Most professional athletes define their legacy exclusively by what they accomplish in the game. That doesn't work for Russell Westbrook. Though he's become a legitimate superstar in the National Basketball Association in his eight years with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook refuses to be pigeonholed as just an NBA star—or any singular role, for that matter.
"I don't want to be seen as just a basketball guy," Westbrook declares, sitting in the dressing room of the Producers Playhouse in Edmond, Okla., some 12 miles north of the Thunder's home arena in downtown OKC. Behind him sits a clothing rack filled with edgy, colorful outfits you'd be more likely to see backstage during Fashion Week than in an NBA locker room. But that's exactly what distinguishes Westbrook from his fellow athletes—a point guard who's quickly staking a claim as the most interesting man in the league.
Westbrook, 27, just finished his eighth season, during which he led the Thunder to nearly topple the record-setting Golden State Warriors (who ended up falling victim to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals just a week ago). But just because the season is over, don't expect Westbrook to be slowing down at all.
Whether it's plotting his next round of endorsements with major brands such as Air Jordan and Mountain Dew or sitting with buyers at fashion shows—he just wrapped back-to-back Fashion Weeks in Milan and Paris—Westbrook attacks his off-court exploits with the same ferocity as a breakaway dunk. "During the summertime it's crazy," Westbrook admits. His summer schedule did get a bit lighter, however; Westbrook has joined other notable NBA stars like Steph Curry and James Harden in sitting out this year's Olympic Games; he was a member of the 2012 team that won the gold in London.
An athletic renaissance man of sorts, Westbrook is unlike many of his NBA brethren. "I think of basketball as just a great platform for me to use to jump off into different things," he says, noting that when he walks into a room to talk fashion, his game never comes up. "[I don't want to] have someone say, 'Oh that's Russell Westbrook, he plays basketball.' No, it's 'That's Russell Westbrook, he does everything.'"
Westbrook's focus beyond the hardwood makes him tremendously appealing to marketers—and not just in fashion. "As a brand, you want that type of guy to represent your brand because you believe in a product," says his agent Thad Foucher with Wasserman Media Group. "And a guy who believes in himself is an unbelievable marriage." It's one of the reasons that Mountain Dew, after establishing a relationship with the NBA, quickly gravitated toward Westbrook to become the national face of its Kickstart energy drink campaign.
"We knew that we wanted to come in and really change the way that brands partner with sports leagues," explains Michael Craig, senior marketing manager at Mountain Dew. Citing the two attributes of Mountain Dew —being unapologetically you and having a damn good time—Craig knew exactly with whom the brand needed to connect. "There's no person in the league that really represents those two key pillars more than Russell," he says.
Indeed, Westbrook's unique personality and his brand spokesman potency blended nicely during one of his first commercials for Mountain Dew, known as "The Powerstance." After ripping off his clothes to reveal a bright green suit, Westbrook stands proudly with his hands at his hips and one of his legs jutted out in front of the other—then proceeds to break through a concrete wall, block a shot, move a car and cut the line at a club, all while in his "Powerstance."
"We allowed him to let some of his personality show," says Craig. "It allowed the fans to see him not just as a brand spokesperson, but as his own person." Adds Westbrook: "I try to find ways to impact pop culture."
More of that will be in store. Craig notes that the brand is currently in the middle of planning for next season's campaign. "Last year was really about making an introduction and establishing Dew as a key partner for the NBA," he says. "We want Russell to be a huge part of what we have going forward into the 2016-17 season."
It's that collaborative effect that Westbrook most desires when he decides which brands to partner with. (According to Forbes, he will bring in $9 million in endorsement money this year.) "That's my main thing before I pick any brand or any brand that's interested in me," he says. "Try to find ways to where we can either collaborate on something or find ways that we can expand and reach out to people."
That's what makes Westbrook so different from other athlete endorsers: In the same way he steers the offense as a point guard, he's greatly involved in any process that carries his name. "It's not just 'Cut me the check and I'll shake hands at the launch,'" says Dom Curran, U.S. CEO of sports marketing at sponsorship agency Synergy. "It's a real collaboration that he's in."
That's most apparent in Westbrook's sincere and devout interest in fashion.
When former NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a mandatory dress code in 2005, it was seen as an attempt to clean up the league's "thug" image. Being fashion conscious just wasn't a priority for NBA players—or most professional athletes, for that matter—as cameras would catch players showing up in either sweats or clothes that were several sizes too big. Thanks in many ways to Westbrook's sartorial style, player arrivals and post-game interviews have become the NBA's version of Fashion Week, with Westbrook leading the charge.
"There's no question that today's athletes really walk the new red carpet," argues Tom Kalenderian, evp at Barneys, with whom Westbrook has been collaborating since 2014. Westbrook not only leads that charge, but unlike others, he also doesn't rely on outside influences to choose what he wears. "Russell has never had a stylist," says Foucher. "Everything that he wears is what he picks out himself and what he shops for himself."
His eye for style and fashion goes beyond clothing, too. Foucher recalls numerous times that, upon checking into a hotel, Westbrook would critique his surroundings. "How the lobby is designed … how they use colors in the lobby," he says. "In his mind it's not just the way he dresses, he's thinking really outside the box." Westbrook adds that he gets inspiration from pretty much anything. "Even this couch," he says, pointing to a plaid sofa across from him in the Producers Playhouse green room.
But he's not just a critic and a clotheshorse—Westbrook has turned his lifelong love of fashion into a legitimate business venture. He's created clothing for Public School and slippers with Del Toro; he has his own fragrance with Byredo and jewelry lines with Jennifer Fisher. He's also designed luggage with Globe-Trotter and leather goods with Want Les Essentiels. He has collaborated with smaller companies like True Religion, where he's designed jeans. And he has his own eyewear company, Westbrook Frames, which sells glasses with or without lenses—sans lens is a style he first cultivated that has caught on with other NBA stars including Chris Paul and LeBron James.
Westbrook likens his involvement in his fashion line to any other designer—but it's even more impressive when one considers that other designers don't have a day job of starring in the NBA. "You've got to be able to hold a conversation and talk in their language," says Westbrook.
During the season, Westbrook often finds time to look at work for his various lines before heading to the arena. "Obviously I'm not able to be in the office," he says. "But I'm able to FedEx work and send back pieces and fabrics." The off-season is when he gets the bulk of his in-person meetings done.
Westbrook was the first athlete that Barneys, which is better known for working with the likes of Jay-Z and Lady Gaga, collaborated with. "This was something that seemed to us to be a natural," explains Kalenderian. "He can sit and have a conversation with me or any of my merchandising teams and any manufacturer or designer and speak on the same terms." Unlike Barneys' work with Lady Gaga and Jay-Z, which lasted only for two months, Westbrook's work with the retailer spanned two years.
"The fact that we issued four completely separate collections over that time is not a typical scenario," notes Kalenderian. "A project that was intended to be two years has now become such a great friendship and working relationship that we're very interested in continuing with Russell on a case-by-case basis."
Even Westbrook's shoe deal with Nike's Jordan brand is atypical of the average sports star. Instead of signing off on a derivation of a basketball shoe, as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have done, Westbrook actually designed the first lifestyle shoe with the Jordan brand, The Westbrook Zero. "It's going to be all on the fashion side," boasts Foucher. "It's going to compete with Gucci, Prada and all of those shoes."
There was a time when conventional wisdom dictated that to craft this type of star power on and off the court, Westbrook would have to play in New York or L.A.—and yet he's had a hand in creating this new normal in pro sports. "There's really no such thing as a small market," says Westbrook, whose Thunder play in the 43rd media market in the U.S., and third-smallest in the NBA (ahead of Memphis and New Orleans).
The small-market setting gives the Thunder a different vibe than playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden or the Staples Center. The Chesapeake Energy Arena, situated in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City, sucks in all the nightlife like a vortex on game nights. And Westbrook has embraced that intimacy the city enjoys with its one and only professional sports franchise. He filmed his Mountain Dew and Jordan commercials, among others, in the city. "OKC has been like a hotbed for commercials," says Foucher.
The bio for Westbrook's Twitter handle is just two words—"WHY NOT?"—which fits because his mastery of social media is largely responsible for his ability to craft a strong brand despite playing in Middle America. He uses his Snapchat and Instagram accounts to show off his latest works. "Those two work really well with fashion," Westbrook explains. "You get an opportunity to see videos of fabrics and different things."
Finally, though, he understands that none of this would be possible without his success on the court. "Basketball is obviously my first priority," he acknowledges. His eight seasons have included five All-Star appearances, a scoring title and a place this past season on the All-NBA first team.
"He's very good at his day job," says Synergy's Curran. "That's the first thing any brand is going to look for: success on the court."
This story first appeared in the June 27, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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