The pursuit of greatness drives D’Angelo Russell after rocky first season with the Lakers

D’Angelo Russell
D’Angelo Russell scores a reverse layup against the Golden State Warriors in preseason play.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

You can tell D’Angelo Russell how big this is.

You can tell him of the astronomical expectations on being drafted No. 2 overall by the Lakers, that one of the most famous names in sports is counting on him to become a star in a city that’s never gone so long without a winning season from its marquee basketball franchise. You can try tell him all that and the 20-year-old will challenge your assumption, ready before you even finish the thought.

“I don’t believe that,” he’ll say.

There’s no use in arguing something so ingrained.

“It’s just a lot of history here, it’s a lot of fans,” Russell explains, as he enters his second NBA season. “At the end of the day, the Houston Rockets have a practice facility with a name. The Milwaukee Bucks have a practice facility with a name. At the end of the day when you step in between those lines, none of that matters.”

See, Russell’s father taught him he would one day be great. He taught him he could do anything he wanted, and that his family would stand by him no matter what trials he met along the way. That belief pushed him through the sometimes rocky early stages of his NBA career. 

As a 6-foot-5 scorer, Russell is part of a wave of non-traditional point guards, who are no longer just little guys who can run the offense, in a league that’s now dominated by the position. If he becomes what the Lakers expected when drafting him, they’ll join the league’s point-guard revolution and pull themselves out of the purgatory that’s led to 65 wins combined in the last three seasons.

That is pressure. But Russell doesn’t see it that way. His family taught him not to believe anything was too big for him. He trusts a very small group of people, and he keeps those people close still.

Antonio Russell Jr. could hear the weight in his brother’s voice, especially when he called him by an old family nickname, Pooh. 

It was the spring of 2015 and draft boards had D’Angelo as a possible top five pick. He loved college, but leaving to declare for the NBA draft was probably the best thing for him. He just didn’t want to leave alone – again.

D’Angelo was home for the weekend and the brothers talked all night. They slept in the same bed, like kids again, Antonio Jr. remembers, at their dad’s house in Louisville, Ky. D’Angelo made a request.

“He said, ‘The only way I’m leaving is if y’all go with me,’ ” Antonio recalls. “ ‘If y’all don’t go with me there’s no way I’m leaving.’ ”

As D’Angelo looks back, he knows he would have declared for the draft even if his brothers couldn’t join him. But he wanted them there. The brothers had been inseparable for so much of their childhood, but in recent years they’d been apart.

There were three of them — D’Angelo, Antonio Jr. and LaShawn Gilliam. Gilliam is Antonio’s age, two years older than D’Angelo, and shares a father with D’Angelo and Antonio. They played video games together, fought together and played basketball using a hoop made out of a milk crate at their grandmother’s house.

“He would never hit anything,” Gilliam said, an air of big-brother teasing in his voice. “But he was two years younger than us. One day he got really, really, really lucky.”

He hit every crazy shot he tried, even one while he looked away from the rim. They nicknamed him “Rainbow” after the arc the basketball followed.

When Gilliam moved to Atlanta with his mother, D’Angelo and Antonio visited once a month at their father’s insistence. He wanted his sons to form a bond that would stay with them throughout their lives.

Their father taught them all they were destined to be great no matter what profession they chose. 

“We come from Louisville, Kentucky,” said Antonio Russell Sr. “The neighborhoods that we lived in a lot of people don’t make it out of. [Basketball] was something to keep him occupied and busy and give him an opportunity to get to college. … They were small kids that meant the world to their family.”

D’Angelo was often traveling with his AAU teams. Each time he’d return, he’d see friends swallowed by a life his parents never let him consider.

According to the Courier-Journal in Louisville, this week Jefferson County saw its 100th homicide of the year.

“It was a lot of danger, I can say that, and it’s still going on now,” said Ellis Myles, who coached D’Angelo with the Louisville Magic AAU team. “I think it was him just always being gone, playing basketball. His father keeping him around the right people. Knowing that his son didn’t have to see the same things he had to see.”

At the end of the day knowing right from wrong got me through a lot.

— D'Angelo Russell

D’Angelo and Antonio Jr. lived with both of their parents for the first several years of their lives, then just with mom for a few years, before moving in with their father.

“If there was anything going on in the neighborhood outside, I’m the mother that’s out there trying to figure out what’s going on with no shoes on,” said Keisha Rowe, D’Angelo and Antonio’s mother. “It was like no this is not going to happen. You’re not going to get my boys. They’re not going to be criminals. They’re not going to be in prisons and jails and beating women and all this stuff.”

Said D’Angelo: “At the end of the day knowing right from wrong got me through a lot.”

D’Angelo left Louisville for Montverde Academy in Florida starting his sophomore year of high school.He joined a boarding school whose alumni include 2016 first-overall pick Ben Simmons and Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute.

There he had to make his bed and vacuum his room. Sometimes when he’d complain on the phone, Myles would mute his line and laugh, then tell D’Angelo he needed that.

In Louisville, D’Angelo’s talent surpassed anyone else’s. At Montverde, he wasn’t even starting.

“It was the rude awakening that he needed,” his father said. “The coach was like, ‘Hey, I don’t care about your offense. It’s all about defense.’ It’s also about waiting your turn. Proving yourself time and time again.”

He became a star quickly, and the time away matured him. But he was  still not considered a sure one-and-done. Ohio State loved him but figured he’d be there for two years.

That changed when he scored 33 points against West Virginia in a scrimmage. Ohio State Coach Thad Matta told his assistants to start recruiting another guard for the next year.

“I was [in college] for six or seven months and it was business as soon as I stepped on campus,” D’Angelo said. “I remember the blood, sweat and tears I went through to get to draft day. But I don’t remember college. I loved college. But it sucks, I want to go back and just be a student athlete.”

He also trusted Matta and his staff, especially assistant coach Jeff Boals, like he didn’t trust many people.

The pros for leaving school eventually outweighed the cons. There was just one thing he needed. His brothers.

That night in Louisville a year and a half ago, he and Antonio Jr. talked about his hesitation; they talked about where he was on draft boards.

“I said, ‘You can’t miss out on this opportunity,’ ” Antonio Jr. said. “People go back to school to be where you are on the draft board. … The fact that you’re there and you’re a freshman, you can’t miss that.

“I’ll go. I’ll go with you.”

When the Lakers drafted D’Angelo, Antonio Jr. saw something he never saw before. He saw his father cry.

D’Angelo, Antonio Jr., Gilliam and their cousin Craig Owens all live together not far from the Lakers’ practice facility. Their father plans to move to Los Angeles this year, adding to the protective shield.

“It’s like the Drake quote: No new friends,” Antonio Jr. said. “We mess with our four and that’s what matters.”

Added Gilliam: “We’re definitely the bodyguards I guess, but we pay attention and we understand what’s good and what’s bad.”

Antonio Jr. and Gilliam attended Northern Kentucky University when the Lakers drafted their little brother. They’re both still working toward their degrees through online classes and Antonio plans to transfer to a local college. 

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell poses for photographs during media day on Sept. 26.
Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell poses for photographs during media day on Sept. 26. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They help manage D’Angelo’s off-the-court affairs and filter the people who enter his life.

They’ve watched their brother, who only got his driver’s license after getting drafted, learn some hard lessons few teenagers experience so publicly.

“He was a 19-year-old rookie in the NBA,” Antonio Jr. said. “No boys allowed league. At that time he was still a — a mature boy — but he was still a boy mentally. A lot of things are going to prepare him to have an outrageous second year.”

There were bright spots in his rookie season, like the night he scored 39 points and hit a game-sealing three against the Brooklyn Nets.

“I’ve never seen him come home and have that kind of smile on his face,” Gilliam said.

There were also dimmer days. The Lakers went 17-65.

During the season, then-Lakers coach Byron Scott noted D’Angelo’s playful nature and pointed toward immaturity. D’Angelo was out of the starting lineup by the first week of December.

In February, D’Angelo re-entered the starting lineup, but his rookie-year troubles were far from over. In March, a few weeks after the Nets game, a video Russell filmed of teammate Nick Young talking about women other than his fiancée became public. Russell’s teammates reportedly shunned him for a time.

“I knew the truth, my people knew the truth, that’s all that mattered,” D’Angelo said. “I didn’t do that [stuff]. I didn’t do that. I recorded it I guess, but I didn’t leak the video. I still to this day don’t [know how it got out].” 

Antonio Jr. told his little brother the fallout was a blessing in disguise. It would force him to grow up and appreciate the opportunity before him.

D’Angelo’s network of former coaches, his teammates along the way, his brothers, his cousins and parents all hear from him regularly, and they reached out when he needed it.

Boals, the assistant from Ohio State, texted a message of support both after D’Angelo was benched and after the story broke of his rift with Young.

“Those are some lonely times sometimes,” said Boals, who is now the head coach at Stony Brook. “That’s what friends and family are for. He’s a great young man. I think he’s got a great heart. You live and you learn sometimes.”

Despite speculation the Lakers would trade or release Young, both players remain on the team and are cordial.

“Time heals,” D’Angelo said. “As long as I’m doing what I gotta do on the court, my family’s straight, my family knows what I’ve got going on. That’s all that matters.”

Pressure might not weigh on Russell, but greatness does drive him.

There’s a reminder on the outside of his right calf – a tattoo of Muhammad Ali. He wasn’t just the greatest boxer of all time, but the greatest athlete to ever come out of Louisville. Ali went to Louisville Central High, the same place D’Angelo began.

He wants to be part of the small club of great athletes to come out of Louisville. It’s why he took a more business-like approach this season. It’s why he was in the Lakers’ practice facility nearly every day during the off-season.

“It’s a complete change,” Antonio Jr. said. ”It’s gonna be a good year. He knows that he’s still on the fence. You can go right or you can go left. He’s straddling the fence right now.”

He’ll take the next step, with his family’s support, as he moves forward from here.

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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