Just a kid from Hawthorne: The high stakes of Russell Westbrook’s L.A. homecoming

EL SEGUNDO, CA - OCTOBER 13: Portrait of Los Angeles Lakers star Russell Westbrook.
Lakers star Russell Westbrook poses for a photo outside of the team’s training facility in El Segundo.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)
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Russell Westbrook has a dog. It doesn’t snarl the way he sometimes does at the media. It doesn’t speed past or through things like he can around the 4,700 square feet of an NBA basketball court.

It’s a tiny, white-haired Yorkipoo, six pounds tops. Sometimes, he playfully puts it on his shoulders.

This is the original “Brodie,” the fluffy 7-year-old dog that shares Westbrook’s home with his college sweetheart wife, Nina, his soccer-playing son, Noah, and his twin girls, Skye and Jordyn. And, for the first time since he’s been a star in the NBA, Westbrook wants you to know something.

“I just do normal things,” the new Laker said with a shrug.

Normal and Russell Westbrook — those words don’t often collide in sentences unless there’s a “not” acting as a buffer.

A portrait of Lakers star Russell Westbrook outside the team's training facility.
“I just do normal things,” said Russell Westbrook, one of the NBA’s most unique and dynamic players.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

He came from seemingly nowhere to become one of the NBA’s most unique, dynamic players. A no-doubt Hall of Famer, Westbrook, who turns 33 on Nov. 12, has redefined the possibilities of statistical production, obliterating triple-double records. He’s got 184 of them — 85 more than LeBron James, who has the second most among active players.

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He also has a unique style off the court and made fashion as much a part of basketball as fast breaks, helping the NBA become an even bigger part of that culture.

But it’s Westbrook’s on-court intensity, the demolition-derby style of play and unhinged intensity that have defined him.

He’s sick of that reputation.

“Literally almost every time I come across somebody,” he said, “they always tell me, ‘Oh man, I didn’t know that you were going to be like …’ And I’m always, ‘I was gonna be like what? What is it? What do you expect me to do? Scream in your face?’”

James, a key reason why Westbrook is back home in L.A., has long admired the truthfulness and effort Westbrook gives to the game and to his teams.

Fourteen years into his career, Westbrook is a Laker, ready to open up, ready to share, and if things go to plan, ready to win.

“I want this for him,” James said.. “More than he knows.”

Russell Westbrook poses for a photo at the 2021 Met Gala benefit.
Russell Westbrook poses for a photo at the 2021 Met Gala benefit in September.
(Taylor Hill/WireImage)

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Westbrook always has been of this city, experiencing Los Angeles in more ways in the last two decades than most do in a lifetime. He went from a teen watching movies at the South Bay Pavilion with his younger brother to dancing on NBA sidelines seemingly overnight.

Finally, he’s back — the starting point guard on the Lakers and the biggest X-factor in the NBA. It was a dream too big to fit inside his universe growing up in Hawthorne. Even as a professional, after repeated trade rumors that had him heading home, he still didn’t believe it could happen.

Until it did.

“Somebody call me when this is actually real,” he told his representatives.

It was July 19. He wanted to be a Laker and had spoken with James and Anthony Davis about it. But, seemingly, a trade couldn’t get done, their three huge salaries an obstacle. The Lakers were ready to move on to a trade for Sacramento guard Buddy Hield before Westbrook and the Washington Wizards agreed to do the deal.

The news coursed through his family like a current — his wife overcome with emotion, his brother caught in a surreal haze, his friends in disbelief.

There would be no more hectic days in late summer, rushing to pack and leave L.A. for training camp east of the Rockies, no more stress about missed soccer practices or dance lessons. He wouldn’t have to be an absentee philanthropist in Los Angeles. He could be around for all of that. And he could play for an NBA title.

On Tuesday, he’ll play his first home game in Los Angeles since he was a sophomore at UCLA. A nine-time All-Star, a lifelong Lakers fan who used to watch the team play on KCAL-9, he’ll take the court to start a new chapter.

“It’s crazy how things align,” Westbrook said, flashing a wide smile.

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Even though Westbrook is from here, does anyone actually know him here? Do they know him as a person or are they fixated on his on-court shortcomings, the things the public has conflated with suspect character?

This, more than anything else, is at the core of Westbrook’s dissatisfaction with the way pundits talk about him. No one is without fault on the court so he wonders why should he be any different?

Westbrook thinks his mistakes hit differently, the jump shots, the turnovers, the missed rotations all ammunition for hot-take artists.

It’s why he’s talking now and why he let cameras into his life three years ago for a documentary, “Passion Play,” that he executive produced for Showtime.

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He had to be convinced. His brother, Raynard, and his best friend, Donnell Beverly, thought it was the right time to tell his story.

“It’d be dope for you to actually open up because you don’t open up,” Raynard told his brother. “You’ve never opened up like this.”

Russell Westbrook is joined by his brother Raynard, left, while dishing a Thanksgiving dinner.
Russell Westbrook is joined by his brother Raynard, left, while dishing a Thanksgiving dinner at Jesse Owens Community Regional Park.
(Getty Images for Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation)

After years of hearing his game be dissected, the words often veering into what he considered attacks on his character, Westbrook decided to push back.

“I just no longer can sit back and be like, I’m just like this random person that don’t know anything about me, just to make up a story and talk about me on TV without addressing it,” Westbrook said. “Not that I care, but also, like, I have kids. So you’re not about to disrespect me and my character or who I am. I just want to make sure that that’s clear.”

On one hand, he says he doesn’t care about the critics who have labeled him selfish or a bad teammate or an ego-driven prima donna. On the other, he hears it all. In his film, he wanted to make sure everyone else understood it too.

“I have to let people, to understand, to see from my perspective,” Westbrook said. “Like if they’re in my shoes, every day when you turn the TV on — like if I turn the TV on right now — I could almost bet anything in my pocket that there’s somebody talking some sort of s--- about me or who I am.”

Westbrook says on-court critique is fair game, though it still can sting. Criticism from Magic Johnson during the 2012 NBA Finals still hurts. After Westbrook averaged 27 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.2 turnovers in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s loss to the Miami Heat, Johnson said Westbrook was “the worst point guard in a championship finals I’ve ever seen.”

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The two men have never spoken about it.

“If I turn the TV on right now — I could almost bet anything in my pocket that there’s somebody talking some sort of s--- about me or who I am.”

— Russell Westbrook

Westbrook knows he’s played a role in fomenting the discourse surrounding him. At times clashing with reporters, dismissing questions and protecting his privacy have played a role in people judging from a distance. That’s led to a lot of this.

When you ask the people who have been close to Westbrook, the tone of the conversation changes. The stories too.

In Oklahoma City, he floored an executive by taking over a table in the team’s meal room with open envelopes as he paid his utility bills. He insists on being as hands on as much as possible in his community endeavors and pushes back against publicizing them.

He plays really hard — in a way almost no other star in the NBA can approach. And while the results can be chaotic, executives believe his intent is pure.

“He’s one of the most real people in the NBA,” a rival executive said.

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People already knew Beverly was one of the best athletes in the neighborhood when he walked into the gym at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale as a 13-year-old. He was with his father and his uncles, “buff dudes,” Beverly said, with shoulders that stretched like the San Gabriel Mountains.

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Beverly’s father issued a challenge to the kids in the gym — $100 to anyone who could beat his son in a one-on-one game.

Russell Westbrook is flanked by his brother Raynard, left, and friend Donnell Beverly at the premier of his documentary.
Russell Westbrook is flanked by his brother Raynard, left, and friend Donnell Beverly at the premier of his documentary “Passion Play: Russell Westbrook.”
(Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Religion of Sports)

The eyes in the room focused on Westbrook before he refused the game. He wasn’t scared of losing (he very well might have). Something else got in the way of his pride.

“He did not want to play the game because he did not want to mess up his brand-new Nike Air Force Ones that his mom had just got him for school,” Beverly said with a laugh.

It’s a joke between the friends nearly 20 years later, Westbrook creating an even bigger spot in his life for Beverly after his mother lost her fight with cancer.

“We were already brothers,” Beverly said, “but he just did even more for me.”

There was another player in the gym that day that everyone expected to take the challenge — Khelcey Barrs. Already one of the top players in the area, Barrs eventually would have big-time college coaches and NBA scouts paying attention.

Barrs, not Westbrook, was the Leuzinger player who had the most likely path to the NBA. But Barrs had an enlarged heart, something no one knew about, and an on-court heart attack at Los Angeles Southwest College ended his life. He was 16.

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The moment was life-changing for Westbrook. Family friends believe he took on Barrs’ spirit and found a new determination on the basketball court. He wears a wristband with Barrs’ initials and numbers every day.

The grief from that loss — and from the unexpected deaths of friends and mentors Kobe Bryant and rapper Nipsey Hussle — is a part of who he is and how he tries to live.

“It’s such a part of my daily thought processes thinking that it doesn’t really [change now] that I’m here. The only thing that I see more is Kobe because of just the the whole entirety of being a Laker, being in this building,” Westbrook said. “… It’s always with me. I know just what those individuals would want for me to be doing at that particular time and they all have their different impacts on my life so I’m always keeping that in mind.”

::

Beverly and Westbrook used to talk on the phone after all of his games with Oklahoma City, the franchise with whom he launched his career and became one of the NBA’s biggest and most polarizing stars.

Beverly would hear the critiques that Westbrook was doing too much, that he should’ve ceded more to Kevin Durant, that Westbrook was grabbing at any beams of the spotlight he could handle. Beverly didn’t buy it.

Few people know and understand Westbrook’s game better than Beverly, and he insists that everything Westbrook does on the court is in the service of making the game easier on those around him.

The possessions that he dominates, the rebounds he grabs, the plays he tries to make — all of it is because Westbrook believes his ability to do it all makes it easier on his teammates to do what they do. Imagine Westbrook staring down a trunk full of groceries — he’d send his family inside to do whatever they needed while he filled his arms with all the bags.

It’s how he’s wired, Beverley said.

Russell Westbrook is greeted by his father, Russell, after receiving with his new Lakers jersey .
Russell Westbrook is greeted by his father, Russell, after receiving with his new Lakers jersey during an introductory news conference.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
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All the numbers, the triple-double streaks — that was more about selflessness and not selfishness, one NBA general manager said. There was an exception — Westbrook’s 2016-17 most-valuable-player season, which the executive believed was a direct response aimed at Durant after he left the Thunder for Golden State.

“That year, that was for Russell,” the executive said.

On the whole, though, people around the league appreciate Westbrook’s attitude toward the game, the raw and authentic effort.

It’s been his approach with Durant, Paul George, James Harden and Bradley Beal.

“I want to make the other counterpart, whoever that may be, a better player while they were on the floor with me,” Westbrook said of his superstar partnerships. “And to me, I feel like if I can do that, I’ve done at least part of my job.”

How that fits with James and Davis is to be determined. In limited time this preseason, the three players only flashed potential dominance while mostly trying to figure things out through a flurry of turnovers. The Lakers were winless.

Can and should Westbrook do less if that’s what the situation demands? It’s the question NBA scouts and executives have wondered since the Lakers made the deal.

The NBA’s 75th anniversary season begins Tuesday, Oct. 19, with a pair of games, including Lakers vs. Warriors. Here is the L.A. Times’ coverage.

At the end of his routine before playing in the final preseason game, Westbrook tossed the ball off the backboard, leaped to catch it and powered it through the rim. He immediately bounced to the far corner, caught another pass and swished a three-point shot from out of bounds.

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Then he sprinted off the court while howling “Woooooo.”

“You think that guy will be taking a step back?” one scout wondered.

::

Even if this doesn’t work and the Lakers don’t win another title, you need to understand that this, at least in Westbrook’s eyes, already has worked.

He’s achieved unthinkable wealth and success with his family by his side and his faith in God fortified.

“I can name you a lot of people who have rings. And what does that mean?” Westbrook said. “… My thing is like, the ring is great but what you do with this platform to help impact other people is way more important than your ring. To me. That’s why it doesn’t really matter.”

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook passes around Warriors center Kevon Looney to teammate Anthony Davis.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook passes the ball around Warriors center Kevon Looney to teammate Anthony Davis during a preseason game.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

In 2012, he started the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation. In 2015, he won the NBA’s top community service award. Once COVID-19 restrictions ease in Los Angeles, Westbrook is planning more hands-on work in the city.

Maybe if Westbrook had been drafted by the Lakers or Clippers, there would be distractions to worry about. James experienced that first-hand in Cleveland.

“When you’re young, my first stint in Cleveland, I was 18 to 25. And you want everyone to be a part of the journey. Everybody,” James said. “You have a blindness about who actually is there for you and who is actually there for the show. You do more of trying to please people than worry about yourself. When I came back for the second stint … I already knew what matters and what doesn’t matter. You get to a point in life, where if it’s not beneficial to me and my family, then the hell with it.”

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After a few minutes of conversation with Westbrook, it’s clear that he knows what actually matters.

My thing is like, the ring is great but what you do with this platform to help impact other people is way more important than your ring.

— Russell Westbrook

None of this should suggest that Westbrook doesn’t want to win. The energy he exudes and the sweat he leaves on the court every time he plays makes that obvious.

But it does seem like returning to Los Angeles for work, to help improve conditions in underserved communities, to working on better health care, better financial literacy and job services, and better schools — that’s the real pull.

It’s the kind of rabbit hole you can easily fall down with Westbrook — about what “success” in the NBA actually means. On one hand, he left Oklahoma City without a title and only one trip to the Finals. On the other, his reading rooms and education initiatives are still thriving in the community years after he left. They’re already in Los Angeles too, a head start on his homecoming.

There’s no question that a title would make the media discourse a little neater, a championship adding to a legacy that’s privately helped people in every city he’s called home.

“That’s extra credit,” James said with a smile.

::

Westbrook has a dog. And soon, maybe another one; this time he’s thinking about a German shepherd.

He’s got a family, a good sense of humor, a desire to win, a desire to impact his community. He’s got the respect of his peers and teammates. Even league media relations staffs given headaches by his occasional stubbornness hold him in high regard.

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He’s also got an issue with some of his critics and he’s ready to fire back, to prove them wrong.

In Westbrook’s mind, there’s never been anyone quite like him. And people, when faced with an original, don’t know what to make of it.

“I didn’t make these things up for people to talk about me. I didn’t do anything,” Westbrook said. “… My personal life, I’ve never been in any trouble. Never done anything to anybody actually but play the game with a competitive nature that people don’t understand.

“... In sports when people do not have something to compare you to, anything that you do looks abnormal. And people cannot understand it, or they don’t know what to say but to talk bad about it because they don’t understand it. They haven’t seen it before.”

Now, Los Angeles will get to see it every day.

Lakers star Russell Westbrook poses for a photo at the team's training facility.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)