This story appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
You think Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook draws a crowd when he dribbles past half-court? You haven’t seen him shopping in SoHo.
Sorting through racks of ripped jeans and graphic tees at Topman in lower Manhattan in March, Westbrook—sporting a full gray Adidas sweat suit, fresh off a flight from Oklahoma City to New York City—is focused, calmly tuning out the gathering group of photo-grabbing, Snapchatting fans. It’s almost as though he’s dealt with similar distractions in, say, an opponent’s arena, with a crowd of 20,000 around him.
He slithers between the maze of mannequins and stacked shelves, stopping to find his size, when an item catches his eye. (His 6' 3", 200-pound chiseled frame easily fits into off-the-rack styles.) First he pulls a black-gray-and-white ombré bomber jacket. Then a pair of Levis jeans with patches sewn haphazardly on both legs. Like a scientist in a lab examining a test tube, Westbrook holds up the hanger in front of him, studying the fit and visualizing his next look. He shrugs, and adds the jeans to the “yes” pile developing in his hand.
This is the two-word mantra by which he shops, but also by which he practices, plays, walks, talks, dresses and eats. It’s the phrase he wears on an orange silicone bracelet on his wrist. It’s the phrase that helped him reap the 2017 MVP award after averaging a triple double, a feat no NBA player had achieved since Oscar Robertson in 1961–62, while piling up a record 42 of them. It’s the phrase that appears in the name of his charity organization, the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation. It’s the phrase he hashtags on his Instagram posts, which often show off his unorthodox attire.
“It goes across so many things, not just in fashion but your whole self,” says Westbrook. “It’s so important to remember to be yourself, regardless of what others think.”
Wondering what happened to those Levis jeans? When Westbrook exited onto the SoHo streets, trailed by a pack of fans, the denim was one of a few items in his shopping bag. One month later, in Houston, he arrived to Game 2 in the first round of the playoffs wearing them, paired with a black-and-white patterned, short-sleeve shirt— buttoned only once, near the bottom towards his waistline—and accessorized with sunglasses and a black bandanna. He calculated every detail of the outfit, down to the silver chains dangling onto his bare chest.
“I wear a combination of everything,” he says matter-of-factly. “I go with what I’m feeling and with what looks good, regardless of how much it is. I want to show people across the world that you don’t always have to wear high-end. Whatever it is, you can still be fashionable.”
If Westbrook’s tastes don’t earn universal praise from fashion critics, among his NBA peers he draws high marks for boldness. Most cite the way he plays first, then follow with a mention of his elevated style game. “I think it’s a direct reflection of who he is,” says Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, No. 9 on the 2017 Fashionable 50 list. “He just goes hard 100%, crashing into you. He’s wild. But it works on the court. He gets it done. I’m a fan of him, and his fashion.”
“He’s just killing it, in his own way,” says Bears wide receiver Victor Cruz, SI’s most fashionable athlete in 2016. “For him, it’s just: Why can’t I wear that? Why should I be pigeonholed into one thing? Why can’t I average a triple double throughout the entire season? There’s nothing that he feels like he can’t do, and that just embodies his entire persona. And it makes for great fashion.”
Closing in a decade as a pro, the 28-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., has become a lot of things. A record breaker. A statistical anomaly. A fashion icon. A clothing designer. And most recently, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
It seems as if he’s come a long way from the 5' 8", 140-pound freshman who was cut from Leuzinger High varsity. But really, his indelible worldview—and the accomplishments that have come with it—started back then, when Westbrook and his friends adopted it to help them stay positive and find a way out of inner-city Los Angeles.