OKLAHOMA CITY -- The sky blue carpet was laid out, and fans equipped with handmade signs and smart phones lined the decaled barricades, waiting for a car to arrive and drop off Russell Westbrook.
Local businesses downtown let employees off work early, encouraging them to head to Chesapeake Energy Arena. Drummers pounded on their snares and cymbals, scattered chants of "Rus-sell!" broke out organically and team employees bounced around, handing out bottles of water and snow cones.
More than a thousand people were gathered, sweating in unison on a steamy August day -- one in which the mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett, had declared to be Russell Westbrook Day.
One month ago to the day, Kevin Durant had signed with the Golden State Warriors, bringing the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise to its knees. "A truck just ran through us," is how one person within the team phrased it.
Now, a celebration was happening. Westbrook had signed an extension, stabilizing the organization and allowing it to finally begin to move forward. Durant's departure was the darkest day in franchise history; Westbrook's commitment might be the brightest.
The suddenness of Westbrook's renegotiated deal was jarring, going from dead silence for the past month to news breaking late on Wednesday that it was close, and then done. But in reality, Westbrook and the Thunder have been in agreement on an extension for more than two weeks. The signal was Dion Waiters' qualifying offer being rescinded, a move done with only the goal of freeing necessary cap space to extend Westbrook. The moment the Thunder pulled that offer, they knew they had a commitment from Westbrook.
In the wake of Durant's departure, the Thunder focused on patience and level-headed choices. They quickly turned to Westbrook to try and steady the franchise and to do it with something tangible. A contract extension that, in essence, plants a flag in the ground with the Thunder. A declaration that in forgoing his own free agency a year from now, Westbrook was going to pick up the mantle Durant willingly laid down.
Yes, Westbrook now maximizes his earning potential. His contract is a renegotiation and it only goes up, adding an extra $8.7 million this season. Then it's another guaranteed year with the Thunder, and then Westbrook hits the coveted 10-year veteran max qualifier and could ink a five-year, $204 million contract, making him the highest-paid player in the NBA.
But first, he had to commit to the Thunder now.
There's no denying Westbrook made the most pragmatic, sensible decision. He's making the most money he possibly can and keeping options open for the future. He's also making the most brash and bold one. He's assuming the burden of filling the crater Durant left behind. It's a perfect Westbrookian paradox, fitting for the kind of player he is. None of it makes any sense, except it all makes perfect sense.
Westbrook, 27, can re-enter the free agent market in two years, and many look at this situation as him giving the Thunder a timetable. A deadline of two years to convince him to stay again. But to judge the length of the contract and assume he's plotting for future free agency would be, like many do with Westbrook already, misreading the situation. Westbrook has made a clear commitment to the Thunder. He's under contract longer with them than Durant is with the Warriors.
The Thunder are under no illusion this is a lifetime contract, though. There's work to be done. The roster has holes, and Westbrook wants to win. But he also isn't in desperate search for approval because of it. Westbrook doesn't tend to care much about what people think. That should be pretty obvious with the way he dresses himself.
It's one of the reasons Westbrook is perpetually misunderstood. Many conflate his on-court persona with his off-court personality. He's unapologetic. He's fiery. He's emotional. He's arguably the most competitive player in professional sports. And he's really not as complicated as it might seem. With Westbrook, what you see is what you get. He's not one to mince words with the media -- no matter how short those words might be -- and it won't take a decoder to figure him out.
"I'm a straightforward type of guy. I shoot you straight," he said. "No need to go back and forth and try to figure out any other options, create this hoopla, rumors and all this stuff. This is where I want to be, and that's what I made the decision based on."
Almost instantly after Durant left, Westbrook understood the gravity of the situation he was cast into. It was time for him to make a decision now, a year earlier than expected, and give the Thunder a course to plot. As one person close to Westbrook said: He operates in the light of day. There would be no backroom angling. He was going to give the Thunder an answer, one way or the other.
"All the times we've been together," OKC general manager Sam Presti said, "I don't think I've ever walked out a conversation with him thinking, I don't know where he stands, I don't know what he thinks, I don't know what he means. It was right down the middle. Direct."
But following Durant's announcement, as he said Thursday, Westbrook quickly shifted into thinking ahead for the Thunder. He asked Presti, "What's next?"
"I said, 'Here is one thing that could be next,'" Presti said. "I'd really like it to happen, by the way."
The Thunder made it their primary objective to lock up Westbrook. They maneuvered to be in the position to do it, and once they formally presented the option, it didn't take long for him to commit.
It might have seemed as if it was a toss-up, that the Russell Westbrook many perceive wouldn't stay in little ol' Oklahoma City. He's got his fashion interests. He's from Los Angeles. He's got to crave the big-city spotlight.
Durant always appeared to be the perfect fit with Oklahoma City, with his humble nature and down-home demeanor. But he also was drawn to a bigger city, not necessarily for the brighter lights, but for the ability to blend. In Oklahoma City, Durant carried a larger-than-life burden everywhere he went. He'd privately lamented to friends an inability to be in public. Westbrook's ideal night off the floor, though? At home with his wife, Nina, watching anything other than basketball. That's a fit with Oklahoma City.
While Durant often had issues with the roster -- not enough veterans, not the right mix, not enough spending -- Westbrook has always been a believer in Presti. Westbrook's mentality has consistently been this: Give me the 14 guys you want me to play with, and we'll go after it. And as the Thunder now reconfigure around him, Presti has the responsibility of sorting through the best way to complement a Westbrook-led roster.
Westbrook's world is forever different now. He was once a part of a core, with Durant and James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Then he was the Han Solo to Durant's Luke Skywalker. Now, he's flag-bearer, assuming the full weight of a franchise on his back. He now takes on the responsibility of being the franchise player, alone. He didn't ask for it. But he has embraced it.
Westbrook has always has been an overcomer. He didn't care he was barely recruited out of high school. He didn't flinch at critics saying he's not a point guard. He's not one to shy away from a challenge. He runs into them headfirst, full steam ahead, for better or worse. Picking up the pieces after Durant's exit is as much a challenge as there is.
Exactly the kind of thing Russell Westbrook lives for.