From the Bottom to the Top: The Russell Westbrook Story

Chris PalmerSenior WriterNovember 12, 2015


Newcastle High School sits 25 minutes south of Oklahoma City, jutting out from the flat land and abruptly buttressing itself, like an invasion of modernity on the edge of sleepy Route 62. Inside the gym is an inferno of a man with glowing eyes. He is not skinny. Cut from marble, in fact. He is strong and fast. His manufactured anger intimidates and rivets.

His teeth clench. His brow furrows. His expletives are reckless poetry. You wonder if he’s having fun. The Thunder’s annual Blue and White scrimmage which kicks off their training camp is more of a way to connect with fans than anything.

Russell Westbrook Jr. argues every call.

NEWCASTLE, OK - OCTOBER 04:  Russell Westbrook #0 and Nick Collison #4 of the Oklahoma City Thunder show some support at the annual Blue vs White scrimmage during training camp on October 04, 2015 at Newcastle High School in Newcastle, Oklahoma. NOTE TO U
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

He is growing increasingly frustrated with Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka. It’s the first time they’ve played organized basketball together since the Thunder’s regular-season finale, and the pick-and-roll defense is understandably rusty.

“Man, we need to go small or something with all the dumb s--t Serge is doing,” says Westbrook. “How hard is it?”

Durant puts his large right hand on the back of Westbrook’s head to calm him. He does this often.

Assistant Darko Rajakovic is coaching the White team and tries to soothe Westbrook.

“What do you need me to do? Rajakovic says. “Tell me, just tell me.”

Westbrook doesn’t respond.

Maurice Cheeks steps in.

“What’s the problem?” the Thunder assistant coach asks with a certain kind of ease.

“Ain’t nobody helping!” Westbrook implores. “If I go over, somebody better help my ass out! That’s why the f--k I go under.”

“But you gave up a three going under,” reminds Cheeks.

Westbrook considers this for several seconds, “F--k it.” 

He checks himself back in.

Russell Westbrook at the dawn of his NBA career.
Russell Westbrook at the dawn of his NBA career.Getty Images

Compton Avenue is indestructible. It has to be.

There is a beauty to this ragged asphalt ribbon. A rhythm. A history. It carries unfair burdens. It knows pains.

But not all pain is an evil. Sometimes it’s annexed to some odd form of hope you can’t understand if you’re not from here.

This is a birthplace, after all.

This is where Russell Westbrook comes from.

The kid with the high cheekbones and contoured jaw—who traffics in a peculiar blend of artificial anger and tight-fitting clothing—knows this concrete. He knows all this rhythm, history and pain.

His sunglass line is sold at Barney’s. His Vine-inducing dunks grow ever more daring. His passion confounds. His meteoric rise on the hardwood and place in pop culture were predicted by no one. Not even him. None of it can be accurately explained.

Compton Avenue is a start. Or Jesse Owens Park. Or the living room of his parents' small apartment.

“I never thought I was going to play in the NBA,” says Westbrook. “A lot of people who are in the NBA now have been good since they were eight. I wasn’t good until I was 17.”

Every superhero has an origin story. With any good hero, reluctance is expected—just so long as it gives way to ambition and resolve.

Everyone is from somewhere. Where you’re from is the one thing you cannot change about yourself. It’s a vital piece of personal DNA as indestructible as Compton Avenue. It has a half-life of forever.

Burnt-out buildings, liquor stores with steel-caged doors and avenues perpetually bathed in blue and red flashing lights don’t diminish or define those who sprung from this sort of wilderness.

Sometimes it’s just home.

“It was difficult for me to become the person I am,” he says. “Growing up in Los Angeles taught me that. I have a lot of pride where I’m from.” 

Swing down Compton Avenue and hang a left on 41st Street, and you’ll come to it: the place where the journey began.

Russell Westbrook as a senior at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif.
Russell Westbrook as a senior at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif.Getty Images

The Son Also Rises

Ben Howland walked into the old gym at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California, at 6:30 in the morning. The UCLA head basketball coach was excited because he had never laid eyes on Westbrook in person. The players had not yet arrived, and outside of Howland, the only other person in the gym was a scrawny kid sweeping the floor.

Westbrook wasn’t a prized recruit. Certainly not one of Howland’s precious McDonald’s All-Americans. He had heard about his speed. About how zealous a defender he was. He’d be a good backup to his freshman stud Darren Collison, he thought. The student section at Pauley Pavilion would surely grow to love him.

A few minutes later, Leuzinger head coach Reggie Morris met him. The two made a bit of small talk, and Morris assured him he was going to like what he saw from Westbrook.

“Where is Russell?” Howland asked.

“Right there,” replied Morris. “Pushing the broom.”

When Westbrook was done with the floor, he gathered his teammates in the locker room. He huddled them up and proceeded to fire them up as if it were a packed gym on game night. Westbrook ran out onto the floor with his teammates in tow and began organizing drills and a layup line.

“My first introduction to Russell Westbrook was as a leader,” says Howland. “It was pretty impressive.”

When Howland returned to campus, he walked up to UCLA assistant coach Kerry Keating, who had been spearheading Westbrook’s recruitment.

“This kid’s not a point guard,” said Howland.

“I never said he was a point guard,” responded Keating. “I just said he could play.”

The truth was they didn’t know what they had. But they knew they liked him. Keating had quietly been eyeing him for a couple years, which seemed to make no sense to his colleagues.

UCLA assistant Donny Daniels wondered why until he first saw Westbrook play in a high school tournament against rival Westchester. He shot two airballs, made poor decisions, got frustrated and forced the action. It was the kind of game that loses kids scholarships before they have them.

Daniels came away with one thought: “This kid can play.”

His motor, intensity and competitiveness affected nearly every play of the game. His length and speed allowed him to dominate defensively. Most of his errors came when he tried to get others involved. His rotation, lift and release on his jump shot were better than expected. He dove on the floor.

“You don’t judge a kid on a bad game,” says Daniels. “You could see so much potential he had. He could just pour the ball in the basket. But man he was raw.”

Keating saw Westbrook play six times in his senior year, the maximum allowed by the NCAA at the time. He made sure his dad saw him at games—that was easy since there were no other scouts there. He’d endure awful games that took hours to get to.

He had to deal with questions about why he was recruiting a 5'9" guard who couldn’t shoot.

“He was this rugrat who played like a bat out of hell,” recalls Keating. “He was like a crazed dog.”

Westbrook’s frenetic style had been honed and developed in large part by his father, an intense, career pickup baller, who would shepherd his son around town to gyms and parks to shoot jumpers and run him through drills he invented.

“They would do military drills,” says Jordan Hamilton, a fellow Compton native and former first-round draft pick. “It was all work-ethic stuff.”

He had the boy do pushups, situps, endless sprints and agility drills in sandboxes. He hammered home the idea that he had to work for everything he was ever going to get.

“Outwork them,” his father would say. “Outwork them all.”

Plus, Westbrook wasn’t just small, he was slight. If he turned sideways, he’d disappear. He was invisible to most anyway.

He was easy to overlook. Easy to doubt. Easy to dismiss. His father taught him to use that pain and frustration. To hate the way it felt. To never be denied. He began to shape his mind as much as his game. It took the two of them to lift the boulder-sized chip and place it squarely on Russell’s skinny shoulders.

“I never really worried about what people thought about me,” Westbrook explains. “That’s just how I think. It’s how I am. I think if you do something, you should own it.”

The family didn’t have much. They only ever lived in old apartments in sketchy neighborhoods. His mother, Shannon, would exhaustively search for affordable clothes for her boys.

“My mom used to dress me,” says Westbrook. “She picked out my clothes and kept me looking fresh. I didn’t have a lot, but everything I had she bought me.”

Westbrook dabbled in football but wanted a basketball scholarship above all else. But the neighborhood has a way of changing plans. So Compton-bred Russ Sr., who had a few scrapes with the law himself, took preventative measures.

As a teenager, Westbrook spent an inordinate amount of time indoors, anything his parents could do to keep him away from the streets.

“I was going to Washington at the time, and it was a pretty bad school,” says Westbrook. “My dad didn’t want me to go there, so I transferred to Leuzinger which actually wasn’t much better.”

But it did have Morris, who was one of the few people Westbrook Sr. allowed to be involved with his son’s development.

He entered as a 5'8" freshman with size-13 feet and didn’t start on varsity until his junior year. None of the major camps or elite AAU squads extended invitations. Westbrook avoided newspaper clippings of other players’ success and barely followed local basketball.

“I didn’t look up to the top players in the city,” he says. “Honestly, I just never paid attention to it. I wasn’t big into going to games or following players; I was just in the house trying to stay out of trouble.”

The culmination of a decade of drills and an unexpected growth spurt—he shot up five inches before his senior year—was a monster season of 25.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game in which he was named third-team All-State.

Keating’s dogged persistence and efforts to gain trust in the Westbrook family were about to pay off in the form of a sleeper signee with serious upside.

But there was a problem.

Jordan Farmar held the key to Westbrook’s future as a Bruin. There was no getting around it. The only way a scholarship would become available was if Farmar went pro. If he didn’t, Keating’s efforts would go up in smoke.

Howland thought Farmar would stay.

“I don’t think we’re gonna need Westbrook,” the coach would say.

But Keating knew Farmar was dead-set on becoming a pro. He would square off with Darren Collison in practice to show his toughness and prove he was an alpha male.

Howland and Keating jumped in the assistant’s 5 Series BMW—the first new car he’d ever owned—and headed down the congested 405 looking for the Hawthorne exit. Soon they were hanging a right on Crenshaw and found the tidy two-bedroom apartment the family called home, where Russell shared a room with his brother, Raymond.

In the living room, there were trophies and family pictures on the wall.

When the coaches arrived, Russell sat on the couch in between his parents wearing shorts and flip-flops. His legs were stretched out in front of him. His hands folded in his lap. He barely spoke a word.

As Howland outlined all the school had to offer, Keating had another thought.

“I couldn’t believe how big his hands and feet were,” he says. “This kid is gonna grow even more!”

Westbrook was unheralded, but he wasn’t unknown. He had been getting serious interest from Arizona State and made an official campus visit. On the day he returned, Farmar declared for the draft.

Westbrook went straight to UCLA and signed his letter of intent.

Westbrook and partner in crime Kevin Durant at Team USA training camp.
Westbrook and partner in crime Kevin Durant at Team USA training camp.Getty

The players were divided in teams of three. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant were on the left side of the floor. Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul were on the other.

Nearly the entire basketball universe had descended on the practice gym on the campus of UNLV for Team USA’s mandatory three-day minicamp in August.

John Calipari sat on the sideline with a wide grin, sandwiched between two of his most recent No. 1 picks, John Wall and Anthony Davis.

Blake Griffin was on the court’s opposite basket hoisting pull-up mid-range jumpers. His college coach, Jeff Capel, was rebounding for him.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski roamed from station to station, stopping to chat up various basketball power brokers and offer a word or two of encouragement.

The three-man mega-teams were engaged in a heated shooting drill that seemed to escalate in intensity with each phase. The catch-and-shoot portion from short corner three wasn’t even close, as Curry didn’t miss a single shot.

One dribble to shoot out of a triple-threat position was a landslide, considering that’s Melo and KD’s bread and butter. They won easily.

Next came turnarounds from the mid-post after catching an entry pass. Durant swished a fadeaway. Then CP3 lofted in a rainbow from his side. Back and forth they went, shouting barbs across the lane at one another, upping the intensity. LeBron made sound effects whenever Melo would hit bottom.

Westbrook was up. He collected an entry pass. He braced himself with his back to the basket. Newly minted Thunder assistant Monty Williams drew the assignment of applying token pressure. Westbrook drilled Williams with an elbow, pivoted and drove his shoulder into the winded USA Basketball assistant coach.

Williams stepped back and shot Westbrook a sideways glance.

Just the day before, in another drill, they had a similar clash, with Williams reminding Westbrook it was a non-contact camp. But with bragging rights on the line he went full Westbrook.

“I don’t give a s--t,” replied Westbrook. “Let’s go.” 

The Blizzard of Westwood

Westbrook had always kept a tight inner circle, but he made friends easily at UCLA.

He was just 17 years old when he stepped onto the sprawling Westwood campus and was eager to learn about something outside of the boundaries of South Los Angeles.

In the summer before his freshman season, his transition was eased when he met a basketball recruit named Nina Earl who grew up 40 miles away in Pomona. She shared his love for competition but seemed to balance him out.

Her Westbrook-esque scouting report on UCLA’s website reads “one of the fastest players on (the) team; excels in transition.”

“I’d go up to Russell and tell him what a cute couple they were,” says Howland. “They were beautiful together and just fell in love.”

Westbrook rarely spent time in his dorm room, choosing instead to soak up every aspect of campus life when he wasn’t practicing or studying.

He would go to track meets and softball games and, of course, scarcely missed a women’s basketball game. Bruins football games with teammates were a must.

“He would do everything,” says Howland. “He was like the most popular guy on campus.”

Westbrook gravitated toward people who were different from himself.

He bonded with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Sure, cool Luc was an upperclassman with a car and would make regular treks up De Neve Drive to the Saxon Suites dorms to pick Russ up for practice. But the real connection was that the small forward from Cameroon could put him on to a different culture. He turned Westbrook on to African hip-hop artists—the freshman downloaded several songs—and introduced him to spicy Cameroonian dishes.

He’d ask Mbah a Moute’s roommate, center Alfred Aboya, about his own experiences growing up in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. Westbrook encouraged Aboya’s ambition to someday become president of his native country.

In his freshman year, Westbrook was assigned to be road roommates with junior Arron Afflalo, a fellow Angeleno and the leading scorer on the Bruins' 2007 Final Four team.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love as UCLA teammates.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love as UCLA teammates.Getty Images

“He was just a chill guy,” says Afflalo. “He was always so neat and liked to talk. He seemed like a regular guy. I remember us just laughing a lot. We got along so well. I don’t know why we were paired, but he was a great roommate.”

Westbrook embraced his studies and soaked up his American Popular Culture class by diving into his papers and taking advantage of the instructor’s office hours.

“He was humble and friendly and unswaggery,” says his professor, Dr. Mary Corey. “He had a real intellectual curiosity.”

He’d take selfies with groups of visiting Chinese students who were in the class or chat with octogenarian senior scholars who were continuing their education.

In an effort to get to know his players better, Daniels would often pick their brains on random topics.

“Who’s your favorite player?” he asked Westbrook one day after practice.

Pau Gasol,” Westbrook replied. “I just like his game.”

The answer still amazes Daniels, given all the flashy high-flyers he could have chosen; but he gets it.

“With his knowledge and appreciation of the game, it shouldn’t be surprising,” says Daniels, “Russell will always be different and choose the unexpected.”

“You couldn’t call him a hip-hop guy or put any kind of label on him,” says Daniels. “He was interested in everything. But it wasn’t because of UCLA; that interest was already in him.”

Westwood was bliss.

But for the first two weeks on the basketball court, Westbrook was lost.

“He didn’t know what was going on,” Keating remembers.

“I was really hard on him,” says Howland. “I pushed him and got on him maybe too hard sometimes.”

During a defensive drill, Westbrook was supposed to get back after a shot and be the safety valve. Instead, he crashed the offensive boards each time. Howland grew increasingly frustrated and kicked him off the floor. Westbrook mumbled under his breath and flashed that trademark scowl.

Over the days, Keating began to watch Westbrook, closely paying attention to body language, tone of voice and how he reacted to any and everything.

Then it hit him.

“Listen to what he’s saying, not how he’s saying it,” Keating told Howland.

It was like unlocking the first key to a complicated puzzle. Westbrook became easier to teach and started to pick up the college game.

But Howland trusted the steady duo of Arron Afflalo and Collison, who thrived in his team-oriented system and could execute down the stretch. They just couldn’t get Westbrook to slow down. The team couldn’t keep up with him, which made lineups he was in feel disjointed.

“He moved at warp speed, remembers Howland. “It was the only speed he had.”

Westbrook wound up playing just nine minutes per game, with paltry averages of 3.4 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.7 assists.

But the summer between his freshman and sophomore years would prove to be one of the most significant periods of his basketball development. He’d wake at 6 a.m. every morning and head to the gym to get shots up, followed by an intense weightlifting session.

After his summer classes, Westbrook would head over to the old Men’s Gym on campus for pickup games against whatever pros happened to be in town. Westbrook tested his ability against the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony. Few, if any, of the pros taking the floor with him could match his speed or athleticism.

“Nobody wanted to guard Russ,” says Mbah a Moute.

Coaches weren’t allowed to watch summer workouts, but Howland would run into former Bruins like Baron Davis and Earl Watson who couldn’t get over Westbrook’s drive and intensity.

“They’d just come up to me and say, ‘Wow,’” remembers Howland. “He just blew up that summer.”

As a full-time sophomore starter, he played with more control. Against Michigan State, he played 40 minutes with just one turnover. He could get his shot at any time. He learned to play with Darren Collison. He could aggressively defend without fouling and was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.

After the season, Westbrook visited Howland in his office. He wanted to put his name in the draft. Howland was reluctant. He thought Collison was leaving and hoped Westbrook would blossom into a well-rounded starting point guard as a junior. He had been in the mid-20s on most draft boards, and Howland thought that, with more skill development, he could be a top-three pick.

Plus, he had grown attached to Westbrook as the heart and soul of the program.

“You dream about coaching a kid like that, a person like him,” says Howland. “He was an unbelievable leader. He was so positive. He embraced everyone. His personality was so positive that everyone was taken aback. He was always so upbeat. He tested off the charts in all the personality tests. I really miss him.”

Sound and Fury

The Seattle SuperSonics' practice had been over for about 20 minutes. Starting point guard Earl Watson made his way up to the head coach’s office. P.J. Carlesimo was preparing to look at game tape of the Sonics' next opponent and return phone calls he had missed during the morning’s workout.

Watson knocked on the door and let himself in.

“You gotta see this kid,” Watson told him. “He’s the best player they have.”

Westbrook was on their radar, but the team was in the market for a big man. And the Sonics weren’t bowled over by his stats during his time at UCLA.

“But Earl was just bubbling,” says Carlesimo. “He kept telling us Westbrook was the best thing about the program. He made it his mission to convince us, so we started to take a serious look at him because he was so passionate.”

After Westbrook declared for the draft, he began working out full-time with trainer Rob McClanaghan. Westbrook would arrive daily at Santa Monica High School for high-intensity, 90-minute training sessions in the sweltering gym three blocks from the ocean.

He loved raggedy gyms. Squeaky floors, crooked rims and fingerprinted backboards gave his workouts a gritty charm.

It’s been the goal of nearly every coach or trainer who has worked with Westbrook to get him to do one thing: slow down.

“He’s such a freak athlete he didn’t know how to play slow,” says McClanaghan, who was a walk-on point guard at Syracuse from 1998 to 2001. “He needed to learn to play at different paces, which would actually make him harder to guard.”

McClanaghan explained to him that the best players in the world—Kobe, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron—played slow. In other words, they controlled tempo to set up their defender, then used their skills to get their desired shots.

“In this league,” says McClanaghan, “slow is quick. I’d rather have to slow a guy down than pick a guy up.”

Early on, Westbrook urged McClanaghan to come to the gym everyday—the same way his 12-year-old self would insist to his father that they work out on Thanksgiving. “He wanted to go seven days a week,” says McClanaghan.

To perfect his clanky pull-up, McClanaghan would have Westbrook start at one hash mark and dribble full speed to the opposite elbow, stop on a dime and pull straight up. They nicknamed the elbow the “kill spot.” Another drill would have him start at the foul line, race the length of floor and pull up at the other foul line.

Westbrook at his introductory presser.
Westbrook at his introductory presser.Getty Images

The Sonics landed the fourth pick and planned to bring in about 20 players for workouts. They had Stanford center Brook Lopez at No. 4 on their draft board. General manager Sam Presti loved Westbrook’s athleticism, but he wasn’t sold on playing him alongside Durant. Plus, the team desperately needed a big to anchor its defense.

In the run-up to the draft, Carlesimo cast his vote: Lopez.

“There just aren’t that many 10-year bigs that come along,” says Carlesimo.

After watching an early-morning workout in Santa Monica in which Russell arrived 45 minutes before the GM, Presti knew he had his man.

Howland was there the night Westbrook was taken with the fourth overall pick. He still has the SuperSonics cap the plucky guard from Leuzinger gave him that night.

On July 2, Carlesimo took his wife to dinner to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary when the phone rang just as the entrees arrived. It was Presti telling the coach the deal had gone through, clearing the way for the team to relocate to Oklahoma City. They had to be in OKC the next day to look for a new practice facility and begin preparing its renovation. Carlesimo had planned to spend the summer working with Westbrook, but he never got the chance. He wasn't able to make up for lost time that season, either.

After a 25-point home loss to the Hornets, Presti walked into Carlesimo’s office and told him he was being let go. The 1-12 team was no longer his. The players found out when assistant coach Scott Brooks boarded the plane and announced to the group that he was taking over.

It was now up to Brooks to continue the challenging task of molding Westbrook’s vast upside. His biggest ally was longtime assistant Rex Kalamian, who came on board a year later.

“You can’t build trust in a week or a month or even a year,” says Kalamian. “It doesn’t work like that. You have to allow him to see that you can offer him something that can help him, whether it’s skill development or valuable information during the flow of a game. When he tries things I suggest and they begin to work, the trust starts to build. That’s when he starts to believe in you.”

After several years together, Westbrook became receptive to Kalamian’s coaching to the point he’d be the one in his ear in late-game situations when the Thunder would narrow their offensive package down to three or four plays.

Kalamian would reach in his suit jacket and pull out an index card with the scripted plays Westbrook could choose to run depending on situations and matchups.

“He’d go down the list and say yea or nay,” says Kalamian. “That’s the other side of trust. We really let him call a game.”

Easy to dismiss, easy to ignore no more. The kid who once couldn’t get noticed by mid-level colleges is a perennial MVP candidate with four All-Star appearances, an All-Star MVP, a scoring title and a gold medal.

Kalamian sums it up: “What else is there for Russell Westbrook to do to prove to people who doubt him?” 

Courtesy of Scott Hirano

Back at the team’s Blue and White scrimmage, the next bucket wins. In a moment of confusion, Ibaka gets lost on a screen, freeing Steve Novak. Rookie Cameron Payne flings Novak a pass, and he knocks down a buzzer-beating three.

“Man, f--k!” screams Westbrook. “That’s bulls--t!”

He shoots Ibaka a death stare.

The second unit runs onto the floor, shouting wildly, and mobs Novak.

Westbrook storms back to the bench. He plops himself down on the last seat on the bench. Sitting about one foot away, you can feel the heat emanating from his sculpted body. You can smell his deodorant.

He stares forward. He is seething. He needs to be alone right now. For his benefit and everyone else’s. His arms rest in his lap, his fists balled.

Kevin Durant walks over and momentarily palms his head with his right hand.

“Way to go, Zero,” he says, before walking away.

Several players approach with an encouraging word and reach out to touch the balled fists in his lap. It’s a preemptive move to avoid seeing Westbrook leave them hanging. Kids call out to him by his last name, asking him for his bright-orange Jordan sneakers.

New coach Billy Donovan sees his star player and cautiously approaches.

“I thought you made a great pass on the second-to-last possession,” says Donovan. “Great awareness.”

Westbrook doesn’t flinch. He stares straight forward. Nothing. Donovan is slightly confused. “Good stuff,” he says, patting Westbrook on the shoulder again before slowly stepping back. Westbrook continues to stare forward. He doesn’t acknowledge anyone who approaches.

This is how he deals. Donovan pauses momentarily then awkwardly turns away.

“I don’t care what people think about me,” says Westbrook. “And I never will.”

The only thing you can’t change about yourself is where you’re from.

And you cannot change the indestructible Russell Westbrook.