The Monolith, Reconsidered

“Salieri pours poison into Mozart’s glass,” Mikhail Vrubel

The popular perception of Antonio Salieri, if the stage and film versions of Amadeus are to be believed, is that he was the unforgiving rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man who championed the Austrian composer publicly while attempting to derail his career privately, like a southbound A train without a supportive governor for assistance. The film, of course, used poetic license to an extreme in the cases of both Salieri and Mozart, suggesting that, while there was some sense of rivalry, there was also a begrudging respect, manifested in the fact that Salieri conducted a handful of Mozart’s works both while the composer was alive and afterward.

A physical specimen of uncommon stature, even by 2017 standards, Russell Westbrook is not the prototypical NBA player. He stands at a modest 6’3” and weighs an everyman-esque 200 pounds[1], yet he in his 6’3”, 200-pound frame has done more in an athletic context, pound for pound, than perhaps anyone else (a) not playing upper echelon European soccer, (b) not an NFL quarter- or halfback, if that counts, or (c) named Allen Iverson[2]. On Monday night, for his efforts this past season, one which was forgotten in June but will never, ever be forgotten, Westbrook was awarded this season’s Most Valuable Player.

The last I wrote of this, in April, I figured that Oklahoma City’s talisman stood a punching chance, but the votes had not yet been tabulated on Twitter or a blog, via somebody’s eagle eye blog-watching. In April, as it was in March[3], as it was in December, the MVP race included four, equally deserving gentlemen, each the shining beacons of hope in the blinding light of the Golden State Warriors’ newfound appreciation for ruthless basketball endgames. Westbrook, along with James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, could each have taken the MVP trophy from Adam Silver on Monday night.

Yet, it was Westbrook who had to hand it back, his list of benefactors too long for him to shoulder. When the name of a divisive, inefficient point guard who’d just averaged a triple-double rolled out of Silver’s mouth, a simultaneously expected and unexpected sigh of relief joined along with the final syllable. When the recipient, after hugging family and confidants and approaching the stage in a by-his-standards muted shirt and tie, asked for the commissioner of the NBA to retake possession of that which belonged to him, it was the first time this year that any of us had seen Westbrook look for genuine help.

That a dedicated follower of fashion showed up to an awards show in such a subdued outfit speaks volumes with regard to his chances in receiving the final award of the night[4]. He knew what we all knew, but confidence is something that belongs to the self and can only be manifested in what we believe is success, in the end. Everything else? Failure, in tolerable amounts.

We all know how I feel about Westbrook at this point. Watching him in person is an unparalleled visceral experience, and the man demands your attention, whether you are willing to lend it or not. But then, he doesn’t really care if he gets it at all; his commitment to excellence extends only so far as his team’s success, which is problematic because it comes at the perceived expense of his teammates. It’s a shame to watch a man repeatedly attempt to scale a mountain, only to tear it down with the edge of his hand and rebuild it before you, only to worry about the wholesalers who signed supply-side contracts with him.

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Courtesy of Sporting News

The 2016-’17 season belonged to Russell Westbrook, and anybody who denies it is either trying waaaaaaay too hard to make those very mountains out of quinoa[5] or is putting forth a good faith effort to watch you (me) get unnecessarily angry in the midst of a city summer. Tell me everything that averaging a triple-double over the course of a season implies, and I’ll tell you everything a team of the Thunder’s modest caliber, without a player of Westbrook’s caliber doing so, can even remotely achieve in today’s NBA.

Yes, all of this is possible because Kevin Durant left, and yes, Westbrook owes a tremendous amount to the people around him[6] who cleared the way for his antics – he said as much in his speech and even called his teammates up to the stage to stand behind him as he received the award, as they did all season. So what? Every MVP is valuable on account of his teammates, on account of his opponents, on account of his fiercest rivals and harshest critics. Go on Twitter, fight the good fight and be declared, resoundingly, the winner: there, you just became the Real MVP.

A story goes that Salieri’s father chastised him in his youth for not greeting a priest with proper respect; a story now goes that Westbrook chastises Oklahoma City youth for not tying their shoes correctly before deboarding a bus. Russ surely respects Durant, despite what the latter did to him; in kind, Durant recognizes Russ’ game, and he said as much in his own MVP speech.

All of which brings us to a pivotal moment in Westbrook’s season, when he had choice words for Durant during a Thunder loss to the Warriors in their first exchange since the Slim Reaper left for Golden State: “I’m comin’.” Perhaps those words weren’t meant for Kevin Durant, NBA MVP. Perhaps they were meant for the NBA MVP itself, something which no one – not Durant, nor Harden, nor the media, nor his detractors – can take away now. Russell Westbrook is the 2016-’17 National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player.

*     *     *

[1] Both are listed figures, it demands to be noted.

[2] For the NBA fashionista record, Walt Frazier was listed at 6’4”.

[3] When I declared, unequivocally, that “barring a drastic downturn or something otherwise catastrophic, James Harden will be the NBA MVP,” after unilaterally deciding on Westbrook as the MVP prior to the season, like the Doubting Thomas I’ve always begrudgingly aspired to be.

[4] Which, by the way: the first inaugural NBA awards show was just fine and included a killer Bill Russell moment, but it should’ve happened just after the end of the regular season and before the playoffs. Momentum is momentum is momentum is momentum is–

[5] Healthy, efficient, effective: Leonard and Harden, with an incomparable side of LeBron.

[6] *whispers, in the dead of the night, to the cadence of a Thelonious Monk tune: “And to Durant himself, who congratulated Westbrook afterward”*

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