“Brooklyn’s back on the map, I’m not bragging. Defeating all foes, bring your styles.”
Jeru the Damaja introduced that lyric to the world in “Brooklyn Took It,” which dropped in 1994. It’s been 25 years since then, but for the Brooklyn Nets, it still holds weight today. The Nets are most definitely back. They’re in the middle of the playoff picture, holding on to a future that’s shimmering with potential, while rolling through a fast-tracked rebuild in the present. Their nimble turnaround from a team burdened with horrible contracts, aging centerpieces and no draft picks is a credit to great coaching, fluid team-oriented offense, a sound defense and, most importantly, D’Angelo Russell.
Russell earned his first All-Star selection this season, convincingly evolving into the best player on a team headed to the postseason. He’s fought through years of deafening criticism to become one of the League’s most effective and entertaining point guards. He’s an artist in the pick-and-roll, a ballplayer with no fear. Give him the rock in the clutch and get out the way.
The all-around growth is simple. It’s come down to confidence, opportunity and patience. Because all of this was supposed to happen—the All-Star appearance, being the clear-cut franchise cornerstone, making the playoffs. Ever since he was little, growing up in Louisville, KY, Russell has been putting in work on the court.
“We got our first rim in our grannie’s backyard and we used to shoot all the time,” Russell remembers. “I used to shoot really high. It was just my thing. All the kids would come over—you shoot high, you shoot high. And they just started calling me Rainbow.”
“He wasn’t strong enough to shoot it, to really shoot it,” his older brother Antonio says. “He would have to throw it. And it always went in. Everybody around the neighborhood used to call him Rainbow. ‘Rainbow, there’s Rainbow.’” While cracking a smile, Antonio brings his voice up higher, imitating the kids from their hometown.
Antonio, who’s two years older than D’Angelo, goes on to say that his brother’s skill-level was advanced from the very start.
“We had a few neighborhood friends that would come over,” Antonio says. “And he was the youngest. Everybody was my age group or a year older than me. They would all come over there and everybody would be going at it. I think that’s where he developed that toughness. Everybody would try to go at him. He was already equipped as to how to handle them. He knew that the only way to get everybody’s respect was to go at them. He had to.”
D’Angelo’s mental stamina was already being developed, and he would need it early on in his career. After a standout freshman season at Central High School in Louisville, he transferred to Montverde Academy, a national powerhouse in Florida that’s become a breeding ground for future pros. But he got benched immediately. His head coach, Kevin Boyle, was always dogging him, cursing him out. Russell’s tolerance was running low.
“I remember coming in, I was coming off the bench,” Russell says. “I would dominate practice. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing. I called my dad after, like, a month or two and I was like, ‘I wanna come home.’ He was like, ‘Nah, stick it out. You wanna win a national championship or a state championship?’ I was like, damn, OK. Then we ended up winning. The pain, the storm that you go through, it’s always brighter on the other side when you just deal with it.”
The lefty wasn’t done with the pain, though. When he was selected by the Lakers in the 2015 draft, things looked like they were going to be all good.
“We had a lot of players there that could dominate the game,” Russell says. “You go back to Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram. We had a lot of dudes there.”
But shit got rocky and he could sense a trade was coming. A deal announced two days before the 2017 draft sent him to the Nets. Instead of being salty, he was hype for the opportunity.
“When he first got traded, I remember exactly where I was at,” Antonio says. “I was in Kentucky at a movie theater. I called him right away. I was like, ‘Yo, what is it?’ He was just like, ‘Bro, you do not know how excited I am right now to have a clean slate.’”
“For me to get traded first, I knew that I was prepared to go dominate wherever I went,” Russell says. “I was ready.”
Nonstop hate and doubt followed him from L.A. to BK, but Russell was never shook.
“It’s just this…” Russell says about the internet’s and the media’s constant desire for drama. He makes a talking, Pacman-like motion with his hands. “I knew my circle. We were tight and we knew what it was.”
It was a chance to start fresh with a young team that was squarely off the national media’s radar. Russell’s first season in Brooklyn was solid. He put up good numbers, posting averages of 15 points and 5 assists. But he only played in 48 games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in November of 2017.
When the season ended and the Nets missed the playoffs for the third consecutive time, Russell took a long look in the mirror. He’s always been able to assess whatever’s going on in his life, good or bad, and be honest with himself about it. For only being born in 1996, he’s mature for his age, a psyche battle-tested by years of living in the spotlight and performing under pressure. He was just 22 when last year’s campaign wrapped up, but he knew it was time for a change. The 2018-19 season was going to be his.
So rather than going home to Louisville or spending the summer in Los Angeles, Russell stayed in Brooklyn with a hunger that was totally revived. He damn near lived in the gym. He made adjustments that he never had before. He worked on basketball and updated everything about his body.
Antonio says his brother cut out junk food and that his renewed dedication to eating right has rubbed off on the entire Russell family. They’re all following in D’Angelo’s footsteps. But D’Angelo wasn’t following in anyone else’s. He made the decision to switch up his eating habits by himself.
“I didn’t know, you know? As soon as practice was over I remember I was the first one to leave,” Russell says. “I’d get my shots up, but I wasn’t getting treatment. I wasn’t getting massages, ice cold tub, doing all of that, because I didn’t know.”
So who told him?
“Man, I’ve picked so many peoples’ brains,” he says. “[Rajon] Rondo, Chris Paul, James Harden, LeBron. All those dudes. There’s a reason they’re there. They know the secret, they know what it takes off the court. Everybody can play but what are you doing for your body to be prepared for every practice, every game?”
“It was tough to begin the season,” Nets’ forward Jared Dudley says. “He was getting benched in fourth quarters. He was struggling offensively, trying to find his role. Caris took off and to see [Russell] cheer on the bench, take constructive criticism in film sessions and it finally clicked. I think it took Caris’ injury and him to be a little more aggressive and the coaches to have a little more faith. But he’s responded. Once he got his rhythm, his confidence just kept building.”
But the confidence, according to his brother, has never been an issue.
“Yeah, the confidence has been there. Been there, man,” Antonio says with a laugh. “There’s not much that can take that from him. And when the opportunity came and he needed to display it, he took it and ran with it.”
Russell flipped everything about his game once he was given the reins. Floaters, midrange fadeaways, rainbow three-pointers, ice-in-his-veins buckets in close games, they all started to fall. Forty points and a game-winner in Orlando. Thirty-six points, 8 assists and 7 boards to outlast the Cavaliers in a triple-overtime marathon. A 34-point outing against the Celtics; a night with 14 dimes against the Raptors; a 22-point and 13-assist performance in a win over the Lakers. An absurd 44-point performance in Sacramento, that included 27 points in the fourth quarter, en route to a 28-point comeback. Averages of 23.6 points and 7.7 assists since January 1. And a wild performance on his 23rd birthday, one that both D’Angelo and Antonio count as their favorite moment of the season.
“I surprised myself,” Russell says about that night in Charlotte when he scored the Nets’ final 12 points. “I just looked up and I had 40. Damn.”
“And [the Nets] having the lead, losing the lead and then coming back,” Antonio remembers. “And [D’Angelo] being the catalyst for that comeback. That was special.”
Even more than the stats and individual performances, though, Russell’s teammates say the biggest leap he’s made is as a leader. They repeat the word over and over.
“He’s a great leader,” rookie Rodions Kurucs says. “He gives me all the tips. Always coming to talk to me. Just explaining things, trying to motivate me also.”
“From what I’ve heard, I’ve heard he’s matured a lot,” Ed Davis says. Davis, a defensive-minded veteran, has been in the League since 2010 and his locker is right next to Russell’s. “Since I’ve been here, he’s been a great teammate, a good leader.”
“He’s the best player on this team and [he’s] leading us,” high-flying center Jarrett Allen says. “I’ve seen him grow in that area. People don’t understand. They understand he’s taken a step but not how big of a step it is.”
“He’s 50 percent more vocal now than he was in the beginning of the year,” Dudley echoes. “He leads our huddle, leads our breaks. People critiqued that early in his career, being young. I would say that he was quiet early in the year and he’s definitely vocal now. It’s been a nice, natural progression.”
Russell’s progression, both on and off the court, has been all about finding his way through landmines of drama. High school, his brief time with the Lakers, his start with the Nets, they were all tests. Perseverance and persistence have been Russell’s calling cards for years now.
It’s led to the photos you see here. The tribute to Biggie, crown on his head, Brooklyn across his chest, that means something. That’s earned.
“I get so focused on what I’m trying to achieve and I just look up and all of this is here,” Russell says about the playoffs, All-Star Weekend, his career-best season.
“If the game shakes me or breaks me, I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand. Stay far from timid, only make moves when your heart’s in it. And live the phrase ‘Sky’s the limit.’”
Christopher Wallace introduced that lyric to the world in 1997. It’s been 22 years since then, but for D’Angelo Russell, it still holds weight today.
Portraits by Justin Borucki.