Sports

What It’s Like to Get Stonewalled by Russell Westbrook, According to a Sportswriter Who Keeps Getting Stonewalled by Russell Westbrook

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - APRIL 19: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after a made basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half of game three of the Western Conference quarterfinals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on April 19, 2019 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook opening up for the crowd in Oklahoma City on April 19.
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder clawed their way back into their first round playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday with to a 120-108 victory. It was a hard-fought affair and, during the postgame press conference, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was asked about both teams’ choppy starts in the first half. “Next question,” he grumbled. The reporter continued his inquiry, but Westbrook remained silent.

Westbrook’s ire had less to do with the innocuous question than with the reporter who asked it. Berry Tramel is a columnist for the Oklahoman and has been covering sports in the state for over 40 years. Westbrook’s one-sided rivalry with Tramel dates back to at least 2015 when, during a postgame scrum, he told the writer, “I just don’t like you.” That year, Bryan Curtis used the incident as the central hook for a Grantland feature about how the Thunder organization coddles and shields its players from the media. “That’s not really Russ’s fault, I don’t think,” Tramel told Curtis at the time. “I think the culture created that.”

A lot has happened in the years since—Kevin Durant left, Westbrook won an MVP—but little has changed with the team’s relationship with the press, and with Westbrook’s relationship with Tramel. During the 2017 playoffs, Westbrook took exception to the columnist’s question (which had been directed to Thunder center Steven Adams) about why the Thunder played poorly when the team’s star point guard went to the bench.

Westbrook’s “next question” on Friday night may have gotten a lot of attention, but it’s not a new tactic. Earlier this month, Tramel wrote a column in which he referenced Westbrook’s penchant for telling the writer “next question,” and explained why he continues to quiz the Thunder star. “I think Westbrook puts on a façade during the season, and when it’s an interview relationship, he’s playing a character and won’t give an inch. He’s playing the intimidator,” Tramel wrote. “So I’ll keep asking questions, because he’s giving me no other choice.”

I reached Tramel by phone on Saturday to ask him about Friday’s interaction, how the Thunder organization has handled it, and what it’s like to be next question-ed by Westbrook. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nick Greene: Do you think Thunder PR will reach out to you now that Friday’s interaction has become a national story?

Berry Tramel: I assume not. Frankly, I thought it had gone national even before last night. Once the playoffs got here it sort of snowballed. Somebody told me that I was trending on Twitter even though I don’t really know what that means. I didn’t expect anything to happen after last night. Certainly nothing has.

Did you expect Westbrook to give you a response on Friday because it was at the podium and not in the locker room?

No. I knew. The same thing happened in Portland for Games 1 and 2. He’s been doing that for the last three months. I didn’t think it would change with the playoffs, but I didn’t know for sure.

Do you have any idea of what happened three months ago to spark this?

Three months ago they played the Lakers. He’s been struggling from the foul line this year and with 2 seconds left in the game he drew a three-shot foul and made all three to send the game into overtime. After the game someone asked him about his struggles at the free throw line, and he basically didn’t answer the question. So I asked him about how he found the confidence to make three with the game on the line even though he hadn’t been shooting well from the line. And he basically didn’t answer again. I responded by saying, “You not only don’t want to talk about the free throws you miss, you don’t want to talk about the free throws you make.” I was just trying to be funny and bring a little levity to the situation. He sort of glared at me. He never looks at people when they ask him questions, so when he looks at you you know he’s upset. Since then, he’s been saying “next question.”

What does it feel like to be stonewalled like that? Does it get easier the more it happens?

It’s not a big deal to me. I find the whole thing a little bit humorous. I find it interesting that it’s such a big deal to everybody because he’s really been doing this for years and years. Not always to me, but he’s always combative with the media. I don’t really see what the big news is.

Later in the press conference, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts singled you out and said he’d answer your question, which was a pretty funny moment. Do you find that people with other teams take notice of the fraught OKC-press relationship?

Stotts was the first one from another team to reference it that I know about. We’re sort of secluded here in Oklahoma. They follow the games and Westbrook is a wonderful player, but as far as his dealings with the Oklahoma media, nobody pays attention to that until the playoffs. I’m not aware of any other teams even knowing about it, until Terry Stotts said what he said.

The Thunder have enjoyed success since moving to Oklahoma City. Do you think if the team were less successful then they would be more open with the press?

I think the Thunder believes that they’re in pretty good standing with the media, outside of Westbrook. And maybe they are. As far as I know, there’s never been any serious rifts between any media and any player besides Westbrook. Kevin Durant might get mad at somebody, Kendrick Perkins might get mad at somebody. Dennis Schröder got mad at somebody this year. But they get over it. It doesn’t linger. Westbrook’s different. He likes to invent enemies. He does it on the court, does it in media scrums. I guess it fuels him.

The Thunder, by league standards, are a pretty insular franchise. But, with that said, the NBA still provides incredible access to interviews. You can talk to most people most any day you want to. The problem with the Thunder is that there are hardly any one-on-one interviews. There’s hardly any opportunity to get to know each other. The first time Westbrook ever showed any type of disdain for me, I came away sort of encouraged because it was the first time I had any acknowledgement that he knew who I was. There’s no relationship there. I’m not talking about being friends or going out to lunch. I’m talking about knowing each other’s names. Having a professional relationship. There’s very little of that going on with the Thunder. That’s by design. They want to keep everything as player-friendly as they can.

You’ve never had a chance to have any one-on-one time with Westbrook during all the time both of you have spent in Oklahoma City?

Oh, good lord! Oh my goodness, no.

If you get an opportunity to ask him a question after the game on Sunday, what percentage of a chance do you think there is that he’ll answer it?

Zero. He’s not going to give in, if that’s your question. He’s not going to give in this playoff series. I’ll give in way before he gives in. He’s way more mentally tough than I am.