army of players who tried to do all the things Westbrook does, either for selfish reasons or because they thought it was best for the team, and didn’t come close to this. Perhaps the motive doesn’t even matter, and only the feat does whatever the motive.
Whatever the reason or the labeling, Westbrook’s accomplishment is that he’s been just about the most active and influential player on the floor most times. Good or bad. That doesn’t mean it’s the equivalent of scoring 93 goals in an NHL season, but it’s a rare performance. And that’s enough, without some greater context that people feel the need to attach to it.