Six years ago this very month, Cristiano Ronaldo and Russell Westbrook were all smiles when they met and exchanged hugs and shirts after the then Real Madrid star took in a pre-season game of Westbrook’s against his club’s basketball team in the Spanish capital.
It was little wonder they formed such a mutual admiration society. At the time there was a lot to admire about the other.
Westbrook, by then an already five-time All Star, would go on that season to be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, its leading scorer and the first player in 55 years to average a ‘triple double’, a remarkable feat in which a player racks up double figures in three different statistical categories (Westbrook that 2016-17 season went for 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game in a Oklahoma City Thunder uniform).
Ronaldo, meanwhile, was coming off win the European Championships with his native Portugal and on his way to winning back-to-back Champions Leagues and Ballon d’Ors. Though Ronaldo would have even more in common with LeBron James –global recognition, team as well as individual silverware, longevity and genuine Mount Rushmore greatness – he and Westbrook shared more than just one Ronaldo 7 and Westbrook 0 shirt.
Athletically they were freaks: Westbrook the most physically-talented guard to ever play his sport; Ronaldo dedicated to his physical condition in a way football had never known before.
They each were also the owner of considerably above-average egos, Westbrook’s perhaps less pronounced and apparent than Ronaldo’s but nonetheless undeniable, from the brash manner he could dismiss journalists to his indifference to the critics who claimed he was constantly stat-chasing instead of ring-chasing. As Nathaniel Freedman of the Victory Journal wrote around the time he met Ronaldo (and parted ways from Kevin Durant), “Russell Westbrook views the world as one gigantic middle finger and responds in kind.” For the most part though that swagger and self-regard served them well through their respective careers, Ronaldo particularly. Unlike Westbrook, he was publicly unashamed about racking up so many scores as an individual, and in the process racked up team honours as well.
Now though as their athletic and physical gifts have suddenly declined at a startling rate, that ego is damaging them and their respective teams and even threatening to hurt their legacy.
In the summer of 2021 they were each signed by the biggest franchise in their respective sports: Manchester United and the LA Lakers. Instead of being indicative of the lure of both player and franchise, however, their signings were even at the time viewed as emblematic of the desperation and mismanagement of those gloried clubs.
The Lakers, having fallen in the first round of the playoffs in their defence of the NBA title they had won in the Orlando bubble, decided that being in a city of stars, they needed a third to go with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Didn’t matter that Westbrook, for all his virtues, wasn’t a shooter when James clearly needed to be surrounded by more shooters. The Lakers, including (to his great folly and cost) James himself, wanted another marquee name.
A month later Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford, as much so he didn’t end up going to the Etihad as provide greater star and scoring power to a team Ole Solskjaer had led to a respectable second place the previous season.
The 2021-2022 season didn’t go the way either player or franchise could have envisaged – and even worse than even the cynics had. United didn’t make the Champions League. The Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs. While Ronaldo retained a modicum of respectability by being United’s leading scorer for the season, he still cut as exasperated a figure in Manchester as Westbrooks was exasperating in LA.
Now exasperated and exasperating doesn’t even cut it or capture them. This season they’ve each been reduced – or reduced themselves – to being pathetic.
Ronaldo’s petulance this season is familiar to all of us, its most spectacular expression being in his refusal to come on against Spurs or watch the remainder of the game or even be in the dressing room or stadium upon the final whistle.
Westbrook’s has been on a similar grand scale. In a preseason game he pointedly declined joining his team in several huddles. Then after his team’s opening game loss to the Golden State Warriors, he accused the team of causing him a hamstring injury because they benched him.
His performance levels have even been worse than his attitude. In the Lakers’ three games – and three losses – to date, he has been averaging just 10.3 points a game and shot a dismal 29 percent from the field, including a measly 8 percent from three-point range. In the second of those games he went 0 for 11 against the LA Clippers, to become the first LA Laker since a Darrall Imhoff went 0 for 12 back in 1965 to shoot so bad in a single game.
No more than Ronaldo has one ally in Roy Keane, Westbrook has the odd defender or at least sympathiser. Charles Barkley, another legendary player good for a quip in the TV studio, has accused the Lakers of taking the joy out of Westbrook’s game when his effervescence was what used to define his game. They also point out a la Keane that the fading star could have been moved on by his club this past summer and saved everyone this ignoble spectacle.
In truth though the biggest crime either the Lakers or United did was taking them on in the first place. With their gigantic salaries as well as egos (Westbrook is on €47 million for the year, Ronaldo £500,000 a week), they’ve proven extremely difficult to move on. In short, no one wants them – their wages, their histrionics, their denial of reality.
That includes their new coaches who have each spoken of the importance of “culture” this past week. Ten Hag is possibly familiar with how Pep Guardiola went about establishing one in Barcelona, shipping on Ronaldinho because of how his influence was compromising Messi’s recovery processes. According to Simon Hughes’s book The Barcelona Way, in one of his first games he glanced back towards his bench after a goal chance was blazed wide to see who was animated or indifferent. “The following summer,” claimed Hughes, “the players who failed to react had left the club.” Ronaldo was so indifferent to his team having their best performance of the season to date he didn’t even stay on the bench.
He will have to be moved, Westbrook too. Even if it’s on a free, or he’s bought out or traded for a ransom. If they could accept downscaled roles their stays in LA and Manchester could have been prolonged but they lack both the humility and what Guardiola was seeking and what Devin Ham and Ten Hag now are as well.
They’ll each retire giants of their respective sports but they’ve diminished themselves a notch by their acts of egotism and denial in recent months.