By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Sunday night was a joy for me because Russell Westbrook, my favorite player in the NBA, reaffirmed my love for him. I mean, I really love everything about the man, from the depths of my sports fan soul.
The MVP of the All-Star Game, Westbrook is obviously very good at basketball. But talent alone has never gravitated my heart toward an athlete. I need panache, eccentricity, something beyond the robotic and cliche.
With Westbrook, he doesn’t pay lip service to or suffer fools with the media.
He wants to end you on the court.
He doesn’t care what you think of him, whether it be his fashion sense or his style of play that mimics a dog willing to go through a plate glass window for a steak.
Unsurprisingly, Westbrook still doesn’t really care what anyone says about the way he plays — which is good, because there aren’t enough words in the English language to adequately convey what he does on the floor.
“I feel the same I felt back then when everybody was talking,” Westbrook said, when asked if he feels vindicated that he’s been able to stay the same player rather than bend to the will of people that so fervently criticized him. “I constantly keep doing the same things I’ve been doing, getting better each and every season. I just want to be able to compete at a high level. I just find ways to keep getting better and better and then let the rest, you know, take care of itself.’”
Westbrook gave zero craps that Sunday night was the Kobe Bryant farewell tour.
He has an ad campaign that’s outstanding.
He’s self-aware and knows the line between his job as assassin and entertainer.
I love Westbrook, because I love Marshawn Lynch, because I love Juan Uribe. Lynch announced his retirement during the Super Bowl in wonderful Marshawn fashion. Uribe is old and is dancing with himself without a contract and spring training just days away.
Those are two holes in my sports heart.
And yet I find myself at the start of this work week thinking of Matt Forte. A weekend has gone by and allowed us to process Friday’s announcement that he won’t be returning to the Chicago Bears. Walter Payton retired when I was five years old, so Forte’s the best Bears running back of my sports-conscious lifetime.
But he’s not that 21st-century personality I’m drawn to. Forte’s the speak-softly, carry-a-big-hit model of athlete. He’s the one who puts the “class” in classic, speaking only when spoken to. He’s a lunch-pail, respect-for-the-game, do-it-because-it’s-your-job kind of masked man that every generation of your family could rally around and enjoy. He’s not a Russ or Beastmode.
“When Forte cleaned out his locker at Halas Hall the day after another losing season came to an end, only one item remained,” wrote 670TheScore.com’s Chris Emma on Friday. “It was a navy blue cutoff t-shirt, one that he poured everything into. On the back was his No. 22 and a word that stood for all Forte represents:
Forte did NFL PR favors like that by letting the advertisements for the game write themselves, even though he’s an athlete who hardly scored the big deal ad campaigns. If you hate the cocksure model of outspoken athlete, you can’t deny that it gets attention and therefore endorsements. Money has never been much of an issue in Forte’s time in Chicago. It was only a topic of conversation if someone else made it so, and even then Forte was honest without being petulant — a far cry from other recently departed Bears stars who enjoyed mentioning how “this is a business” until they felt slighted by the team.
Even the divorce with the Bears was amicable. Forte let the world know via his Instagram account, taking some heat off his former employer and making fewer fans look to shoot the messenger. He also lost the Bears as a leverage point in whatever negotiations he’d have with other teams, presuming the Bears were going to wait until close to the March deadline to officially part ways with him had he not announced it first.
Forte made time for the media without usually being a go-to for a great soundbite, was admirable in the community and just played football.
I’m not partial to a modern athlete who’s afraid to be loud if he wants, won’t be an individual, decides not to be creative, chooses against going anti-establishment.
But I love Matt Forte.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.