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When an NBA all-star from South L.A. comes home

When an NBA all-star from South L.A. comes home
Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook high-fives Haili-Ann McKinley after reading a book with herand Jayden Wade, right, at Manhattan Place Elementary School in Los Angeles. Westbrook opened reading rooms at three elementary schools during an area visit. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Two dozen elementary students sat in their school library, craning their necks to take in all 6 feet and 3 inches of Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
“It’s great to be back home,” he told the children of 75th Street Elementary in South L.A. “I went to this school. I grew up in the neighborhood around here, so this is home for me.”
Westbrook returned to 75th Street on Friday to open a reading room in the school’s library. He spent the morning in his old neighborhood, driving a gray jeep from 75th to two other local schools, Manhattan Place Elementary in South L.A. and Frank D. Parent in Inglewood. He opened reading rooms and donated about 1,200 books at each spot.
The 75th Street school looked the same as it did when Westbrook attended, he said in an interview. He recognized the yard where he played basketball, the dirt where he used to play marbles. As a student, he preferred math and didn’t make it to the library that often himself. His parents made sure he focused on school first, and he made sure to maintain honor roll grades with the goal of attending college on academic scholarship. Ultimately, he got a basketball scholarship and left UCLA early when the NBA came calling.

Westbrook’s philanthropic organization partnered with Scholastic Book Fairs to open “Russell’s Reading Rooms.” At Manhattan Place and Parent, the rooms will aim to help students reading below grade level catch up. The rooms showed no Oklahoma City ties, but displayed Westbrook’s L.A. past with fresh coats of blue and gold paint, UCLA logos and life-size Westbrook decals. 

But perhaps his most significant contribution on Friday was coming back to talk to the young students.  

At 75th Street, two kids helped Westbrook read a book called "I Like Myself" out loud. Then, Westbrook asked if the students had any questions.

They had plenty.

The kids wanted to know what Westbrook’s favorite book is ("Missing Since Monday" by Ann M. Martin), whether he is friends with Kevin Durant (yes), and when he is coming to L.A. (though the young questioner meant as a player on the Lakers or Clippers, Westbrook pointed out that he was visiting L.A. at that very moment).

At almost every turn, Westbrook turned his interactions into pep talks on education. He told the children how school was a priority for him and "sports always came second." At Manhattan Place, he chided a student who was supposed to be in class but had lingered in the hall to catch a glimpse of the star.  The kids at Frank D. Parent were too shy to ask questions, so their moms and dads prompted Westbrook to get some points across.

One mother asked Westbrook to talk about the importance of practice, because her son loves basketball but only ever wants to show up on game day.
Other parents asked Westbrook about whether he was ever allowed to quit an activity. They also asked how his parents kept him and his brother busy enough to avoid the distractions that face kids growing up in South L.A. and Inglewood.
To that, they received a vocabulary lesson of sorts. Westbrook said his family emphasized focus, but of quitting, he said, “that word is not in our family.” To keep Westbrook busy, his parents made sure he had options for after-school activities and sent him to Challengers Boys and Girls Club at 51st Street and Vermont.

Lilieth El was a teacher at 75th Street Elementary for 20 years, and she taught Westbrook in the fourth grade. She remembered him as a quiet, respectful student who loved to play in the yard.

For the kids in elementary school now, she said, Westbrook offers a neighborhood connection to broader aspirations. Many of her students’ lives were restricted to home, school and the journey in between — not exposure to basketball stars or options for traveling as Westbrook does.

"They know about the unpleasant things: people who get shot in their front yards," El said. "So Russell coming back is like saying, 'There's a world out there, where you can really be famous, where you can really do what you want to do.' ...When someone comes back it says, 'I have made it, and so can you.'"

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Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @sonali_kohli or by email at sonali.kohli@latimes.com.

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