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This adventure appears in the October 22, 2018, activity of Sports Illustrated. For added abundant storytelling and all-embracing analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the awning price. Click actuality for more.

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Before Paul George could annals what had happened, he was greeted on his buzz by the acceptable beam of Russell Westbrook. A barter had fabricated them teammates—shocking the alliance and George, too. The abstraction of arena in Oklahoma City had never occurred to him. Cleveland, maybe, admitting talks amid the Pacers and the Cavs had stalled. Added alienated teams were wary. The alone acumen George was accessible was that his abettor had a the Pacers of his ambition to leave the aggregation in chargeless bureau the afterward summer, in 2018. Executives about the NBA affected that George, a Southern California native, was angling his way to the Lakers at the aboriginal opportunity. 

They were right. 

“I capital to go aback home,” George says. Home meant Palmdale, which meant Los Angeles, which meant the aggregation of his basketball idol, Kobe Bryant. George dreamed in amethyst and gold, but he was reasonable abundant to accede his alternatives. “If that didn’t work,” he adds, “I actually wouldn’t accept absent arena for the Clippers.”

The Thunder were never allotment of the plan. Yet actuality was Westbrook, the ascendant MVP, hosting a claimed FaceTime acceptable party. George promised his new assistant that he would appear to the Thunder with an accessible mind, and 359 canicule later, George took the date in burghal Oklahoma alongside his agitator point guard. “If y’all didn’t absolutely get it, let me say it again,” George told a army of Thunder loyalists. “I’m actuality to stay.” Westbrook leaned in adjoin the roaring army with one bottom on a speaker, a duke biconcave to his ear. 

By the time 2018 chargeless bureau clearly began, George and Westbrook were already abysmal into their cigars. 

News that George had agreed to a four-year, $137 million arrangement catholic fast, admitting not to Thunder centermost Steven Adams. “I don’t accumulate up with that s—, mate,” Adams says. “I’m f—— terrible. I aloof appearance up and whoever’s on the team, cool.” Andre Roberson, who was in L.A. rehabbing from a burst patellar tendon, abstruse of George’s accommodation the aforementioned way best of the basketball apple did: through Instagram clips and the media letters that followed. “Unfortunately,” Roberson says sheepishly. 

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Thunder assets bouncer Raymond Felton, however, had abstruse abundant about George over dinners and agenda amateur and continued flights to see the aftereffect the alignment had had on him. “I knew how he acquainted about arena with Russ,” Felton says. Accede the force of that statement: Aback Kevin Durant larboard the Thunder for the Warriors in 2016, he traded one superstar point bouncer for another. He traded scowls for shimmies, abrupt drives for effortless threes. Westbrook had looked Durant in the eye that summer and asked him how he could change. On July 4, Durant’s move agitated with it his accurate response: I don’t anticipate you can. 

Westbrook has danced on the third abuse anytime since. Every bang in the calefaction of a d is psychoanalyzed. Every attempt he takes—and there are many—invites bookish review, bottomward to the amount of every casual bend not taken. Former teammates Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis accept gone on to new opportunities, and their successes with the Pacers draft aback on Westbrook like a arctic wind. So answerable was Westbrook’s comedy that it brought analysis to the actual abstraction of a amateur double. It fabricated a altercation of counting to 10.

Yet aback the time came to adjudge his future, George didn’t alternate to assurance up for four added years of the Russell Westbrook experience. “I accept him,” George says. A year before, he didn’t. Both Westbrook and George absorb their offseason in Los Angeles, but George knew Westbrook alone as a star, a adversary and the accountable of chatter. “He was a abstruseness to me afore I came here,” George said. “You aloof apprehend so much.” 

Sports Illustrated Illustration

Through the noise, he met the man. It was Westbrook who had alleged him the night of the barter to allotment his excitement, which George reciprocated. It was Westbrook who came to accommodated him aback he aboriginal accustomed in Oklahoma City, who talked with him backward into the night, as the lights blinked out on the city’s apprehensive skyline. It was Westbrook who came to the fishing clash George hosted in L.A. afore they had anytime played a d together; who pored over blur to acquisition how he could best board George; who wanted, honestly, to connect. “Once you get an befalling to hang, P can accept a little bit about me, and not aloof see me from a ambit like anybody else,” Westbrook says. “He gets an befalling to see who I am. What I’m about.” 

This was consistently allotment of the artifice for the Thunder, who accept that their abode as a authorization is best apparent from the inside. George admits that he would not accept appear actuality as a chargeless agent. Oklahoma City seemed too small, too agnate to Indianapolis. 

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George bare to see immediate what his accession meant to the organization. He had to get in a allowance with Westbrook to accept that there was added to his new assistant than choked comedy and barmy vendettas. “If you’re arena adjoin him, he’s not friendly,” George says. “He’s not gonna appear up and allocution to you. He’s not gonna say, ‘How was your night?’ He’s not gonna agitate your duke afterwards the game. That’s not Russ.” 

For Westbrook, the aggregation is a angelic construct. There is a ablaze band amid those who abrasion a Thunder compatible and those who do not; bridge it is the aberration amid Westbrook’s actual abutment and his abnegation to accede your existence. It would accept been easy, in ablaze of contempo defections, for Westbrook to aing himself off. The Thunder staked their approaching on the abstraction that he wouldn’t. Westbrook, afterwards all, never was one for change.

Westbrook joined the Thunder afore they were the Thunder, aback the aggregation ability was still aloof a adapt and their jerseys bald abstraction art. The alone way he knows how to body is from the arena up, so that’s area he started with George. “You’ve gotta learn,” Westbrook says. “Learn about their family. Their journeys, what they’ve been through, what they’ve learned, their mistakes. You’ve gotta sit bottomward and accept a chat and accept a little bit about them. Then, the basketball actuality will appear easy.” 

Easy seems a rather affecting overstatement. The best amazing allotment of George’s re-signing in Oklahoma City was how little on the cloister affronted out to be simple. Carmelo Anthony was alone into the mix aloof afore training camp. The Thunder again started the division 8–12, that 12th loss a full-on reckoning at the easily of the Magic. Westbrook lingered on the bank afterwards the final buzzer, bent about amid acerbity and disbelief. OKC recovered to comedy some able basketball in December and January, alone to be attenuate by Roberson’s knee abrasion and again baffled by its disability to acknowledge to it. They’d exhausted the Warriors, alone to accomplish the Lakers attending like a juggernaut. “All year aggravating to amount it out and cerebration we can about-face it on aback we can’t,” Westbrook says, afraid his head. “We accept a aggregation area we’ve gotta bullwork every night.” The bullwork accepted ambiguous for the Thunder, accomplished as they were. “We had that juice, that flow,” Roberson says. “All that confidence. And we forgot that we had to abide to still put in adamantine assignment every day.”

The baleful blemish of the Thunder was abrogation too abundant to chance. Afterwards the binding of arid habits, their aegis swung wildly. Aback pressed, the breach aloof to familiar—but predictable—defaults. So abundant of the team’s aplomb is abiding in its antecedent failures and its admiration to dness amateurish business. This activity a not alone the attributes of George’s decision, but additionally its timing. “I capital us to be able early,” George says. The Thunder charge to comedy smarter and they charge to comedy faster, but mostly they charge to comedy together, to comedy in amateur afterwards activity that the arena is alive below them. “The alone activity I booty abroad from aftermost season,” George says, “is that we ran out of time.”

It was George who, aback asked afore aftermost division what it would booty for him to re-sign in Oklahoma City, set the bar at the Western Conference finals. Yet as the Thunder trailed in a first-round alternation they would go on to lose to the Jazz, George was addled by a cool of ownership. A faculty of permanence. “I knew what I was feeling,” he says. Elimination—in one of George’s affliction amateur of the season, a 2-of-16, six-turnover debacle—only affirmed it. “I capital to appear aback for this,” he says. “I like what we have. I like what we’re up against.” 

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Tumultuous as the division had been, George enjoyed advancing to assignment for the Thunder. “Everything aloof acquainted comfortable,” he said. “I acquainted at ease. I acquainted I belonged.”

This, as is the case with best aggregate in the organization, was intentional. 

Cassy Athena/Getty Images

In a league of multibillion-dollar brands, there is article almighty animal about the Thunder. A claimed touch. Aback George had knee anaplasty in May, his father, Paul Sr., was in the aing allowance with accepted administrator Sam Presti, discussing the bigger credibility of smoker meat. The apple of aberration a acceptable rub can make. The actuality of low and slow. The organization’s accurate absorption to detail doesn’t get in the way of a assertive abbey barbecue pleasantry. Players acclaim management, unprompted, for the absorption accustomed to their parents and siblings, accouchement and spouses, cousins and aunties. “It’s not like that everywhere,” Felton warns. The mother of a amateur on a 10-day arrangement will be advised as if she’s been there for years. George’s ancestors has absolute admission to Thunder administrator Clay Bennett. There is a actual aberration amid actuality advised as a bedfellow and actuality advised as family.

If this seems like a baby thing, that’s because it is. The belief of the Thunder is alloyed through with baby things, the best of intentions agitated out in ordinary, accustomed scale. The authorization subscribes to the aitionist abstraction of alleviative every amateur as a actuality with a abounding activity above basketball. They actualize so abounding credibility of real, animal affiliation that a amateur such as George ability alpha to admiration if he absolutely has account to leave. So continued as the Thunder abide adequate and aggressive (as Westbrook will accomplish abuse abiding they do), a acute case can be made. “You absorb a year somewhere,” George says, “you end up affection it. You acquisition a home. You analysis the boxes of what you capital to check. 

“Being in a acceptable situation. Actuality about acceptable people. Activity like I can still accept a adventitious to win. This alignment actuality one of the best that I can be a allotment of. That was a lot to weigh. Do I canyon up article that I apperceive is good?” Allotment of actuality human, George says, is activity broken amid the things you want. “Obviously, I capital to appear aback home,” he says. “My ancestors capital me to appear aback home.” Some added allotment of George—some louder part—urged him to stay.

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Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Playing with Westbrook is a atypical experience—he’s audible alike from added ball-dominant creators, in both acceptable means and bad. Accede how it charge feel to watch Westbrook bang a atrium into an opposing aegis afterwards spending years with a d administrator like George Hill, how acceptable his dness would be afterwards the averseness of Jeff Teague. Arena afterwards addition brilliant is an exercise in perspective. For as complicated as it can be to get into a accent aback Westbrook dictates so much, aggregate looks a bit rosier from this ancillary of Monta Ellis.

“It candidly takes [being] out there in a action with him to accept and to acknowledge what he brings to the game,” George says. From that angle point, George could see how Westbrook handled actuality the focus of every opponent’s aloof report. There is never a catechism as to whether Westbrook will go adamantine on a accustomed night, alone as to whether he stomps the pedal through the floorboard in the process, careening off the bend and demography the Thunder with him. “I anticipate there’s a accomplished band aback he gets like that,” Thunder drillmaster Billy Donovan says. Risk is what food the voltage abaft Westbrook’s amazing game. There is no scoring bacchanalia afterwards a assertive akin of abandon. One way or another, it’s accessible for the Thunder to get swept up in the drive of it all. “You assemblage about a guy like Russ,” George says. 

So continued as he plays with Westbrook, George won’t accept to activity himself as abundant with bidding or blame the Thunder. His assistant is a one-man propulsion system, fueled by slights, the NBA’s always renewable resource. “To me, actuality a baton is compassionate your team,” Westbrook says. “It’s compassionate what they like and don’t like. Compassionate how to beat them off. How to accomplish them comedy better.”

Often, it’s Westbrook who draws the adamantine lines. Allotment of the acumen he so generally wears the atramentous hat is that he has no use for shades of gray. “If there’s a accommodation to be made,” Adams says, “it ain’t like, ‘You may do this. Or, ‘You may do that.’ He’s like, ‘No, f— that, we’re accomplishing this.’ That helps, alike if it’s the amiss decision. You can still accomplish a acceptable activity out of it because everyone’s on the folio with that one thing, alike admitting there might’ve been a bigger way.”

George can again coast through the Thunder ranks to clarify, to discuss, to encourage. “Paul’s got a great, attenuate way about walking off the cloister and kinda putting his arm about a guy and saying, ‘Hey, this is what’s activity on,’ ” says Donovan.

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“Paul’s a added above guy,” Westbrook clarifies. “I’m not.”

Before appointment Westbrook as the bad cop, bethink that the best important things a brilliant can do are what others can’t, or won’t, or shouldn’t. In that way, Westbrook offers George awning to be his own affectionate of player, his own affectionate of leader. “If you don’t advance to your personality,” Donovan says, “sometimes it comes beyond beneath accurate or beneath genuine.” It’s accessible to see Westbrook’s amazing acceptance in agreement of the opportunities it denies others. George, however, has begin it gives him the abandon to be himself.

Theirs was a band formed in a crumb keg. It’s a 18-carat admiration that Westbrook and George—two proud, aggressive bodies with no alive acquaintance together—never grated on one addition abundant to account sparks. “As you would do in a marriage,” George says, “you talk. You assignment things out. You don’t booty things with you. You don’t let things body up. If there’s a problem, you abode it and you move on.” You never go to beddy-bye affronted on a clandestine jet afterwards bottomward three beeline amateur on the road. With abundant communication, a division of absolute leads and apocryphal starts gave way to the alikeness of aggregate experience. In every new low, a window. “When you adhere out with somebody all division long,” Westbrook said, “through ups and downs, the positives and negatives, you get an befalling to see a person.”

George saw a fit. Aback he told Westbrook that he planned to re-sign with the Thunder, the two hatched a plan: “Let’s bandy a big party, the accomplished association comes out, and we accomplish the announcement,” George recalls. Westbrook started to accomplish arrangements. It would be an affectionate affair, aloof Westbrook, George, their families, and hundreds and hundreds of their aing friends. To mark the occasion, Westbrook abiding a achievement from Nas, accurately because he had never afore played in Oklahoma City. Invitations were beatific with no acknowledgment of George, but an apocalyptic warning: the fomo will be real.

Before the party, George bankrupt bread—or really, a biscuit, with the Thunder. Members of the advanced appointment and George’s assembly aggregate at aggregation address for absurd craven and smoked ribs, adapted low and slow. The adulate on the table had a blow of honey, the collard greens a attenuate kick. 

When George assuredly accustomed in a atramentous SUV, Westbrook, who had ditched a bank in Hawaii to bandy a abode activity in Oklahoma, greeted him in a Gucci hat and a change tee from Crazy Shirts. Westbrook aerial George’s cap from his arch to audit his new braids, and for a moment, this wasn’t the citizen superstar and the battleground chargeless agent. It was two fast accompany reuniting who aloof so happened to be cutting gold chains with the logos of their corresponding claimed brands.

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The signature cocktail was alleged the Triple-Double Smash. Nearby, a caterer served oysters in a landlocked state, for a blow of Westbrook daring. The host sang forth to “God’s Plan.” And already the Oklahoma sun set over the alien approach trees, the absorption affronted to the capital event. The booming bass, the arise basin cues and the arcade whirring of the Pop-a-Shot apparatus abatement silent. This was a moment.

“It was abundant added than a party,” George says now. “It was a new bearing of Thunder basketball.”

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