Russell Westbrook remembers how he couldn’t contain his own smile.
Back in 2017, the then-league MVP met Oscar Robertson for the first time shortly after Westbrook became the first player since Robertson to average a triple-double over the course of the season.
Robertson was on hand in Oklahoma City to present Westbrook with an award for matching his until-then singular achievement. But for Westbrook, what stood out about that night was getting the opportunity to talk with the all-time great point guard about his career — and specifically, what it was like for the legend to play in an era rife with social change and challenging the status quo.
“I was very intrigued with how he was able to get past that and still compete at a high level,” Westbrook said. “I was able to learn a lot. I was able to sit back and understand how he sacrificed so many things, the way he played the game.
“To go through that many things, I’ve got no excuse to (not) go out and compete and do what I do. I was grateful for that conversation.”
Four years later, Westbrook and Robertson might be due for another face-to-face chat.
The Washington Wizards point guard tied Robertson’s all-time record with 181 career triple-doubles Saturday in a win over the Indiana Pacers — doing so in an extraordinary performance in which he hit the game-winning free throws and had a game-sealing block to go with his 33-point, 19-rebound and 15-assist stat line. And now on Monday, Westbrook will have the chance to break the mark at Atlanta.
Over NBA history, there have always been players associated with the greats who came before them athletes who seem, in some ways, cut from the same cloth. LeBron James will always be linked to Michael Jordan, as will Kobe Bryant. Zion Williamson has been labeled as the modern-day Shaquille O’Neal, as has Giannis Antetokounmpo.
On the basketball court, Westbrook’s historical doppelganger is Robertson — a player whose records once seemed unbreakable until Westbrook came along.
“It’s something that I don’t think will ever be broken,” teammate Ish Smith said. “I’m sure Oscar thought the same, but what Russ has done over his career has been pretty special.”
For his part, Robertson doesn’t seem to mind. He told the New York Times that he wants Westbrook to break his record — “He’s one of the elite guards in basketball,” he said. Robertson added he doesn’t understand the criticism that Westbrook, one of the league’s most polarizing players, receives.
Robertson, a 12-time All-Star, has often said that he wasn’t even aware of the triple-double statistic when he played in the NBA from 1960 to 1974. The term didn’t enter common usage until Magic Johnson dominated the ’80s, and the frequency of triple-doubles has skyrocketed in the past decade. But that doesn’t make the stat meaningless. Westbrook’s teammates, coaches and even rivals say that Westbrook makes the triple-double look easier than it is.
Robertson said Westbrook’s lack of a championship ring doesn’t diminish his legacy.
“I think this happens with great basketball players, like Westbrook and myself,” said Robertson, who didn’t win a title until he was traded to Milwaukee and played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “I was with Cincinnati for many years, but we never made any notable trades to get better players.
“If you look back through the history of basketball — and I always tell people this — every team that’s won a championship has made key trades.”
Westbrook said he appreciates Robertson’s support. Even on Saturday, he thanked Robertson multiple times for his impact on the sport. Beyond his stellar play on the court, Robertson was an instrumental figure in paving the way for free agency — filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA in 1970 and eventually settled upon the condition that players could have the freedom to sign with other teams.
The most remarkable aspect of Westbrook’s move to the top of the record books, though, is arguably the speed at which he has done it.
When Westbrook and Robertson met in 2017, Westbrook had 79 career triple-doubles over his first nine seasons. Since then, the 32-year-old has recorded 94 triple-doubles across four seasons — in just 271 games played. This year alone, Westbrook has had a triple-double in 21 of his last 25 contests.