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The Rebirth of Thunder Basketball: A Bond Between Stars Provides New Hope in OKC

At this time last year, Paul George was determined to return home when he hit free agency. But after a season with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder he realized that, while L.A. is where he is from, Oklahoma City is where he belongs.

This story appears in the October 22, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Before Paul George could register what had happened, he was greeted on his phone by the toothy grin of Russell Westbrook. A trade had made them teammates—shocking the league and George, too. The idea of playing in Oklahoma City had never occurred to him. Cleveland, maybe, though talks between the Pacers and the Cavs had stalled. Other contending teams were wary. The only reason George was available was that his agent had informed the Pacers of his intention to leave the team in free agency the following summer, in 2018. Executives around the NBA assumed that George, a Southern California native, was angling his way to the Lakers at the first opportunity. 

They were right. 

“I wanted to go back home,” George says. Home meant Palmdale, which meant Los Angeles, which meant the team of his basketball idol, Kobe Bryant. George dreamed in purple and gold, but he was reasonable enough to consider his alternatives. “If that didn’t work,” he adds, “I absolutely wouldn’t have minded playing for the Clippers.”

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The Thunder were never part of the plan. Yet here was Westbrook, the reigning MVP, hosting a personal FaceTime welcome party. George promised his new teammate that he would come to the Thunder with an open mind, and 359 days later, George took the stage in suburban Oklahoma alongside his firebrand point guard. “If y’all didn’t quite get it, let me say it again,” George told a crowd of Thunder loyalists. “I’m here to stay.” Westbrook leaned in toward the roaring crowd with one foot on a speaker, a hand cupped to his ear. 

By the time 2018 free agency officially began, George and Westbrook were already deep into their cigars. 

News that George had agreed to a four-year, $137 million contract traveled fast, though not to Thunder center Steven Adams. “I don’t keep up with that s---, mate,” Adams says. “I’m f------ terrible. I just show up and whoever’s on the team, cool.” Andre Roberson, who was in L.A. rehabbing from a ruptured patellar tendon, learned of George’s decision the same way most of the basketball world did: through Instagram clips and the media reports that followed. “Unfortunately,” Roberson says sheepishly. 

Thunder reserve guard Raymond Felton, however, had learned enough about George over dinners and card games and long flights to see the effect the organization had had on him. “I knew how he felt about playing with Russ,” Felton says. Consider the gravity of that statement: When Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors in 2016, he traded one superstar point guard for another. He traded scowls for shimmies, headlong drives for effortless threes. Westbrook had looked Durant in the eye that summer and asked him how he could change. On July 4, Durant’s move carried with it his truthful response: I don’t think you can. 

Westbrook has danced on the third rail ever since. Every flare-up in the heat of a game is psychoanalyzed. Every shot he takes—and there are many—invites academic review, down to the degree of every passing angle not taken. Former teammates Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have gone on to new opportunities, and their successes with the Pacers blow back on Westbrook like a northerly wind. So charged was Westbrook’s play that it brought scrutiny to the very concept of a triple double. It made a controversy of counting to 10.

Yet when the time came to decide his future, George didn’t hesitate to sign up for four more years of the Russell Westbrook experience. “I understand him,” George says. A year before, he didn’t. Both Westbrook and George spend their offseason in Los Angeles, but George knew Westbrook only as a star, a competitor and the subject of chatter. “He was a mystery to me before I came here,” George said. “You just hear so much.” 

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Through the noise, he met the man. It was Westbrook who had called him the night of the trade to share his excitement, which George reciprocated. It was Westbrook who came to meet him when he first arrived in Oklahoma City, who talked with him late into the night, as the lights blinked out on the city’s humble skyline. It was Westbrook who came to the fishing tournament George hosted in L.A. before they had ever played a game together; who pored over film to find how he could best accommodate George; who wanted, honestly, to connect. “Once you get an opportunity to hang, P can understand a little bit about me, and not just see me from a distance like everyone else,” Westbrook says. “He gets an opportunity to see who I am. What I’m about.” 

This was always part of the gambit for the Thunder, who understand that their appeal as a franchise is best seen from the inside. George admits that he would not have come here as a free agent. Oklahoma City seemed too small, too similar to Indianapolis. 

George needed to see firsthand what his arrival meant to the organization. He had to get in a room with Westbrook to understand that there was more to his new teammate than high-strung play and seething vendettas. “If you’re playing against him, he’s not friendly,” George says. “He’s not gonna come up and talk to you. He’s not gonna say, ‘How was your night?’ He’s not gonna shake your hand after the game. That’s not Russ.” 

For Westbrook, the team is a sacred construct. There is a bright line between those who wear a Thunder uniform and those who do not; crossing it is the difference between Westbrook’s unconditional support and his refusal to acknowledge your existence. It would have been easy, in light of recent defections, for Westbrook to close himself off. The Thunder staked their future on the idea that he wouldn’t. Westbrook, after all, never was one for change.

Westbrook joined the Thunder before they were the Thunder, when the team facility was still just a blueprint and their jerseys mere concept art. The only way he knows how to build is from the ground up, so that’s where he started with George. “You’ve gotta learn,” Westbrook says. “Learn about their family. Their journeys, what they’ve been through, what they’ve learned, their mistakes. You’ve gotta sit down and have a conversation and understand a little bit about them. Then, the basketball stuff will come easy.”