Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook has been the topic of much conversation during these NBA playoffs, and for the most part, it hasn’t been regarding his play.
The issue? Westbrook’s responses — or, non-responses — to questions asked by The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel during his postgame media availability sessions.
Westbrook has been stonewalling Tramel for quite some time (Tramel wrote an article about it earlier this month, saying Westbrook wants “control” and that his issue is “with media in general”), but the national spotlight is shining much brighter now that it’s the postseason and players are asked questions in a press conference setting, which is often broadcast live.
Westbrook slightly altered his “next question” approach following his team’s Game 4 loss Sunday to go down 3-1 in their first-round series with Portland, but his message remained the same.
The league hasn’t issued a fine or discipline to Westbrook, as he’s still performing his media obligations by showing up, not using inappropriate language or criticizing officials, and so on. But the optics, as many members of the NBA community see it, aren’t good.
“I just feel that we have to be very careful as a league,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per The Athletic. “We’re in a good place right now. Very popular. Fans love the game, the social dynamic, the fashion. But more than anything they love the connection they feel to the players. I think it’s important for the players to understand that it’s a key dynamic to this league. I don’t think this is a healthy dynamic, for this league, for any player, any team, any local media, any national media.
“It’s all part of the business,” Kerr said. “You’ve got to feed information to the fans. You don’t have to give a great answer, but it’s dangerous when you go down that path of no communication because one of the reasons people like the league right now is we have a lot of great players, really good guys who handle themselves well. So don’t kill that. You’ve got to keep that going. That’s a big part of the business.”
The NBA on TNT crew — ex-players Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and sportscaster Ernie Johnson — also weighed in on the topic during a segment on Sunday.
“First of all, that’s unprofessional,” Barkley said. “Part of our job is to talk to the press. We don’t make $30-40 million just to play basketball. People are gonna interrupt you when you have dinner. You have to sign autographs. You have to take pictures. Some of the other stuff is talking to the press. Russ has got to do better. Russ is a great dude. And just because a reporter says something bad about you, you don’t get the right to just say ‘next question.’ “
Smith then shared a personal account of a similar situation during his playing days with the Houston Rockets.
“There was a reporter, Fran Blinebury, and he had wrote an article, and I didn’t appreciate the article,” Smith said. “So I decided I wouldn’t talk to him. I said, ‘I didn’t appreciate the article.’ Maybe six months into it, I would not talk to this guy, and then I realized I was wrong. I did realize I was wrong, in this sense: It’s his job to write his opinion. Because I don’t agree with his opinion doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to talk to him. I can then express my opinion, and then I can have it out.”
O’Neal took a different stance.
“I’m gonna disagree with both of y’all, because I was Russell Westbrook — sensitive, and if I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t have to talk to you,” O’Neal said. “Our job is to talk to the media. I don’t have to talk to one particular guy. Media is media members like four or five. … A lot of guys (in the media) try to get personal and try to be cute and try to get their followers … so if you’re sticking to the facts, ‘Hack-a-Shaq, he can’t shoot,’ I ain’t got no problem. But once you try to get personal and start doing that, man to man, I don’t have to talk to you as a man if I don’t want to talk to you.”
Westbrook and the Thunder head back to Portland for Game 5 on Tuesday, and a loss would mark Oklahoma City’s third consecutive first-round playoff exit.