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How Russell Westbrook turned a childhood tragedy into MVP triumph

On Friday September 29th, 2017 Russell Westbrook signed the most lucrative contract extension in NBA history. It’s a worthy prize for a player that is one of the hardest and most determined workers in the league.

There was so much noise after Kevin Durant left OKC for Golden State last summer. The Thunder wouldn’t be able to compete, they’d ruined one of the greatest young cores ever with bad management, Westbrook couldn’t thrive without Durant.

All Westbrook did in the absence of Durant was win the MVP while averaging a triple-double, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since the 60s.

What makes Russell Westbrook so special is his myopic focus to be the best. That focus is what made the Thunder legitimate competitors last year despite losing the best basketball player on the planet. That focus means he’s ready to keep going. He told reporters after he signed his new contract,

“My focus never shifted. I mean, obviously I didn’t talk to you guys, so you guys were kind of making up your own assumptions, but my focus never changed. For me, you know, taking my time, family is the most important thing to me, and that’s what I was focused on. When it’s time to focus on basketball I do that, and that’s it.”

But this focus was also borne out of tragedy.

Westbrook made a pact with Khelcy Barrs, his high school teammate and best friend growing up, to go to UCLA and then play in the NBA. Barrs was actually a better prospect than Westbrook while they were in high school. But Barrs died suddenly at the age of 16 after a pick up game due to an enlarged heart.

This drove Russell to go even harder, to live out his dream for both himself and his late friend.

Chris “Ghetto Bird” Young, a Los Angeles basketball legend and former assistant at Westbrook’s high school told Vice Sports earlier this year about the impact of Barrs’ death on Westbrook,

“Russell is living his dream for his friend. I believe Khelcey’s energy is in Russell, pushing him to be the MVP of the NBA…. The situation with Khelcey, I’m almost 100 percent sure that even tonight, even today, that happening gives him that extra drive, that extra push. It will never allow him to quit, just because of that.”

Russell Westbrook has gone from a tweener, defense-only guard to a historically great player in the NBA. And to this day, Westbrook is playing for the memory of his late best friend.