Russell Westbrook has his eye on an NBA award, but not the one you think

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Russell Westbrook is here to make friends. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook is here to make friends. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

While his candidacy has fallen off a bit in recent weeks, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook remains one of the contenders for this NBA season's MVP award. However, when asked about his chances of winning the trophy roughly two weeks ago, Westbrook showed no interest, instead calling it meaningless to his goals and declaring a reporter to be the true MVP frontrunner. In all, it was one of Westbrook's more endearing media moments of the season.

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Yet it's possible that Westbrook was merely avoiding the cold hard truth — that he is in fact intensely focused on another individual award that would bring him personal glory. In a terrific new profile of the enigmatic guard for Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins reveals Westbrook's real aim:

Westbrook squeezes himself into a third-grade chair at Eugene Field Elementary School and reflects on the hotly contested race for the trophy he has eyed since training camp. “It’s been one of my main goals all season,” he says. “I want it.” There are more predicable candidates, but he continues undaunted in his pursuit of the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. He may have a better shot at MVP, but before rejecting his Kennedy candidacy based on postgame interviews Marshawn Lynch would find chilly, consider that Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation has created reading rooms at three Oklahoma City elementary schools this season and launched a reading challenge in which students from 78 local schools compete to read for the most minutes.

The ball is not his only friend, not even close. Westbrook is beloved in the Thunder’s headquarters for attending the hockey games, soccer matches and piano recitals of staffers’ children. Every year he sends a pair of Air Jordans and a Jordan-brand sweat suit to each employee. He can be warm (“Get me out there with those people,” he told team p.r. boss Matt Tumbleson after the devastating tornado in ’13, when the guard was still relegated to a wheelchair because of the meniscus) and funny (“Congratulations on your daughter’s birth,” he messaged Tumbleson. “I hear her name is Russellena”). He teaches himself guitar. He handles his own bills. He is never late. But he keeps most personal details concealed. Westbrook is admittedly slow to trust and maintains an inner circle smaller than a keyhole. He met his fiancée, Nina Earl, when she too played basketball at UCLA. Raynard attends the University of Oklahoma and wants to go into broadcast journalism. Russell and Raynard are inseparable with their parents, Russell Sr. and Shannon, still back in L.A. [...]

Celebrities often change away from cameras and tape recorders, but with Westbrook, the contrast is profound. His raspy voice, short and terse during press briefings, suddenly becomes the loudest and liveliest in the room. “People who don’t know me probably think I’m mad all the time, and with the way I play, they have a point,” he says. “But I’m not Angry Man off the court. I’m a laid-back chill guy.” Given his brazen wardrobe choices, which prompted Barneys New York to sign him as a designer, you’d assume he doesn’t care what the public thinks. But that’s not accurate either. He resents the madman portrayals. He distances himself from Maniac Russ. “It upsets me when little kids hear, ‘He’s so aggressive, you can’t contain him,’” Westbrook says. “My mom hears that, my family hears it, and it makes me seem like I have no control over what I’m doing.”

[Oscar] Robertson will not liken his skill set to Westbrook’s, but he does compare their plight. “For years I heard I was a hard guy to know and I had a chip on my shoulder,” Robertson says, “because I didn’t go on television a lot and I didn’t talk to people I didn’t know.” The Thunder understand Westbrook. They resist every opportunity to edit him. They embrace his 15-footers from the elbow, even though the analytics don’t, because they realize those cotton shots enable dunks and corner threes. “When we’re rolling,” Brooks says, “that shot opens up everything.”

Okay, fine, so maybe trying to open as many reading rooms as possible isn't inherently a mark of selfishness. This section represents most of Jenkins's piece in that it attempts to explain how Westbrook the person manifests on the basketball court, and vice-versa. He appears to have received more access than local OKC media have had in years, but it's also not a puff piece. Jenkins does not attempt to explain away the more complicated aspects of Westbrook — he just provides a context for them. One comment from longtime teammate Nick Collison stands out:

Westbrook’s superpower is hard to measure or define. Nick Collison probably comes closest. “His give-a-f--- level,” the Thunder forward says, “is very, very high.” Westbrook’s passion is a powerful tool, which when harnessed can be empowering and when unchecked can be isolating. “I’m so emotional and I want to win so badly that it can backfire,” Westbrook says. “Controlling it, using it to my advantage, has been the challenge.”

To his credit, Westbrook does not suggest that he has solved this issue or found the correct balance. It's virtually impossible to watch a Thunder game without finding one or two moments in which their volatile floor leader lets his passion get the better of him, whether with an ill-timed technical foul or a ridiculously optimistic 1-on-4 fast break. The key, though, is in understanding that he is not defined by those mistakes and extremes — that they are part of a complicated whole that has not yet found its best limits.

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Online arguments over Westbrook's merits and weaknesses often end with one party declaring the value of #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook, but it's important to remember that he still hasn't figured out exactly what that statement means. Like many, he is still a work in progress. His willingness to embrace that self-discovery without fear of where it might take him is one of the many qualities that makes Westbrook so fascinating.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!