Tenth graders Khelcey Barrs and Russell Westbrook stepped into L.A. Southwest College just as they had many times that spring. They were accompanied by their high school head coach, Reggie Morris Jr, who at 24 was only a few years removed from his playing days at the community college.
Khelcey, a 6-6 athletic kid who was considered a national top-40 recruit, played the game with an ease that belied his 16 years of age. Westbrook, a scrawny 5-9 guard with size 14 shoes, was physically behind his best friend but understood how to play and was a big competitor.
Both had fiery demeanors, although Russ was the calmer of the two.
They would run against some of L.A.’s finest competition. Some high school upperclassmen, a lot of college players, some older guys who played in college and overseas.
“Me and my assistant coach would always go up to play and we would put Khelcey and Russ on our team,” Morris says. “And on most days we would definitely hold our own and get our fair share of wins.”
Russ was a quiet kid who let his game do the talking. Khelcey was outgoing and possessed an outward confidence. They lived directly across the street from each other and were inseparable on and off the court.
They would constantly talk about growing up together, winning a state title or two before playing at UCLA and, later on, in the NBA. But nearly 12 years ago, on May 11, 2004, a day where the duo was running up the win count at L.A. Southwest, Khelcey passed out on the court. His breathing stopped momentarily before he was revived and brought to the emergency room.
In a blur of screeching sneakers and ambulance sirens, Khelcey was pronounced dead of an enlarged heart by the time he reached the hospital.
Not one to express his emotional devastation, Russ vowed to never let Khelcey’s memory fade. Khelcey would become the chip on his shoulder.
“Every day, every game, I play for him, through him and his family as well,” says Russ, who used to perform Khelcey’s chores at his fallen friend’s house. “It’s something that I [use to] constantly keep an edge and keep my competitive nature.”
At the time, Westbrook was still going through growing pains and not even yet on the recruiting radar, but he never backed down and trained with every chance he’d get.
Russ played with the freshman team nearly his entire ninth grade year at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, CA. When Morris asked him to join the varsity squad during the state playoffs, Russ didn’t even expect to practice.
“He didn’t know we would be asking him to practice, so he did not have anything to practice in,” Morris recalls. “He worked out in his school shoes, some low-top Nike Air Force 1s.”
Leuzinger was led by a future NBA player, senior Dorell Wright, who would be selected in the first round of the 2004 NBA Draft just two months later. Russ wasn’t intimidated by Wright; he was there to compete.
That summer, Westbrook’s dad, Russell Sr, would work with him for hours doing push-ups, pull-ups and leg exercises in a sandbox in the courtyard of their apartment.
A career pickup baller, Big Russ would take Little Russ to shoot after practice in the sweaty gymnasiums of Hollywood’s shadow. Little Russ would get up hundreds of shots from the “cotton spot,” 15-18 feet from the basket.
While he still attacked the paint, Russ developed a reputation as the team’s best shooter.
“His game was all jump-stop, pull-ups. Everything was off the pull-up,” says Donnell Beverly, one of Russ’ high school teammates and close friends. “You could tell his dad was taking him to the park and drilling that into him.
“Before he really got athletic, he kind of played the same way. He just didn’t have that athleticism when he was younger. But he was always pretty much in the passing lanes.”
Russ would tirelessly ball-hawk on defense, getting steals that led to transition lay-ins on the other end. He didn’t dunk until a growth spurt shot him up to 6-2 his senior year.
“Shooting. Obviously shooting threes,” says Westbrook when asked to describe his pre-dunking game. “I was a much better shooter when I was in high school. I became better now, but I was a much better shooter in high school. I was attacking the basket, just wasn’t dunking on people.”
Still, at just 5-9, and heading into his junior season, Russ didn’t have a single scholarship offer.
Being picked fourth overall in the Draft? Impossible. Becoming a five-time All-Star and scoring champion? Preposterous.
“He began playing with a chip on his shoulder, but it’s actually Khelcey,” says Beverly. “Every year he got better drastically.”
He learned how to play out of the triple threat and create space using crafty bumps and jump stops. Although he was undersized and skinny, he worked on his post game and became an excellent rebounder.
He was fearless.
“He was like a ninja. A silent assassin,” says Morris. “Still figuring it out, but always fighting for respect and not afraid to demand it.”
He adopted the slogan “Why not?”
Become a starter on varsity? Why not?
Talk to that pretty girl in algebra class? Why not?
Beat the No. 1 guard in the 2007 class in pickup? Why not?
Indeed, Brandon Jennings, the highly touted lefty point guard from Dominguez High, came through to Leuzinger one summer.
Russ not only held his own, he won seven games straight, according to Beverly, and was asking to run it back when everyone had called it quits.
A gregarious straight-A student off the court, Russ gradually became more demonstrative on the court. He threw his fist and screamed with Khelcey’s fire following every big play. He pounded his chest when he began to throw it down.
What Russ lacked in size, he made up for in swagger and confidence.
“Even to this day, he just thinks he’s better than everybody,” says Beverly. “Not in an arrogant sense, but, ‘I put the work in, and I’m very confident with my work. And I know what I can do.’”
Everything came together with that fortuitous growth spurt during the summer leading to his senior season. At 6-2, Russ began to finish above the rim with ease, and his wingspan got him more thefts and easy transition buckets. He had just upgraded from a Camry to a Viper.
Then a fortuitous scholarship opened up late in the season when UCLA sophomore Jordan Farmar elected to declare early for the 2006 NBA Draft. Russell was going to be a Bruin.
Using his patented pull-up jumper from the cotton spot, he scored a career-best 51 points against Carson High. They played a 2-3 zone the whole game, and Russ exploited it with nearly all of his makes coming off the dribble.
He finished the season with gaudy averages of 25.1 ppg on 57 percent shooting from three, with 8.7 rpg, 3.1 spg and 2.3 apg. Leuzinger went 25-4 overall and made a CIF-SS Div. I-AA quarterfinal playoff appearance.
“I think God has a plan for everybody,” Russ says. “Once you realize what your plan is, you can take advantage of the opportunities given. You don’t complain and still try to find a way to get it done.”
The opportunities were scarce as Russ went off to UCLA during his first collegiate season. He scored in double figures just three times and averaged 9 minutes a game as a backup to Darren Collison.
UCLA had been to the National Championship game the previous season and was led by First-Team All-Pac-10 shooting guard Arron Afflalo.
The two were roommates a lot on the road, and as a freshman, Russ would soak in knowledge from his junior teammate.
“I just thought he was hungry,” Afflalo says. “Obviously, he was a great athlete. He was a hard worker and listener.”
UCLA made it back to the Final Four that season, and Russ scored in all five NCAA Tournament games but never played more than eight minutes. He finished the season with underwhelming averages of 3.4 assists, 0.8 rebounds and 0.7 assists.
But, once again, the improbable happened that summer.
Russell played in an NCAA-sanctioned summer league in Los Angeles called the Say No Classic. Players at the invite-only tournament noticed that Russ was a much different athlete than he had been his senior year of high school. Russ had some tremendous games against all of the good college players in SoCal, including future NBA players James Harden (Arizona State), OJ Mayo (USC), Taj Gibson (USC) and Austin Daye (Gonzaga).
He averaged over 30 points per game and had some unreal dunks.
“His work paid off that summer in terms of transitioning into a better college player,” Afflalo says, “and then from there, obviously, you can see the talent to play at the NBA level.”
The talent was evident at that point, but Russ didn’t get to completely showcase it during his second season. He stepped into Afflalo’s open starting spot, and even saw 33.4 minutes per game, but made his name as a defensive specialist.
Freshman Kevin Love garnered most of the attention while winning Pac-10 Player of the Year. Russ improved his averages to 12.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg and 4.3 apg and was named the Pac-10’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Russ did his best to fit in with UCLA’s scheme rather than trying to stand out, and the Bruins made a third consecutive Final Four run in 2008. (Memphis beat the Bruins, though the win was later vacated upon discovery that Derrick Rose’s SAT scores were invalid.)
Stanford’s Robin Lopez remembers going up against UCLA’s stacked squad that season.
UCLA beat Stanford three times, including the Pac-10 championship game, where Russ had a game-high 11 rebounds.
“He stood out in his own way,” says Lopez, “but there were so many different players on that team that you would never have known that he would turn out to be the Russell Westbrook that he is today. He played the right way. He played with his teammates. He made the right plays to help out the squad.”
In the NCAA Tournament, Russ proved his worth against NBA-level competition. He put up 14 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists against Western Kentucky guard Courtney Lee, while holding Lee to 7-29 shooting. Against D-Rose and Memphis, Russ had 22 points with 3 boards and 2 assists.
The scrawny kid with feet too big for his body was now one of the hottest prospects to enter his name into the 2008 NBA Draft.
“To this day, I always tell him, Do you kind of look back and see some of the things from where you came from to actually what you’re doing now?” says Beverly, who would go on to win a National Championship at UConn and now works in real estate. “It’s actually truly amazing.”
Ask Russ, and not even he could have imagined his life turning out this way. Dropping triple-doubles in 30 minutes or less. Leading the League in scoring. Leading the League in steals. All-Star Game MVP. Fourth in regular-season MVP voting. Hearing from Allen Iverson, who said he admires his game.
He’s taking off from a marketing standpoint as well, with Subway, Mountain Dew, Barney’s, True Religion and Jordan Brand among the list of companies that Russ has deals with.
He’s treading into the fashion space and letting fans know he can dance with the best of ’em in the NBA, too.
It’s a life he couldn’t have fathomed when Khelcey was alive.
I’m sitting with Russ in an empty locker room deep in the confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena. Russell is wearing the Air Jordan XXX for likely the first time. This is more than a month before the official unveiling. Well before images leaked online.
A photographer changes the backdrop of the cover shoot in front of us.
I ask Russ about toughness, a trait that’s visually chronicled by his collection of scars from over the years. What does toughness mean to him?
“Just competing,” he says. “I only know how to play one way, and that’s by competing at a high
level and trying to find a way to win a game.”
The night before, the Thunder lost their second straight game, a heartbreaking 97-95 loss in Miami. Russ had 25 points, but missed 3 three-point attempts and turned the ball over twice in the final five minutes as OKC relinquished its lead.
Russ flew home early this morning, went through practice and now, he’s in the middle of posing for the cover of SLAM 196.
He’ll then go straight to film a commercial for the AJXXX.
He shows not a hint of exhaustion. He’s attentive, answering my questions almost before I can finish them. We just met moments ago, and I feel like I’ve known him since he was young. He’s the same person at heart. Humble. Easy-going. Fun to be around.
I bring up his “KB3” wristband. I wonder if he can still feel Khelcey’s presence. Whether he has the same chip on his shoulder.
I ask, if he could write Khelcey a letter today, what would he tell him?
Russ pauses ever so quickly.
“I don’t know, man,” he says. “I’d take some time to do that. But my job and my duty, I think, is to constantly keep playing for him and through his name.”
Sure, Russ hasn’t forgotten the people who counted him out and didn’t think he was good enough. He remembers the players he beat when he was young who were all considered better than him. He’s proven who the best player is.
What drives him now is the memory of KB3. What does he think Khelcey would want him to accomplish now?
He’d want him to get a ring.
“A Championship would be super huge for him. That’s all he’s really talking about,” says Beverly. “When we were talking about upcoming free agencies with all these players, I asked him, If you were in that position, what would you do? And he was like, ‘I want to win, so I’m not going to do this or that—whatever the scenario may be. I want to win.’”
Most place the Thunder in a tier below the Spurs, Warriors and Cavs. But none of those teams have a 1-2 punch like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the NBA’s last two scoring champs whose combined PER of 57.6 this season is the highest in the shot clock era.
As of press time, OKC has the third highest point differential, below the Spurs and Warriors and several points above the Cavs per 100 possessions.
The Thunder have added a capable pick-and-roll finisher in Enes Kanter, something the team has badly needed in past seasons.
By adjusted scoring margin, this Thunder team is the strongest it’s ever been, even outperforming the 2012 team that made it to the Finals.
But most importantly, the Thunder have Russ at the very peak of his powers. His assist and rebound rates are the highest they’ve been in his career and he’s posting a career-best 55.4 True Shooting Percentage as of press time.
Russ keeps finding ways to improve. The chip on his shoulder is as firm as ever.
“Every year, I just try to find a way to be more efficient,” Russ says. “Each and every season, I try to find different ways in my game to improve.”
Later on in the day at the Jordan Brand commercial shoot, a 10-year-old “inner hype kid” pumps up the crowd as Westbrook gets ready to take the court. You can’t help but wonder if Russ sees a bit of Khelcey in the boy.
Between takes, Russ jokes around with the Thunder’s mascot, Rumble the Bison. If anyone had any doubts, Rumble—even off camera—is in perpetual motion.
It’s nearly 7 p.m. when the lights dim and the cameras on the commercial shoot stop rolling. The young actor playing Russell’s 10-year-old self chases down his idol on the Thunder’s home court and asks for a picture.
“My friends will never believe me when I tell them that I met Russell Westbrook,” he says.
Russ flashes his megawatt smile, gives the kid a pat on the head and walks toward his family waiting on the sidelines.
“I know if he was here, he’d be right with me.”
Ryne Nelson is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @slaman10.
Portraits by Trevor Paulhus