(CBS) – From his first day in the NBA Russell Westbrook has been a lightning rod. The explosive guard seems to always be at the center of attention. Whether it’s for a highlight dunk, a one-of-a-kind outfit, a record-breaking performance, or a tense press conference “Beastbrook” is never far from the spotlight. Who is the man behind the high-flying, trash-talking, snarling on-court persona though? That is the exact question that inspired the new SHOWTIME documentary Passion Play: Russell Westbrook.
CBS‘ Matt Weiss spoke to Passion Play‘s Co-Director Gotham Chopra to discuss what he learned about Westbrook beyond the court, the common denominator among elite athletes and living in Los Angeles as a Celtics’ fan.
MW- Hey Gotham, good to see you man and excited to talk about Passion Play: Russell Westbrook available to stream now on SHOWTIME. You’ve worked with a lot of legendary athletes from Kobe to Simone Biles to Usain Bolt and obviously Russell has been a huge figure in the NBA since he debuted. What made you want to work with him specifically?
GC- Russell’s sort of been this enigmatic character right, he’s been prolific on the court and when going back to his days in OKC he’s arguably the best or most athletic point guard we’ve seen the last 20 years. He had this incredible run there and yet, I feel like, other than this sort of cantankerous guy we don’t know much beyond that.
So look, I’m a fan. I love basketball, probably my favorite sport. I just thought he’s an interesting character to sort of get underneath and really understand a little bit more; like what drives this intensity that you’re always seeing. I got to know him and it turns out the timing was sort of fascinating.
Russ happens to live 15 minutes down the street from me so as we were all forced to stay home I got to actually spend a lot of time with him away from the court. That was my whole intention was to understand who this guy is beyond the court.
MW- Is there any commonality you found between all these legendary athletes, anything that they share in common?
GC- Yeah, of course there’s these God given gifts. These are just incredibly talented people but I would also say is like there’s this relentlessness to all of them. I mean they all have different approaches but I’d say there’s just relentlessness.
In the middle of a pandemic Russ was finding ways to go to his old high school gym every day to work out. I think sometimes people are looking for this like really almost esoteric quality that binds all these people but really it’s just the hours in the gym.
MW- And what did you learn about him as a man that the average NBA fan might not know?
GC- He’s going to hate that I said this but there’s a softness there. As intense as he is on the court, when he’s at home he’s a father, he’s got young kids, he’s very present, he’s sweet and all that with his kids. He has a real self awareness around his family in particular.
He lost a former high school teammate and his best friend Khelcey Barrs and he literally wears it around his neck, he writes it on sneakers. Life has meaning to him and he carries that with him; he really lives.
I think there’s a depth there which I think people don’t see because they’re used to just seeing him being cantankerous with the media or whoever and they don’t necessarily understand him. People think he’s raw emotion and intensity, that he’s one speed, but actually there’s a lot of layers there.
MW- I’m glad you brought up the emotion because something very interesting I noticed in the trailer is all the words that flash across the screen. There was chaos, rage, love all these different emotions. What do you think drives him the most?
GC- I think he understands what he means to his community, to his family, to his friends. I think that drives him. There’s something about him that’s bigger than basketball, you know? He feels like he’s an artist and you’ve kind of seen that with his fashion and stuff like that.
Basketball happens to be his canvas and these emotions pour through him and I think that’s what really drives him. He wants to do something different, he wants to BE different. I think that became like part of his arsenal was this quest to like to be different.
It’s interesting because I’ve worked with a lot of athletes and just frankly winning championships really drives them. That’s certainly the case for Russell. He had a shot early on when he was with OKC but then it didn’t happen and then KD got traded and James left and all that. You can be amazing but winning is still the function of a team.
It’s interesting to watch him now because he’s come into a culture and a setting with a team where he has a real shot. I think he’s going to have to reorient his game again and that’ll be interesting to watch how he adjusts.
MW- Perfect segue to my last question here now that he’s back home in LA, he’s a Laker, what will we see from this latest version of Russ playing alongside guys like LeBron and AD?
GC- It’s interesting the night he was traded I went to his house actually and he was there with the rest of his family, his kids, and he was sitting there late at night having champagne with his wife, Nina. He wasn’t talking about offensively he’s going to fit in or what’s it going to be like to play with that bunch, he was talking about his kids getting to stay in school and getting to see their grandparents every day.
I was reminded in that moment he’s a human being. He’s not just a trade chip or an asset on your fantasy team, he’s an interesting human being.
I do think coming home is a big deal for him and playing on the team that he grew up watching and playing in the house that Magic and Kobe And Kareem built. I think that is really meaningful to him. I think he’s going to have to adjust his game though. Russ has always been put the ball in his hands and wind him up and let him go and other players play off of him.
That’s going to be very hard to do with LeBron James, it’s LeBron you know? He’s one of the top three players ever to play the game. I think he’s going to adjust but I think he’s also a really smart basketball player and I think he’ll figure it out.
This is a team that probably is looking at the playoffs, right past the regular season. This is hard for me to admit as a Celtics fan but I think he’ll figure it out and I think LeBron will figure it out. They’re both basketball geniuses and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with eventually.
MW- Well the documentary is fantastic, it’s refreshing to see Russ in a different light and it’s been great catching up with you Gotham. Thank you so much and stay safe wearing Celtics gear around LA!
GC- [Laughs] Thank you, take care.
Passion Play: Russell Westbrook is available to stream live and on-demand now with SHOWTIME.