In a promotional video for the Air Jordan XXXI shown in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago, Michael Jordan compared Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook to a younger version of himself. Westbrook, as you can imagine, was a little overwhelmed by the compliment.
Westbrook, who'd never seen it before, knelt on the couch facing backwards, poking his head out from the curtains to watch his own highlight-reel clips on the big screen. Then they cut back to Jordan. "Thirty years ago, that's me," he said of Westbrook. "The attitude, trying to prove myself, showing so much passion for the game of basketball. You see it in his play. You can tell he loves the game, he plays with energy and flair."
This certainly wasn't the first time Westbrook had been compared to a young Jordan, but for Michael himself to do it, well, that was different. "That's crazy," he told us during his interview. "I really don't know what to say. To have the best player who ever played the game to say that about you as a player and as a person is something that is going to keep me striving."
A few thoughts:
- Jordan doesn't say that kind of thing lightly. Yes, Westbrook is a Jordan Brand athlete, but Jordan is not a man who doles out empty praise. A couple of years ago, he told ESPN's Wright Thompson that only four modern players -- LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki -- could be nearly as successful in his era. Jordan generally does not like being compared to those who came after him.
- In most ways, Westbrook is nothing like Jordan. He plays point guard, not shooting guard. He is always pushing the pace, rather than sizing up the defense. He shuns media attention, appears indifferent to stardom and does not care what critics say about him. It's kind of a weird comparison.
- The way Jordan framed this, it actually makes sense. The legend mentioned Westbrook's attitude, energy and passion. These three traits define him, and people around Jordan talked about this kind of thing all the time, too. Both share a maniacal drive to win, and neither of them tried to hide that on the court.
- The obvious connection to make here: Next season, Westbrook will truly need a Jordan-like approach for the first time in his career. Kevin Durant will no longer be around to take late-game shots or to be the face and voice of the organization. As well as being the Thunder's most talented player, Westbrook is their longest-tenured aside from backup big man Nick Collison. As CBS Sports' Ethan Skolnick put it, he will unquestionably be the leading man, and this might be the role for which he's best suited.