On The Spectacles

by Carson Cistulli

Russell Westbrook and High Fashion
This past May, after he and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates dispatched handily of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game One of the Western Conference semifinals, point guard Russell Westbrook appeared at his post-game press conference dressed in a Lacoste Live shirt with a fish-hook print and red glasses frames sans lenses. This, in itself, wasn’t particularly unusual: Westbrook had been deploying similar looks all season. However, given the opponent (i.e. the Lakers) and the context (the Lakers had eliminated the Thunder in the previous year’s Western Conference Finals), the media contingent covering the game was larger, and perhaps less familiar with Westbrook, than usual.

Following a shoot-around the next day, Westbrook was talking to the press again. After several basketball-related questions with basketball-type answers, a reporter—one whose fashion sense could be described in full without using the words haute or couture even once—asked what many of the other assembled were likely thinking regarding Westbrook’s appearance from the night before.

“Now, why no lenses in the frames?”

To which question Westbrook replied without pause: “I see better without them.”

It is only with his tongue slightly in cheek that the present author submits that Westbrook’s response deserves some consideration so far as the World’s Great Ripostes are concerned.1

Moreover, Westbrook’s answer and the question which prompted it are instructive to the extent that they represent two schools of thought regarding the place of fashion in all of our lives. For the reporter and the demographic he represents—surely decent sorts, all of them, who love their families and pay their taxes in the timeliest of fashions—that a person would wear spectacles for any purpose other than to correct vision (or shade his eyes from the sun, perhaps) is curious. The nature of Westbrook’s response, on the other hand, recognizes implicitly and unflinchingly that it’s possible to do something merely for the intrinsic pleasure it provides—that something, in fact, might be pleasurable because it exists for no obvious reason or serves no express purpose.

It’s an instance of actual, real-live irony perhaps that a basketball writer might fail to see what delight might be derived from the whimsical or unnecessary. Basketball, as a game, is by definition unnecessary—literally, according to Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, who, in his 1938 work Homo Ludens (Latin for, roughly, Man at Play—as opposed to Home Faber, or Man at Work) endeavored to identify the traits that characterize ‘play’ in all its forms.

Among them? That play is not performed for a purpose, but on its own merits.

Writes Huizinga:

First and foremost, then, all play is a voluntary activity. Play to order is no longer play: it could at best be but a forcible imitation of it. By this quality of freedom alone, play marks itself off from the course of the natural process... Play is a function which [one] could equally well leave alone. Play is superfluous. The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need. Play can be deferred or suspended at any time. It is never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty. It is never a task. It is done at leisure, during “free time”... Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom.

Basketball (and other athletic games) are what are known as autotelic activities—that is, they exist for no other reason than to be enjoyed. Except for at the highest levels (where, admittedly, players are compensated handsomely), one does not use basketball as a means to a material end. Playing the game, competing within the order created by agreed-upon rules and clear boundaries, struggling to master oneself and one’s opponent—these are ends unto themselves.

It requires hardly any effort to see what relevance Huizinga’s conception of play might have to high fashion. If the world of high fashion and those who populate that world are occasionally criticized for something, it’s for a seeming frivolity, a taste for the indulgent—or, rephrased, for the unnecessary. While, in all but the very sexiest of municipalities, clothing of some manner is required— to the end of covering one’s vitalest of organs, at the very least— it is by choice that certain individuals (including some readers of this very publication, one assumes) look past the mere utility of their garments and regard the wearing of them as an opportunity for play.

It is both trite but also completely accurate to say that one’s look is both the product and expression of that person’s point of view. As in choosing not to vote in an election, the decision not to play at fashion is a choice in itself. It’s a choice that many people make, of course. And it’s certainly a choice that many athletes have made and continue to make.

“I just went out, played hard, and gave 110 percent.”

For anyone who’s ever watched even one courtside interview, that sentiment—if not precisely in those words, then at least in that spirit—will be wearily familiar.

Athletes are frequently derided for speaking in clichés, with some merit to the charge. However, criticisms of athletes in this vein are just as often misplaced—or, at the very least, leveled without an understanding of the whole context. For one thing, it’s frequently the case that the questions themselves to which an athlete is responding resist any sort of meaningful answer. To ask a small forward how he hit this or that shot is not entirely unlike asking a venture capitalist how he determined whether to invest in this or that asset or a skateboarder how he landed a particularly difficult trick. The honest answer to all three questions is something like, “By means of a combination of innate talent, years of training, and experience.” However, such a response would be considered churlish, rude. And so, for those moments when reporters ask such questions, athletes respond in kind from their stockpile of Accepted Clichés.

Beyond that, demanding eloquence from a professional athlete is patently unfair. To succeed at the highest level in any competitive sport requires a sort of single-mindedness and preparation alien to the common man and woman. To ask of a young athlete that, in addition to perfecting his body and its movements—to ask that he also perfect his speech—is unreasonable.

Westbrook, despite his penchant for levity, isn’t entirely immune to cliché himself. When I ask him—after his Flaunt shoot in a loft space in downtown Oklahoma City2—about the local media in Oklahoma City, he responds that they’re fine, but also makes a point to quickly steer the conversation in a less risky direction. “The fans have been the best,” he says. And reiterates: “We have the best fans in sports.” It’s hard not to get the impression that he’s said these words before—that they’re as automatic for him as “please” and “thank you” are for a child who’s been told to be polite.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that Westbrook has anything but a deep, abiding love for the people of Oklahoma City, who’ve certainly embraced him. In fact, Westbrook’s reluctance to hold forth on topics various and sundry isn’t without some justification. In reality, the incentive for an athlete to give a nuanced, thoughtful response to any media outlet is outweighed considerably by the possibility that said response—regardless of the speaker’s intent—could ultimately become the metaphorical rope by which his public image and livelihood is hanged. Says Westbrook to that effect: “These days, one thing can be misinterpreted for something else, so you’ve got be careful about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.”

Which is why Westbrook’s moment of ecstatic pith3 after that defeat of the Lakers merits further inspection—in particular, with regard to how it concerns his signature accessory, those glasses. For, while Westbrook is known to wear Comme Des Garcons and Prada with some frequency, it’s those lenseless frames that most expressly capture the spirit of his aesthetic.

If the reader will suffer briefly some armchair semiotics, I’ll suggest here that the symbolic possibilities of eyewear are particularly rich and numerous, especially insofar as deconstructing the capital-I Idea of Russell Westbrook is concerned. For it is spectacles that allow one both to—again, pardon me—both to see and be seen.

Being seen, of course, is a thing that’s become commonplace for Westbrook—including, recently and notably, at New York Fashion Week this past September. There, Westbrook attended shows by Billy Reid, Richard Chai, Lacoste, Zac Posen, and Ralph Rucci—the latter two in the company of Contributing Editor of Vogue and full-time arbiter elegantiarum André Leon Talley. (A ringing endorsement, that.)4 Given Westbrook’s very public enthusiasm for high fashion, it wouldn’t seem entirely unreasonable to suggest that Westbrook perhaps made a conscious decision to utilize his stage time during this past season’s press conferences to the end of promoting the idea of Russell Westbrook, Friend of Fashion. When I make that precise suggestion in Westbrook’s actual presence—especially so far as his postgame playoff exploits are concerned—he demures. “It’s fun,” he says, “but I never intended to make it a show. Other people made it that way. I was dressing like that for a long period of time. [Against the Lakers,] people were paying attention.”

People were indeed paying attention. In the wake of that Game One press conference, former NBA-er and centerpiece of TNT’s basketball coverage Charles Barkley was quick to comment on what he viewed as the absurdity of Westbrook’s look. Conan O’Brien ran multiple parodies on his show of NBA press conferences, starting with Westbrook and others and then featuring increasingly more outlandish styles. A Google search for “Russell Westbrook” + “press conference” elicits more results than the author of this piece would care to follow up on.

When I ask him about the collective response to his attire, Westbrook seems genuinely taken aback. “It was surprising,” he says, “because I never thought about that when I got dressed. Getting dressed, I never really think about what anybody else is going to say.”

If Westbrook’s notable press conferences have helped him, intentionally or not, establish his reputation as the NBA’s Most Fashionable Man, it’s worth noting that said press conferences would never have occurred were it not for the success of Westbrook and his Thunder teammates. Nor would his flourishes be tolerated (to the degree that they are tolerated) by the sporting community were the Thunder a losing group of losers. Fortunately for all involved, the Thunder are good. Like, real good. And young. And exciting.

When a group of Oklahoma City investors, led by OKC native Clayton Bennett, purchased the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006, they did so with the understanding that they’d make a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle. To what extent they did or didn’t make that effort has been the subject not just of idle speculation but also an actual legal battle that ended up in a federal court before the two sides settled.

The Thunder, née Sonics, arrived in Oklahoma City with mostly just mediocrity in their recent past. Apart from a few playoff appearances in the meantime, the organization had failed to approximate its success from the mid-90s, when Gary Payton and the lithe, athletic version of Shawn Kemp were plying their trade.

Their fortunes improved, however, almost instantly upon relocation. Having already acquired uber-scorer Kevin Durant out of Texas in the 2007 draft, the Thunder took Westbrook fourth overall out of UCLA in 2008, and then shooting guard James Harden, from Arizona State, with the third pick in 2009. With that power triumvirate supplemented by a well-devised complementary cast, the Thunder went from mediocre to respectable to Western Conference Champions in a matter of three years. In the meantime, the team became a vital part of one of America’s most prosperous, if not necessarily most cultured, mid-sized cities.

The Roman poet Martial, though known (so far as he is known) for his humorous invectives, first gained notoriety for a long poem (from ca. 80 AD) celebrating the opening of the Colosseum by Titus. “De Spectaculis”—or, literally, On the Spectacles—eulogizes the Colosseum’s earliest moments: the more than 100 days of games, the lions eating all manner of gladiating convicts, the teeming masses gathered together to celebrate their Roman-ness.

Were Martial to be reanimated in present day Oklahoma City—well, that would be super weird. But if he were reanimated in present-day Oklahoma City and also commissioned to write a poem with aims not unlike the one he wrote in honor of the Colosseum two millenia earlier, it turns out he’d be able to use the better part of his original text. While home only to two consecutive days of games at most and the site of almost zero deaths-by-lion, the Chesapeake Energy Arena, like its Roman predecessor, is a home to spectacle.  As the venue for the city’s only major-league team, the Arena is the one true gathering place for the citizens of Oklahoma City to celebrate their Oklahoma-hood. And, so far as the present author can tell, Oklahomans really like being from Oklahoma. At no point is this more evident than on the night following Westbrook’s shoot for Flaunt, when the Thunder played host to the Houston Rockets.

Besides being something of a regional rival (despite its 400-mile distance from OKC, Houston is the second-closest NBA city by car), Houston is now also home to the aforementioned Harden, one of the team’s main contributors from the Thunder’s recent playoff runs. Despite starting only seven games in three years as a member of the Thunder, Harden was up for a considerable raise when he hit free agency at the end of the 2012–13 season—a raise that the Thunder would have been unable to afford under the league’s salary structure at the time. Recognizing that, general manager Sam Presti traded Harden to the Rockets, for whom (as of this late-November game) he’s already the team’s leading scorer.

Tonight’s game represents Harden’s first game back since his departure, and the crowd is electric ahead of tip-off. The pregame festivities are, in the parlance of the Internet, an “Oklahoma’d” version of those in the league’s other 29 stadia. First, a video montage plays on the arena’s center-court scoreboard, including all or most of the state’s assorted water towers. Then, a real-live local preacher stands at mid-court and delivers a real-live benediction (one which includes the words “His only son” among other similar invocations of Jesus of Nazareth). Then, a buffalo-shaped mascot whips the fans into a frothy mess by beating rhythmically and with ever-increasing passion on a bass drum.

When the crowd continues to stand even after the first couple possessions, I ask the season-ticket holder next to me why that is. “We don’t sit until the first score for the home team,” he says.

Just minutes later, Westbrook finds himself at the center of everything. Less than halfway into the first quarter, Houston guard Daequan Cook takes and misses a three-pointer. The ball bounces off the back of the rim, right into the hands of Harden, who goes up right away with a jumpshot from the foul line. Except, as it turns out, he never gets the shot off. For, just as the ball is leaving his fingertips, it’s directed by means of a vicious swat from behind. Russell Westbrook has rushed back after recognizing the offensive rebound and knocked the ball out of Harden’s hands from behind.

The crowd goes wild. “What a spectacle,” no one says—although, it would have been ideal if they had, for the sake of a meaningful conclusion.