Russell Westbrook and *NSYNC are from different eras and perform on different stages, but do they share a common fate? Both are undeniable supernovas of achievement in their disciplines. *NSYNC raked in 70 MILLION in worldwide album sales during their time and a decade later Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for three consecutive seasons.
And yet, despite being decorated head-to-toe in the insignia of success, both struggle to procure respect from critics and media. Like Harry and Voldemort before them (well before Russ), their stories and reputations are intertwined in fascinating and peculiar ways.
In the weeks leading up to my 12th birthday, I took my best friend Masseo aside (who remains my best friend to this day and I interviewed for this site) and casually, covertly encouraged him to get me the new *NSYNC record as my gift.
*NSYNC’s sophomore album No Strings Attached debuted on March 12, 2000, and I turned 12 on April 6th. At my birthday party, I feigned muted surprise when I opened Masseo’s gift and low key laughed it off.
Why did I ask Masseo to get No Strings Attached for me only to downplay my excitement when I finally received it? Because I was embarrassed damn it! I was too embarrassed to go to the store to buy it myself and I was too embarrassed to show enthusiasm and gratitude when my dear friend gifted it to me. But I’ll tell you what, I loved that damn record and I still love it to this day.
Jump forward 20 years and I find myself watching Russell Westbrook in the Bubble, feeling the same internal joy that *NSYNC once brought me, and the same external anxiety about making my affection public. Russell Westbrook is an athletic anomaly. Current ESPN Analyst (and our *2008 Celtics Champion* starting Center) Kendrick Perkins calls Russell the most athletic point guard of all-time. He can do this:
He is also the second player ever to post a 20-20-20 game:
From 2017-2019 he averaged 26-10-10 per game. That’s not a week, that’s not a month, that’s THREE FULL SEASONS!!! There’s a lot I don’t know, but I know for a fact we don’t talk about this enough. To put this cheat code level feat in perspective, the only other player EVER to average a trey-doub for a full season was Oscar Robertson in 1961. At a time when the game was faster-paced and Oscar had an extra ~20 possessions/game to work with. The closest our reigning King James has come to such a statistical spectacle was (crazily enough) this season where he is putting up 25-8-11 in his (clears throat) *17th* NBA season.
Despite Russ’s historical greatness and ownership of an NBA record that feels as much like it is an eternal lock as Wilt’s 50ppg season in 1970, this man just does not get the respect from the media. Zach Lowe famously did not vote for him during his signature 2017 MVP season. (I view this season and No Strings Attached—which was the top-selling album of 2000—as both these subject’s pinnacles as well as the fuse point in their shared story.) Bill Simmons called Westbrook, “the greatest ball hog of all time.” And finally, here is Shannon Sharpe dismissing Russ’s ability to average a triple-double for one season:
Hey Shannon, guess what? He did for three. From pundits to analysts, to the drunk Spurs fans at the Torchy’s bar, everyone seems to grade Westbrook a notch below his contemporary superstars. I see the same critical dismissal with *NSYNC. Entertainment Weekly music critic David Browne confirms, “No Strings Attached is overstuffed with tracks clearly concocted with the concert stage in mind.”
Not to be deterred, both Russell and *NSYNC responded to their critics with the middle finger of success. Where Russell claimed his vengeance through unprecedented statistical destruction, for *NSYNC, their answer came in the form of brinks trucks. *NYSNC has two records in the top 100 best-selling albums of all time. No Strings Attached set a record with 2.4 million U.S. album sales in its first week; a record it held for 15 years (until a young, British phenom came around named Adele). Incredibly, and speaking of intertwined stories, in 2019 Justin Timberlake made $57.5 million in gross income, the next year Russ made $56…
Putting *NSYNC’s commercial success and Russ’s statistic wizardry aside, both are just plain quality. Despite struggling with his shooting from time to time in the playoffs, Russell has reliably balled out when the lights get brightest. During his 2017 MVP year, he raised his regular-season scoring average of 31ppg to a preposterous 37ppg in the playoffs. In his first-ever Finals appearance, at the ripe age of 23, he dropped a casual 43-7-5 in Game 4 against LeBron and his Heatles.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, *NSYNC has 5 legit hits—”Bye Bye Bye,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “This I Promise You”, “It’s Tearin’ Up My Heart,” and “Pop.” I dare you to find a Pop band with more! Furthermore, find me a better hype song than “It’s Gonna Be Me?” Literally, as soon as the descending electric piano line kicks in, in my head I hear an air horn blowin’ and someone yelling, “Oh shit, it’s on now!” (Okay yes, I know this take has some heat to it, and again, yes, this article is about *NSYNC and not JT. But man, if you give me even the B-sides from Justin’s catalog, this extended *NSYNC universe becomes the unassailable Pop band G.O.A.T.
Speaking of Justin, his beautiful falsetto presence looms large in this conversation. For many, *NSYNC is nothing more than the launching pad for a man I will lovingly call White Chocolate. Justin’s incredible. “Pusher Love Girl” is one of my favorite Pop tunes of all-time. I’ll never forget dancing to that album all night with my friends when it came out. And that being said, the 20/20 Experience doesn’t even address this masterpiece:
When Justin’s once-fertile *NSYNC ecosystem become barren, he left. Much like *NSYNC, Russell began his story in a fertile, thriving homeland. I call that fertile basin: the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. And like Justin leaving *NSYNC before him, Russell kept watch over Lake Hefner as James Harden was taken in the night and eventually Kevin Durant left through the front gate.
Even for their surreal careers of success, amazingly both Russ and *NSYNC stood in the shadow of peers like the hobbits next to Treebeard. Somehow *NSYNC’s 70 million in album sales looks rather pedestrian next to their contemporaries the Backstreet Boys, who preside over a Gringotts worthy 165 million in worldwide sales. Reciprocally, while both Russell Westbrook and his Rockets running mate James Harden have each won one MVP award, James Harden has been the MVP runner up 3 of the last 5 years while Russell has never even been a finalist outside the year he won. Similarly, ESPN ranks the first Batman to Russ’s Robin, the great Kevin Durant, as the 14th best NBA players of all time, while Russ lags behind at #42.
When discussing Russell and *NSYNC it’s critical to recognize the role the shifting industry landscape around them has played in sharing their narratives. Russell was drafted in 2008, which doesn’t feel that terribly long ago (at least to me), but was an entirely different universe in the NBA. If today’s NBA is Back to the Future II, 2008 is Back to the Future III. In 2016, as Russell was entering his prime, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr moved 6’7’’ Draymond Green to Center and in doing so gave birth to the pace-and-space era. Suddenly shooting and positional versatility were the most precious resources in the NBA and Russ’s physical, relentless playing style felt like an artifact from a lost age. Instead of praising him for what he is, we started chiding him for what he’s not: Steph Curry.
Long before Russ found himself in a Wild West shootout bearing a crossbow, *NSYNC ran up against their own version of the 2016 Warriors in Napster. The infamous digital music service launched in 1999 and the music industry has never been the same since. CD sales hit their all-time peak in 2000—the same year No Strings Attached was released—with $900 million in sales, but it has been a dramatic and consistent decline ever since. In 2019, CDs sales reached an all-time low with $47 million in sales. Would *NSYNC and Westbrook’s legacies be different if not for the sea change that took place during their careers? It’s certainly something to think about.
Much as millennials (like me) will stand by and defend *NSYNC today, I think the same will be true for Russ and the Gen Zers in ten years. After the effects of the media brainwash have worn off we are going to look back and be like, “wait why weren’t we more into this once in a generation athletic, competitive titan while he was lacing it up?” It’s gonna happen. Here’s my take: we don’t need to wait until Russ becomes retroactively trendy. He is great, *NSYNC is great, let that commonality be the story of their shared legacy.