Russell Westbrook became an instant hit with his ability to deliver triple-doubles.
Now, the 6-foot-3 point guard is on the verge of a home run – breaking Oscar Robertson’s seemingly unbreakable career record.
He had 33 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists on Saturday night in a 133-132 overtime victory over Indiana to tie Robertson’s mark of 181. And, fittingly, it came just a short drive away from the Lockefield Dust Bowl, where Robertson and his future Crispus Attucks High School teammates first honed their craft.
Westbrook gets his first crack to surpass Robertson on Monday night in Atlanta.
“I take a lot of pride in doing everything I can to impact winning,” he said. “To be in a conversation with Oscar, I just want to thank him because he set the stage. The things he was able to do back in the day has allowed me to do the things that I do today. So I’m appreciative of that, and I’m appreciative of his support as well.”
But the two men now linked in the record books took dramatically different paths to the top.
Robertson was an Indianapolis high school star, a three-time All-American at the University of Cincinnati and an Olympic gold medalist before playing for the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks.
In just his second pro season, Robertson became the first player to average a triple-double – a feat only matched by Westbrook a half-century later – and Robertson came within a whisker of achieving the feat in each of his first five seasons.
Westbrook, meanwhile, drew little college interest until his senior season in high school and started just one season at UCLA before turning pro. During his first six seasons in Oklahoma City, he logged eight triple-doubles.
Then he perfected the art and produced another 173 over the last seven seasons.
They met in 2017, a meeting Westbrook called overwhelming.
“He flew to Oklahoma City and he didn’t have to do that,” he said. “He took time out of his day to talk with me and my family about that moment. I was honestly more intrigued because he was dealing with social injustice when he was playing and so I was really intrigued about how he dealt with that and continued to play at such a high level.”
Westbrook also found a way to produce big numbers night after night.
This season he leads the league with 35, the second-highest total of his career. He had 42 in 2016-17 when he became the first player since Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double. With a week left in the regular season, he’s poised to match that feat for the fourth time in five seasons.
And now, after posting 19 triple-doubles in the last 24 games, he’s one away from breaking a record that has stood since Robertson finished his career in 1973-74.
“To do that on a nightly basis, it’s really hard to do,” teammate Bradley Beal said. “You go out there and try doing it every single night, it’s very tough. It’s tough mentally. It just shows how seriously he approaches the game.”
It’s also fitting that Westbrook tied the record against the Pacers, against whom he has posted a career-high 10 triple-doubles including three this season.
He became the first player in league history with a 35-point, 20-assists triple-double against Indiana on March 29 and had a career-high 21 rebounds and a career-high matching 24 assists against the Pacers in Monday’s victory over the Pacers.
That’s not all. He now has 7,998 career assists, passing Rod Strickland for 12th on the NBA’s career list and he moved within 41 points of surpassing Larry Bird (21,791) for No. 40 on the league’s career scoring list.
“I knew he was going to get it, I didn’t know if he would get it this year,” coach Scott Brooks said. “For him to pass up Oscar Robertson is absolutely incredible. I hope some way, he (Robertson) can come [to a game], I’d love to meet him. There are certain guys in NBA history who you put on a pedestal and until you meet them they’re sort of mythical. It’s hard to believe coaching Russell 13 years ago, he was going to break Oscar Robertson’s record, but I’m happy I’m saying that because he’s really a special player.”