Russell was short and skinny. His dad was Big Russ, so they called him Little Russ. But Little Russ' broad shoulders, gangly arms and clown-sized shoes hinted toward something bigger.
Deric Daniels, then just starting out as the director of teen programs at Challengers Boys & Girls Club in South Central Los Angeles, couldn't help but notice 10-year-old Russell's big feet and even bigger grin.
"Man, what size shoe you wear?" Daniels asked.
"A 10 or so," Russell Westbrook said.
"You know," Daniels told him, "one day, you're going to grow into those shoes."
There was another kid there, James, who stalked the same court while his mother, Monja Willis, spent her mornings volunteering. James was more stocky than speedy, with what Daniels described as a "slow and old-man game," at age nine. That, along with his big eyes, caught Daniels' attention.
James Harden spent his days dribbling around Compton, hitting passersby with crossovers and proto-Eurosteps, mimicking his favorite And1 mixtape moves.
The two would've played well together, even at that young age. Russ attacked the glass and got his teammates involved; James could shoot and distribute.
But during free play, they were never teammates. They subscribed to the sacred, unwritten rule of the playground: No superteams.
Off the court, they got along in Miss Vicky's home economics class, always eager to sample her latest batch of fresh-baked cookies. Russell, the respectful and helpful kid. James, relentlessly positive and consummately goofy.
At Challengers, they were still anonymous neighborhood kids, two of a million. Fast-forward 20 years: James Harden and Russell Westbrook are global superstars, MVP candidates with parallel origin stories.
Around the year 2000, if Mike Mayo remembers right, their paths crossed in an organized basketball game, at Charles H. Wilson Park, just off Crenshaw Boulevard in Torrance. Russell was just shy of 12; James was nearly 11.
Westbrook was all over the floor for L.A. Elite, a local travel ball team run out of Jesse Owens Park. Westbrook pestered every opponent, dove after every loose ball, made every play.
Harden could only sit and watch while his team, the Southern California All-Stars, let Westbrook influence every possession. Harden was buried on the depth chart, waiting for his chance to shine on a team that counted Tyson Chandler and Josh Childress among its alumni.
"We got a chance to see this kid going full speed, going extremely hard, just playing extremely tough," says Mayo, one of Harden's bench-bound teammates on the SoCal All-Stars.
Harden was eager to compete, but he didn't complain about playing time. Instead, he'd joke with teammates, dissect Kobe Bryant's nightly highlights and break down pop culture minutiae. He kept spirits light while the pecking order played out.
"He just always stayed positive because he knew his time was coming," Mayo says.
They met on the court again a few years later, at Artesia High School in Lakewood, a year before Harden enrolled there. Westbrook was set to start his freshman year at Leuzinger High in Lawndale. Harden still had another year at Audubon Middle School ahead of him.
They had come for a showcase set up by Derrick Cooper, the man behind the L.A. City Wildcats, one of Harden's early AAU teams. Cooper had rounded up some of the area's top athletes, including Harden after a visit to Audubon. Two of his teammates, Kenny Rowe and Terrell Turner, would later play football at the University of Oregon. Another, Jamar Prentice, could already dunk at that age, and might've been the best player on the court. Harden stood out, but for other reasons.
"Just weird-looking to me," Cooper recalls. "High butt, long legs. I was like, 'What is this kid going to do?' when I first recruited him."
But Harden could think quickly on his feet. He knew where, when and how to make plays for his teammates. He never let a defender get in his head. He never rushed.
"James was the kid that was really the glue," Cooper says.
Harden let it fly. So did Westbrook. Back and forth, jumper after jumper, until the sparse crowd combusted.
"You would've thought it was a Division I high school basketball game," Cooper says. "The gym was just rocking."
Cooper remembers the Wildcats splitting their two games against L.A. Elite. After one game, Westbrook shook his hand and thanked him for the opportunity to play.
"One of the most respectful young men I ever met," Cooper says.
The Leuzinger and Artesia campuses are separated by five freeways and two school districts in South Los Angeles, about 20 miles apart. Their boys' basketball teams belong to separate high school leagues and rarely play each other, save for a city playoff encounter or the occasional nonconference game. The two schools never met during the three years Westbrook and Harden overlapped in high school.
Still, Westbrook and Harden kept in touch, texting and catching up as they climbed the ranks of the L.A. hoops circuit.
Westbrook was coming on strong as his senior year at Leuzinger approached. He'd turned heads at the Adidas All-American Camp in Atlanta. Leuzinger coach Reggie Morris had to lobby the camp's organizers to get Russell a spot on a stacked team featuring future pros Michael Beasley and Wayne Ellington. A growth spurt sent his height past 6'0" and his hops soaring above the rim. During his final season at Leuzinger, Westbrook led the one-time relative unknown into the California Interscholastic Federation quarterfinals on the strength of a 25-4 record.
"Russell willed that team to win," Morris says.
At Artesia, it wasn't long before Harden worked his way into the school's storied basketball lineage, alongside the likes of Tom Tolbert, Tony Farmer, Jason Kapono and the O'Bannon brothers, Ed and Charles. In Harden's junior year, Artesia won all but one game en route to the first of consecutive California state titles.
In 2006, after Westbrook graduated from Leuzinger and before Harden's senior year at Artesia, the two scrimmaged at Southwest College, on the same court where Khelcey Barrs, Westbrook's close friend and high school teammate, had collapsed and died two years earlier.
They would start on the side courts and work their way to the middle, moving closer to the main event with each victory. They didn't need long, even against bigger, stronger, more mature players.
"It was more trial and error," Mayo says. "They would go out there and try different moves and try stuff and see if it worked. I think playing in that environment in the inner city, going against these grown men, it helped them a lot."
Westbrook's late bloom caught the eye of Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek. He was struck by Russell's tenacity and athleticism. Sendek offered him a spot at ASU, but Jordan Farmar's declaring for the NBA opened up a scholarship at UCLA, and Ben Howland came calling. Westbrook was in at UCLA.
The city, though, was slow to follow.
"There were so many people in the Los Angeles area that were just hating on him," Mayo says. "They didn't think he was good enough to [get a scholarship to UCLA].
"But James had the utmost respect and knew that he deserved it. … They're like brothers, always."
Harden earned his share of offers from big-time basketball schools, but by the time his mailbox blew up, he had already decided to be a Sun Devil. Scott Pera, his head coach at Artesia, was named director of basketball operations at Arizona State in spring 2006. Harden said he'd follow him to the desert. Later that summer, Harden committed to a future in Tempe.
The two met twice in Pac-10 conference play, although neither Harden nor Westbrook was the biggest standout on the court. Instead, it was double-double machine Kevin Love leading the Bruins to a pair of blowouts.
But the basketball world saw potential in all three. Scouts, agents, shoe reps, all searching for the next big thing found all they had hoped for in each matchup.
After the final buzzers, Westbrook and Harden set aside their on-court differences and reconnected as friends. When Westbrook went No. 4 overall to Oklahoma City in 2008, Harden road-tripped with Mayo from Phoenix to Hollywood for his draft party. In 2009, when Harden got the call at No. 3 from the Thunder, Westbrook came home for James' Hollywood nightclub celebration. They were finally kings in their city, and soon to be stars as teammates in Oklahoma, where parties and nightclubs were nowhere to be found. Just video games, laser tag and basketball.
"They looked at Oklahoma as the middle of nowhere," Mayo said. "With them having each other there, it made [the bond] strong because they had a connection from back home and they loved the game, loved to compete, never had any clashes on the court or off the court."
Before Harden moved out, they played pickup at Leuzinger with some of L.A.'s established NBA royalty—Trevor Ariza, Dorell Wright and Amir Johnson among them. And at the HAX, the Hangar Athletic Xchange, where they ran with pros from all over after training on their own in the morning. And at UCLA, where legends of all generations held court.
For three years, the Oklahoma City Thunder saw firsthand what Harden and Westbrook could do in tandem. In their first season as teammates, the Thunder won 27 more games than the year prior. Their second, OKC cracked the Western Conference Finals. The third? An NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat.
Four months later, Harden was gone, UPS'd to Houston in a trade for role players and draft picks. Four-and-a-half years after that, they were on opposite sides again.
Two competitive kids from Challengers, now two of the best basketball players in the world, MVP candidates with room to grow.
Westbrook, a walking triple-double, kept the Thunder competitive post-Kevin Durant. Against the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, he averaged 37.4 points per game but piled up misses (38.8 percent shooting) and turnovers (6.0 per game).
Harden reinvented himself this season as a brilliant pick-and-roll distributor to complement an unguardable scoring instinct. He carried the Rockets to the NBA's third-best regular-season record and a trip to the second round of the playoffs, averaging 33.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists during a five-game opening salvo over Westbrook's Thunder.
The final buzzer sounds in Game 5—another fourth-quarter lead squandered by the Thunder, another narrow victory (105-99) for the Rockets—and Westbrook is already on his way to the locker room.
No well wishes from Westbrook. No "good game, good series" from Harden.
Not on the court, anyway.
They'll see each other plenty this summer. They always have.
Attending Harden's birthday has just about become an August tradition for Westbrook. And it was nearly two years ago that Harden was a guest at Westbrook's wedding.
This week, they'll meet again in New York City for the NBA Awards. Westbrook, a new father. Harden, a dear friend. Both finalists for MVP, both hoping to walk away with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Friends before they were basketball icons, L.A. legends apart and together.