The mention of Russell Westbrook’s name during pregame introductions Friday evening was met by boos throughout a packed Delta Center.
Inside the empty arena that morning, however, the mention of the Utah Jazz prompted a smile by Westbrook.
“I’m grateful for them just because — for many reasons,” the Clippers‘ starting point guard said.
Westbrook is smiling often these days. With the Clippers, the soon-to-be 35-year-old has found “a place where I’m comfortable, with people that I like and want to be around,” he said. The change can be traced to Feb. 20, when he signed and immediately felt he could be himself around teammates like Paul George and coach Tyronn Lue.
But none of that happens without an assist from the Jazz, who received Westbrook in a trade Feb. 8 and bought out the full amount remaining on his $47-million salary last season. It paved the way for him to become a free agent, sign with Los Angeles and begin a late-stage career revival.
His 12 days as a member of Utah will go down as a footnote, his 15th NBA season remembered more for the turmoil of what preceded it with the Lakers — “I was relieved on all levels” after being traded, he said — and the resurgence that followed during his Clippers tenure.
Yet in those 12 days, Westbrook “absolutely” gave serious consideration to remaining with the Jazz.
“I would have come in and did whatever they asked me to do,” Westbrook said. “I told them I could be a mentor. Whatever I needed to do to help, I would have done it. Like always I do whatever is best for the team. If that’s to come and sit my ass there in street clothes and make sure I help the young guys, I’ll do that.”
Westbrook remained in Los Angeles after the trade, never traveling to Utah as he and the Jazz considered their mutual fit during conversations with coach Will Hardy, assistants and players Westbrook knew from previous stops, top basketball executive Danny Ainge and owner Ryan Smith.
Westbrook wanted to join a playoff contender and the rebuilding Jazz could not offer that, nor guaranteed minutes, as they prioritized the development of younger players. Still, the Jazz told Westbrook they would welcome him if he chose to report.
“I just wanted to make sure that he knew how much I respect him as a player,” Hardy said. “And that whatever the decision ends up being, that he’s always welcome here with me. I’ve had a lot of respect for him for a long time. I’ve been on staffs in San Antonio in particular where we played Oklahoma City in the playoffs a lot, so I’ve seen Russell up close and personal. You know, his reputation speaks for itself.
“And so as a coach, it was really just about opening the line of communication that if there was anything that he needed from me, any conversations that he wanted to have, any questions he had about the situation here in terms of the team day to day, that I was available.”
Westbrook never had been part of a midseason trade. A max-contract player named to the list of the NBA’s 75 greatest players, he’d never been through a buyout. He felt confident he would land with another team, based on the interest expressed by the Clippers and others. But before he could plot moving on, he had to first decide whether it made more sense to stay in Utah.
“I didn’t fit into that moment but I’m open to honesty and I appreciate them being super honest and up-front with me, and it’s easier that way,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.