The real story behind Paul George’s return to OKC

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Oct. 29 NBA Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

It’s a Tuesday in late June, and all over Oklahoma City, email inboxes are about to catch fire. When the subject line “Russell Westbrook’s Summer Hype House Party” hits the accounts of Thunder season-ticket holders, prominent local businesspeople and other connected fans, only the first 500 to click on a link will get on the RSVP list for the June 30 event. The final line of the invite reads, “The FOMO will be real.”

Word of the party starts circulating around Oklahoma City immediately, with most people curious — and confused. The invitation is vague; no address is included, and it won’t be sent to confirmed guests until 24 hours before the party. Invitees are told they can bring three other guests, but some of them must sign a nondisclosure agreement. No media allowed.

But most of all, the timing is … odd. The party is happening just a few days later — the night before free agency opens. There is already a growing buzz around Oklahoma City that Westbrook’s teammate Paul George is leaning toward signing another deal, but this party invite intensifies the hype: There has to be more to this.

Four days later, at a sprawling mansion in an OKC suburb, Westbrook walks onto a stage set up in a spacious backyard in front of the crowd. When the cheering subsides, he takes the microphone and says he wants to introduce a surprise guest.

“I want you to give him a real Oklahoma City welcome,” Westbrook says. “He’s been here for a year, but … you know.”

George, who has walked onstage to Westbrook’s left, lifts his microphone.

“Oklahoma!” he screams. Westbrook struts to the front of the stage, setting a foot on one of the monitors and cupping his hand to his ear. “If y’all didn’t quite get it,” George continues, “let me say it again: I’m here to stay. I’m here to stay.”

George pauses to let the screams and shrieks settle.

“I think what me and this dude can accomplish, we can bring it home,” he says. “I just want to thank y’all for this night, for welcoming me with open arms from the first day I got here. Showing me the love, showing my family the love. Oklahoma, y’all truly made a big impact on me. I’m happy to give this a real shot.”

PLANNING THE SUMMER Hype House Party didn’t take a week, or a month. It took a whole year. After the Thunder traded for George in July 2017, the front office knew exactly how much time it had to help George visualize a future with the franchise, and it wasn’t wasting a minute of it. Most pundits and suits around the league saw the George acquisition as a one-year rental. The Thunder saw a one-year opportunity. They were going to be intentional, direct, honest and transparent. Their plan wasn’t just blatant recruitment, though. If other teams would approach his long-term signing as if they were trying to sell George a car, the Thunder would disassemble the entire thing and hope he’d marvel at all the intricate parts that make it run.

So on July 11, 2017, George steps off a private plane and is greeted by his new coach, Billy Donovan, and Thunder GM Sam Presti, the man who had traded for him 10 days earlier. He sidesteps his way down the stairs and sees hundreds of fans pressed against a chain-link fence, holding signs and giant cutouts of his face and chanting his name. A drum line bangs away at snares and cymbals as music thumps from someone’s car in the parking lot. George waves to the crowd and shakes hands with Thunder officials, then a deep-blue billboard with popping white letters hovering behind one of the hangars catches his eye.

We Only Play One Way: To Win.

Like everything else that is to come in the next 48 hours, the placement of that billboard — along with the others on his route downtown and the scrolling marquee by his hotel that read “Hi Paul, lace up — practice in 5” — was thoughtfully planned, the wording pored over in meetings. The Thunder call it “onboarding” when they bring a new player to the organization, but this is something else. Within hours of trading for George, they had set objectives for his first days in Oklahoma: They intended to reset the conversation and shift away from the single-season mindset.

At a casual dinner that night on the roof of the Ambassador Hotel in Midtown — the menu of fried chicken and mac and cheese inspired by George’s social media posts about his love of Roscoe’s — George and his family get to know all the Thunder stakeholders, from owner Clay Bennett to, of course, the team’s star, Westbrook. The setting is intentionally loose. They don’t want a dinner hall with Westbrook’s and George’s names on placards placed next to each other. They want it to feel natural.

The expectation is that everything will wrap up around 10 p.m., but that deadline comes and goes, with George and Westbrook hanging out on the rooftop until midnight. They know each other a little, having both grown up in Southern California and played together with USA Basketball, but there is no prior relationship. That first night, they talk about family and kids, about their favorite football teams and about the upcoming Mayweather-McGregor fight. Around 1 a.m., they finally shut it down. Westbrook, in town just for the night, has a 6 a.m. flight back to Los Angeles. George has another full day ahead — a tour of Oklahoma City and the Thunder’s practice facility, fishing and four-wheeling outside of the city, and a welcome party with fans (and more fried chicken, of course).

“Honestly, I never felt like I was being recruited,” George says now. “It all felt genuine, it felt authentic. I felt that was just how they operated.”

By the time his first OKC training camp opens, George is already talking about the Thunder checking boxes and how impressed he is with the environment. A few days into camp, Westbrook signs a five-year extension keeping him with the franchise through the prime of his career.

George is asked whether that would factor into his future decision.

“Absolutely,” he says. “When that time comes, the decision will be easier to make.”

AND YET: 20 games in, their first season together isn’t going well. The Thunder are four games under .500, and all the pleading for patience as they work out the new lineup is beginning to run thin. There are a lot of problems, but at the core is a simple issue: Westbrook isn’t playing well. He is coming off a late-summer procedure on his right knee, but he is also strikingly indecisive and hesitant — two things he is defined by not being. He seems to be overcompensating to make sure he, George and Carmelo Anthony are all on the same plane.

His concerns about the mix are not unfounded: Plenty of former teammates have privately grumbled about Westbrook’s playing style, their frustrations centered on his stubbornness and single-minded approach. He wants to win more than anyone on the court, but his desire to win can complicate the outcome. This is the crux of the For Russ/Against Russ debate.

“It wasn’t always fun,” one former teammate says. “The first few years [I played with him], it was. But things got more and more out of control.”

The Thunder routinely rank at the bottom of the league in any ball movement stat of choice — passes per game, hockey assists, isolations, etc. Personnel have changed through the years, coaches have changed, but Westbrook is the constant. Some free agents the Thunder pursued in 2013 and 2014, such as Mike Miller and Pau Gasol, questioned what their future would look like in OKC with a ball-dominant player like Westbrook. The team attempted to reform its offense a number of times, each iteration dissolving at some point in the season as the gravity of Westbrook eventually swallowed it.

But this time, George is open to finding his role within the Russell Westbrook Experience. At the end of November, after three straight losses have dropped the Thunder’s record to 8 — 12, he urges Westbrook to start playing like Westbrook — no matter what it means for George’s stat line.

“My thing is, I like if I go on that court and there’s a guy I don’t have to worry about,” George says. “He’s going to bring it. When I look at Zero, I have no worries that night about what I’m gonna get out of him. I know he’s gonna bring it, he’s going to give everything he has. I like that. That motivates me, that pushes me, that keeps me going.”

Soon Westbrook starts to play like Westbrook.

In a wonderful, terrible, incredible, horrible mid-December game against Philly that drags into triple overtime, Westbrook scores 14 of OKC’s 25 points in the three extra periods, but he also misses more shots than George or Anthony even attempts. He plays 52 minutes and leads the team in basically every box score category, with the game, typically, hinging on him doing something very good, or very bad, when it counts. With less than 10 seconds left, Westbrook lingers with the ball near the elbow, drawing Joel Embiid from the restricted area just enough to hit a cutting Andre Roberson for two of his four points. Westbrook finishes with a 27-point, 17-rebound, 15-assist triple-double and caps the 119-117 win by waving Embiid off the floor.

Westbrook’s volatility is one of his greatest traits; it’s also one of his worst. His unpredictability makes him special; it also can hold him back. It’s why there are some players who want to play with him and some who prefer to stay against him. He doesn’t always make the game easier for his teammates by serving up rhythm shots, instead raising their level by sparking their competitive juices.

George doesn’t run away from the idea that there’s a learning curve to playing with Westbrook, or that some players might not want to do so. But it’s also not something exclusive to Westbrook, he says.

“You could say that about a lot of guys,” George says. “LeBron is the best player in our league, but some people have a hard time playing with him. One thing you can’t say about Russ is that he’s not ready or he’s not prepared. That’s him every night.”

And George is up for the challenge of matching him. By January, he has planted himself in the middle of Defensive Player of the Year conversations, switching his focus as Westbrook continues to shoulder the offensive load. George and Westbrook rank 1-2 in steals. George is first in deflections and third in defensive win shares.

It’s not a coincidence that the Thunder have also started winning.

IN EARLY JANUARY, Westbrook is standing on a practice court at UCLA named after him when he’s asked whether he is already planning his sales pitch for George. “Sales pitch is gonna be when we win a championship,” he says. “Beat that pitch.”

If you’re still wading through the 2017-18 season on your DVR, spoiler alert: The Thunder will not win the championship. After going 22 — 9 in December and January, during Westbrook’s renaissance and George’s transition, they fade the rest of the season. A three-way tiebreaker hands them the fourth seed and home court in the first round, but OKC falls to the Jazz in six games, eliminated in a game in which Westbrook attempts 43 shots to score 46 points and George finishes with five points on 2-of-16 shooting.

The game before, Westbrook and George had sparked a miraculous rally, bringing the Thunder back from 25 down. They scored 37 straight points together and 60 of the Thunder’s final 67. With Anthony benched for the comeback, it was a snapshot of what the chemistry could create, the perfect balance of control and chaos. In the rare time that it was a good thing, it felt as if Westbrook and George were the only two players the Thunder needed.

But then they are out, another first-round exit, and in his desperation to win, Westbrook provides rival executives the alternative pitch: Why would anyone want to play with that guy?

Sure, plenty of Westbrook’s teammates, current and former, swear by his competitiveness and passion. “I think guys like playing in that environment,” one NBA agent says. “I have not had anyone that’s complained about [Westbrook]. He’s a good guy and a good teammate.”

“Russ raises the bar,” another player says, “but it’s not for everyone.”

Westbrook is plenty familiar with the narrative. And he is determined that it be different with George.

From the beginning, George represented a second chance for the Thunder and their star-crossed MVP — a chance to put to rest the conversation started in the wake of the summer of 2016, the time of Kevin Durant’s defection. The consequences of George leaving would be colossal for the franchise — a complete teardown would likely follow. But for Westbrook, who put himself out there for George, his reputation is hanging in the balance: George couldn’t be another star player in his prime leaving because he can’t play with Westbrook — with that 43-attempt performance ushering him out of town.

It is something George considers, of course. But he also sees the good that comes from Westbrook’s abrasive behavior.

“You’ve got guys in the league that have that — I would say ‘a–hole’ in them that people think Russ has,” George says. “And that’s fine. That’s fine to be an a–hole. You should be an a–hole at some point. The difference is, you’ve got guys that are a–holes that don’t care to be your teammate. Russ is going to be there, regardless if he’s getting on you, if he’s chewing you out. If it’s something he feels he needs to address with you, he’s going to do it. But he’s going to be your teammate at the end of the day. He’s going to have your back, he’s going to stand his ground and he’s going to go to war with you. After, he’s going to laugh, he’s going to joke — that’s Russ. He’s a different type of teammate.”

Now all George has to decide is whether it is the type of teammate he wants.

WITH A BLACK mask wrapped tightly around his face and a black tactical vest strapped across his torso, Westbrook crouches behind a rusted conversion van and motions to George. Westbrook leans against the van, paintball gun held by his waist, and peers out. George glides past his right flank, moving up to an old windowless transport bus.

“You right here?” George asks.

“Yeah, watch ’em!” Westbrook says, moving up next to George. “Right around the corner.”

Westbrook straightens up, looking through the windows of the bus, and fires a couple of shots. Seeing his chance, George steps out and opens fire.

“Got ’em!” he yells. “You out! You out!”

It is early May, a few weeks after the Thunder have been eliminated from the playoffs and almost two months until free agency opens. Westbrook and George are at Hollywood Sports Park in Los Angeles, paintballing to celebrate George’s 28th birthday.

George knows a different Westbrook than other players who came through OKC do. He got to know a 29-year-old Westbrook, married with a son, accomplished in the NBA as an MVP and seven-time All-Star. Those who have spent time around Westbrook over the years rave about his growth in maturity and leadership, a significant spike in the line graph coming after Durant left. George didn’t meet the 23-year-old Westbrook, the one hell-bent on proving to the world he was an elite player who belonged.

This paintball outing never would have happened with that version of Westbrook — on-court chemistry was only one factor in his fallout with Durant. Especially in their younger days, Durant was a socializer, wanting to go out on the road or have teammates over to play video games. Westbrook has always been more of a homebody. Durant left the Thunder for a lot of reasons, but somewhere on that list were the feelings of isolation he got from Westbrook.

From the very beginning, it was important to Westbrook that this time be different. Way back in August, at George’s inaugural charity fishing tournament in northern LA, Westbrook was there, fishing for the first time in his life, sitting out on Castaic Lake in a boat for an entire day in support of George.

“As a young guy, I’m not sure both of us would’ve meshed well,” George says. “I had to learn a lot about being a better teammate, about being a better person, so I think we came together at a good time.”

Westbrook and George share a lot of common ground — both Southern Cal kids, both lightly recruited to college, both doubted as lottery picks, both self-made stars. They come from two-parent homes with tight-knit siblings and stable support systems. But what makes them work, George says, is that they’re so different.

“It’s yin and yang, honestly,” he says. “I’m the exact opposite of what Russ is, but I just know what I bring and what I can help him with, and it’s vice versa. I know how much he helps me and how much he opens the game up for me. To be out there with a guy like that, man, he’s a winner. He wants to win and doesn’t care about nothing else.”

A MONTH AFTER that paintball game, Westbrook is on vacation with his family in Hawaii, making plans for the house party. He has input for the guest list, picks out the menu and decorations. He chooses Nas to perform.

Meanwhile, Presti, Donovan and a small group of Thunder staffers spend time with George at his home in Los Angeles. Presti talks about George leading the next era of Thunder basketball, building a legacy and leading them forward in tandem with Westbrook to heights they’ve never reached. George talks about being on a mission with Westbrook and their combined desire to win a championship together. “A lot of it,” George says now of Westbrook’s impact on his decision to stay, “was I liked our chemistry, I liked what he brings to the table, I liked his competitiveness and I loved him as a teammate, as a friend, as a brother, as a dude in the locker room. He had a lot to do with me coming back here.”

George drinks wine with Dwyane Wade at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles, picking his brain about free agency. “I know who I am as a player; I just want to help a team win, and I feel comfortable doing that with Russ,” he tells Wade.

Presti and the Thunder contingent head back to Oklahoma feeling good about their chances. George is scheduled to fly to OKC a day later, on Saturday (the same day as the party — fancy that!), and before he steps onto a private jet, he tells an ESPN documentary crew following his free agency: “The only way to go about it is to go to Oklahoma and make it official.”

He lands on a private runway at Will Rogers airport at 6:45 p.m., steps off at the same spot where he arrived in OKC for the first time nearly a year before. This time there are no fans, no signs, no strategically placed billboards. He has flown to OKC in secrecy. It is pouring rain, and he quickly hops into a black SUV and heads to the Thunder practice facility. He eats dinner and meets with a very small contingent of Thunder brass, including Bennett and Presti.

A few hours later, the sky clear, George heads north to that house in Arcadia, arriving around 9:30 p.m. He sees Westbrook waiting for him, and they hug. “Let me see those braids,” Westbrook says, pulling George’s hat off to reveal a fresh hairstyle. They head inside and talk with Nas, with Westbrook joking — maybe? — that he’d get his first tattoo after the Thunder win their first title.

Then Westbrook and George grab microphones and climb onto the stage.

“What’s happenin’, what’s happenin’, what’s happenin’?” Westbrook says. “As you can see, we had a surprise guest come in, if y’all ain’t noticed already.”

“Just like Russ,” George says. “Always hooking me up.”

Source: Read Full Article