When Russell Westbrook walked to the podium on Monday night after the Lakers’ latest loss, he had bigger things on his mind than just basketball. A silver necklace peeked out over the collar of his long-sleeved, gray shirt, the letters on it seemingly intentionally placed in full view for all to see right above Westbrook’s heart.
The first letter was N, for his wife, Nina Westbrook, who spoke out on Twitter earlier in the same day, calling out “obscenities and death wishes” as well as “shaming, name-calling, and public scrutiny” that she says her family has been subjected to during Westbrook’s struggles with the Lakers.
Right after it was another N, for Westbrook’s son Noah, who a teacher had told him and Nina at a recent parent-teacher conference was so proud of his last name that he writes it everywhere, confidently telling every kid he meets “I’m a Westbrook. That’s my last name.”
Then, the necklace held a J and an S, for Westbrook’s two other children, Jordyn and Skye. Westbrook was thinking about all of them on this night while he pushed back against criticism of his play that he and his family feel has crossed a line.
“I 100% stand behind my wife and how she’s feeling because it’s not just about this year. Right now, she’s reached a point, and my family has reached a point to where it’s really weighing on them. And it’s very unfortunate just for me personally because it’s just a game. It’s just a game. This is not the end-all, be-all,” Westbrook said.
I don’t do the things that I do to receive attention, to get clicks, or for show. This is not a game to me. Basketball is a game. This is my life, my children’s lives, and my families life. Shaming anyone for any reason is never the answer.— Nina Westbrook (@ninawestbrook) March 7, 2022
As far as my husband goes, he is his own person. I don’t need to defend him. I love and support him through all of the unwarranted hate and negativity that he receives. I speak up and share my experience and knowledge for those who do not have a voice.— Nina Westbrook (@ninawestbrook) March 7, 2022
“When it comes to basketball I don’t mind the criticism of missing and making shots. But the moment it becomes where my name is getting shamed it becomes an issue. I’ve kind of let it go in the past,” Westbrook continued. “Because it never really bothered me, but it really kind of hit me the other day.”
That was at the aforementioned parent-teacher conference for Noah. When his son’s teacher told Westbrook how proud his child was of his last name, Westbrook says he “sat there in shock” and knew he needed to address the jeers he’s been subjected to both online, and in the Lakers’ own arena.
“It hit me, like damn. I can no longer allow people — saying Westbrick, as an example — shaming my name. My name is a legacy for my kids. It’s a name that means more not just to me, but to my wife, my mom, my dad. The ones that kind of paved the way for me,” Westbrook said. “That’s just one example. It kind of hit myself and my wife in a place where it’s not great, man. And I think a lot of times I let it slide, but now I need to put a stop to that and put on notice that there is a difference, and every time I do hear it now I will make sure that I address it and make sure that I nip that in the bud.”
It’s gotten to the point where Westbrook’s family no longer even wants to go to home games, where he’s regularly booed and jeered even by fans in an arena in his hometown, a building he thought would be a safe haven.
“I don’t even want to bring my kids to the game, because I don’t want them to hear people calling their dad nicknames for no reason because he’s playing the game that he loves,” Westbrook said, his voice starting to crack. “It’s gotten so bad to where my family don’t even want to go to home games.”
"I stand behind my wife with how she's feeling...it's reached a point where it's really weighing on my family." @russwest44 shares his thoughts on the comments made by his wife saying she and her family are "harassed on a daily basis". pic.twitter.com/ize5TLvVnb— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) March 8, 2022
Westbrook is no stranger to criticism. He doesn't even sound like he’s necessarily against basketball critiques. But he and his family clearly feel like the ad hominem attacks on his last name that he’s been subjected to have crossed a line, not to mention whatever worse things they’ve heard in the arena. No matter how much he’s struggled, and no matter how much he’s being paid, on a human level, it’s hard not to feel empathy for that, even if none of us can ever fully relate without having gone through it.
But Westbrook wasn’t speaking as a millionaire, or a Laker, or a former MVP. For a few minutes, he was just a dad. One who doesn’t want his proud young son to feel shame about his last name.
“It’s very unfortunate. It’s been like this for my entire career. I’ve been blessed and super thankful for the ones around me and the ones that support me, but it’s really the shaming of my name, the shaming of my character, the shaming of who I am as a person to me is not warranted,” Westbrook said. “I haven’t done anything to anybody. I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t done anything but play basketball in way that people may not like, and this is just a game. This is just a game. It’s not my entire life and I think that’s the ultimate thing it’s been for me, and I don’t like to harp on it. I just kind of want it out there because once it starts to affect my family, my wife and even today, my mom said something about it.”
This surely isn’t what he thought his homecoming would be like. And this isn’t to say that fans should be forced to only celebrate his play, or not be allowed to criticize some of the ways he’s made this a more awkward return than it needs to be. Of course not. But no one deserves death threats. Name-calling is unnecessary. Even if both have always happened in professional sports, that doesn’t make them right.
It’s one thing to not enjoy Westbrook as a basketball player, or to criticize his play. But the level of toxicity is clearly wearing on him and his family. If someone who has been screamed at by thousands on a near-nightly basis and dealt with as much media and online criticism as nearly any athlete of this era feels like what is happening right now has crossed a line — and enough of one to address it publicly and make themselves vulnerable to more critiques in the process — then maybe all of us need to think a bit about how we’re talking about Westbrook.
Maybe not for him. But at least for the names on his necklace.