By the last day of June, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt (R) was pretty pleased with how the hometown Thunder appeared to be handling the frantic NBA offseason.
Things seemed pretty quiet, and the team’s star duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George looked poised to remain dangerous following plenty of power shuffling in the Western Conference. “If you ask me, a quiet free agency is a blessing when you’ve still got an MVP & an MVP finalist on your roster,” he tweeted. “Presuming better health, a second full year to hone this dynamic, the return of [Andre] Roberson, plus renewed league parity, I like our squad just fine.”
Then Paul George was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. And then came Thursday night, when Westbrook was shipped to the Houston Rockets.
“I can’t even begin to process it all now,” Holt tweeted.
“I feel very bad for the mayor of Oklahoma City now,” the Big Lead wrote.
“Someone please check on the mayor of Oklahoma City,” Deadspin asked.
We did. He’s fine.
“I think we’ve had since Saturday to prepare,” Holt said in a phone interview Friday. “It was more just a question of where and when he would go. Since the Paul George trade, we’ve known that the end of an era would arrive.”
“Russ will always be ours,” he added. “It doesn’t matter where he plays or where he goes. We’ll always consider him one of our heroes, and he’ll always be welcome back here.”
Since Kevin Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Oklahoma City fans rallied around Westbrook as “the guy who stayed,” Holt said. In the three seasons since, he blossomed into one of the NBA’s best point guards, averaging a triple-double for three straight seasons.
Given the chance to test free agency, he re-upped with the Thunder instead, signing a five-year, $206 million contract in 2018. When other players left for marquee cities — Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New York, Miami — in pursuit of huge contracts, superteam connections and more marketing opportunities, Westbrook built a home in Oklahoma City and welcomed big names such as George and Carmelo Anthony to town.
In Oklahoma City, he became an Olympic gold medalist, the 2017 league MVP and one of the leading fashion icons in professional sports. After Durant left, when Westbrook became the face of the franchise, he led the Thunder to three playoff appearances.
Oklahoma City, which landed an NBA franchise after hosting the hurricane-displaced New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) for two years, developed as a basketball town as Westbrook became one of the league’s superstars.
“In that regard, I think he’s one of the most mature NBA stars we’ve ever seen,” said Holt, author of the book “Big League City: Oklahoma City’s Rise to the NBA.” “He gets that where he plays and lives does not limit his ability to market himself or participate in any industry or entertainment he wants to be part of. And that’s a fact. NBA players chase cities when they don’t need to.
“And what better example [than] a guy living in Oklahoma City and being the fashion icon of the NBA? Living in Oklahoma City didn’t keep him from spending a month in Paris for Paris Fashion Week, from releasing his own fashion book, from being at New York Fashion Week. That’s the reality, that you can do whatever you want from whatever city you want. He’s going to go his own way, and he doesn’t have to live in Miami or L.A. or New York to be himself. This worked for him, and he didn’t try to find reasons to not make it work.”
For that reason, plus his on-court accolades, Holt said, Oklahoma City always will claim Westbrook.
“He’s the guy that statues will be built of, that streets will be named after, that jerseys will be retired for,” he said. “He’s been a great philanthropist in our city. There’s schools all over our city that have Russell Westbrook reading rooms. Those aren’t going away. That’s something he’ll be remembered for. And also, those accomplishments, we’ll tell our grandkids we watched a guy average a triple-double for three straight years. I got to see one of the greatest accomplishments in basketball history."
And if you’re worried about Oklahoma City fans feeling down now that the team is in full rebuild mode, don’t be, Holt said. The team has 15 first-round draft picks in the next seven years and could collect more by trading Chris Paul, who came over from Houston in the Westbrook trade.
“A lot of people in Oklahoma City are sad,” Holt said, “but I really hope we get the opportunity in the next few weeks or months to say goodbye.”
And if such a meeting were to take place, perhaps when the Rockets visit the Thunder next season, Westbrook could be a candidate for a key to the city.
“Keys are given to those who don’t live here,” Holt said. “Keys help you get back in the gate. He has only become eligible in the past 24 hours.”