Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, and the cult of personality

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

Can you inherit a cult? Can Russell Westbrook? I’ve never really thought about it, but this feels like a good time to ponder. Society should ponder more. Maybe get some extra meandering in as well. That 10km egg in your mind isn’t going to hatch itself.

Kobe has retired, and weirdo obsessives need something to obsess about (as do normal, rational adults like you. You’re different and better than them.) Maybe the wave of obsession left its high water mark on the Staples Center, but tsunamis tend to travel fairly long distances. Maybe it still has the momentum to make people in Oklahoma wear flood pants for a few years. Durant may have departed, but sometimes everything can still come up Milhouse.

I’d like to include a series of disclaimers now:

Disclaimer no. 1: I think Russell Westbrook is really great. He’s a ferret war dance with a basketball.

Disclaimer no. 2: I think Kobe Bryant, at a point in the past, was really great too.

Disclaimer no. 3: I think single-minded Kobe enthusiasts are less really great. They’re quite great in number, but less great in more ways.

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Disclaimer no. 4: I made that actually, but it could have been one of those Kobe people. You know the ones I’m talking about. This article is about those people and the people who may be like them.

I mention these particular items because if at any point I come off as biased, it’s because I am. 

A lot of things came into play to transform Kobe into one of the most iconic players of the last generation. There were rings, and All-Star games, and points, and anger, and a competitive drive that could power the pneumatic machine that holds the San Andreas fault together.

The thing about icons though is they’re venerated. People go to war for them. People fight, and die, and say stupid crap on Twitter. You can’t have a crusade without crusaders.

READ MORE: Doubting LeBron James is a dangerous proposition

Russell Westbrook has crusaders. He has people calling for MVP already. That’s not unfair. Two games ago he scored 35 points and in doing so managed to lower his scoring average. He has a 50-point triple-double. And another triple double. And pictures of cupcakes with no subtext whatsoever.

This is fertile ground. It’s a welcoming little hillside community. All you have to do is share and share alike, not leave the compound without express consent, say your prayers of thanks nightly, and carve a couple initials into your forehead with a hot knife. You can live on this peaceable hill if you’re willing to die on it.

Some are. More may be coming. Here’s some thoughts as to why:

The one who remained

People who remember Shaq on their favorite team probably remember when Shaq left their favorite team. He did that a lot. Before he left the Lakers, he and Kobe seemed primed to dynastify the league for years and then some more years. But oh no! There were underlying tensions. The two didn’t get along. Then Shaq went away. The pride and expectations of the what the Lakers would be became supersaturated and were laid at Kobe’s feet.

Durant and Westbrook were arguably the best two-person threat in the league last year. The Thunder was a slimmest of slim jims from a championship run. The two of them might serve as the most effective threat to the growing Warriors golem. But oh no! There were underlying tensions. The two got along but maybe not really. Then Durant offered his clay to the bay area, and then there was Russ. Only Russ.

Stats, baby. Stats, baby. Shots is an Oklahoma drought

Did you know that Kobe Bryant once scored 81 points in a basketball game? You know who hasn’t scored 81 points in a game? Everyone else besides Wilt Chamberlain. This means Kobe is the best, I think. That’s how it works, I bet. Kobe can do it all, if “all” means the most basic counting stat. Which it does.

We’ve evolved since Kobe’s 81-point jubilee. We now recognize that rebounds and assists matter too. You know who gets those in large quantities while still getting some of those point things? Russ. As of the writing of this sentence, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double. There is a chance, albeit small, that this can carry through the season. This is stupid incredible. I won’t lie. I’m drawn to triple-doubles like a moth to whatever moths are drawn to. I can’t imagine I’m alone. My forehead feels empty.

My city. My team.

Back in the time of Kobe, there was not much going on in L.A. sports-wise. The Clippers were what the Clippers were. The Los Angeles Rams were the St. Louis Rams. The Dodgers and Angels played baseball, which is the sport that has Mike Trout whose most interesting personal quality is that his name is a fish. The Los Angeles Kings play #PleaseLikeMySport. If there is any team that L.A. would embrace, it’s the Lakers. Where else is an impressionable adult going to look for personal guidance?

In Oklahoma City there are tornadoes. They also have one sports team. The Thunder win the title of “Sports Team Most Easily Associated With the City” by taking a strong bye in the finals. That’s a better result than you’d get in Muncie, Indiana at least. Congratulations to everyone who entered.

I’m here. Now what?

If you know which team’s jersey you’re going to wear, you have to pick the best player, right? Or the most visible player. Or both. If you’re going to be a hysterical frontrunner, Kobe and Russ have made it easy for you. This point doesn’t even deserve a second paragraph.

It really doesn’t.

Look how perfectly that chalk outline would fit a body

The stories of Kobe’s hyper-competitiveness are pretty well-known. His pregame routine of getting a hotel room to take a nap and passionately following a regimented warm-up and sacrificing a baby goat are key components of his legacy. In the style of Michael Jordan, Kobe took a “get on my level, or get out of my life” approach to team building. It’s a pathological procedure that left Smush Parker a punchline. It’s also a thing people can point to as a perfect example of the hardheadedness you need in a primary superstar.

We know Russ is also the hyper-competitive type. Some people channel personal slights into anger and other people’s pain. Russ is one of those guys. How he prepares to do this is less well known than Kobe’s system. He might stare at a wall for three hours before gametime. It doesn’t matter. In the end, someone is going to get hurt. If you’re on his side, maybe it won’t be you.

You can tell everybody. Go ahead and tell everybody.

After Shaq left the Lakers, there was no one else to steal attention from Kobe. The spotlight was suddenly 344 pounds lighter. The more Kobe there was the more Kobe you got, like the Jurassic Park fractal. How many players would have teammates defer to the point of making 81 points possible? How much goodwill do you need to accrue to be allowed to score 60 points in your final game when your prime left you behind years before?

It’s early. It’s very, very early, but if things follow the right path then Russ’ final game will end with an 11-10-10 stat line after defenders clear out the key in the final moments to allow an assist to Steven Adams for an easy lay-in. And OKC would cheer. And one person would nod and say “that’s just more proof that he’s the greatest.” And then another person would nod back with tears streaming down his face.


The way Kobe played and the way Russ play are extreme. The holes in their game are not nearly as conspicuous as their flashy neon feats. How can Kobe be a bad teammate if his teams have won five championships? How can Russ be a flawed defender if he just made that steal and dunked the ball into the earth’s mantle? How can Kobe be inefficient when he’s the only player on the team scoring? How can Russ be a bad jump shooter if defenders are scared of his shots? How can I live without him? I want to know. How can I breath without him? If he ever goes. How can I ever, ever survive?

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That’s when you make little totems, and bend history a bit to fill unwanted gaps, and transform narrative into scripture. You turn a player into something a bit more. Games end, and players retire, but idols have a sort of existence of their own. Their presence in your life becomes a privilege, and it’s everyone else’s fault if they can’t see it that way. They just don’t understand. They just can’t understand.

Debate about their teams is about 1/8th of a step removed from debate about them personally. Relative success or failure becomes a macro indictment of individual character. The Lakers won? Kobe triumphs over all because Kobe triumphs over all. The Thunder lost? Westbrook’s problems did that because. The reverse happened? The other side of the debate right there happily shouting just as loud. Shouting is fun, after all.

You have been convinced. I have convinced you.

These points of comparison aren’t perfect, and it leaves out the important component of Westbrook lacking hashtag ringz. This is a bud. This is a smaller scale, and some might say that the difference between religion and a cult is size. Kobe was 6-foot-6. Russ is 6-foot-3.

Case closed. The doors to the compound are open.