We’ve often talked about the fuel that drives Russell Westbrook, who seems to play basketball not with a chip, but a boulder, on his shoulder. The idea that he’s long been overlooked and underappreciated. It’s not imaginary fuel, not made up. Russell Westbrook really was disrespected much of his career.
A visit with TCU basketball coach Trent Johnson on Monday brought another Westbrook story. Johnson coached four seasons at Stanford, 2004-08, during which Westbrook was coming out of high school and eventually signed with UCLA, with the last scholarship from the Bruins, who did not heavily recruit him.
Johnson raved about the talent in the Pac-10 during that time. James Harden at Arizona State. Ryan Anderson and Leon Powe at Cal. Salim Stoudamire at Arizona. Aaron Brooks at Oregon. Nate Robinson, Brandoy Roy and Spencer Hawes at Washington. Kyle Weaver at Washington State (Johnson loved Kyle Weaver; said the guy who was part of the first Thunder team could guard anyone). Johnson’s own Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Landry Fields at Stanford. USC’s O.J. Mayo, Taj Gibson and Nick Young. And UCLA’s Arron Afflalo, Kevin Love, Darren Collison, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jordan Farmar.
Johnson says that when Westbrook was a high school prospect, Johnson scouted Westbrook and had the same advice for him that most coaches did: Go run track.
Johnson chuckles at it now. Think about that. Seven years later, Westbrook is one of the best players in the world. A player that Mike Krzyzewski raves about on the U.S. Olympic team. A player that Kobe Bryant himself testified he couldn’t take his eyes off of (Westbrook’s 43 points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals). And yet a player who wasn’t even considered a basketball player, just a freak athlete, not that long ago.
Johnson also told another story on himself. As an assistant coach at Rice back in the ’90s, he was at a summer prospect camp and noticed a really good player. He went down to the other end of the court, where a bunch of coaches, some of them prestigious, had gathered and told them he had spotted quite the prospect. “Who?” they wanted to know. “This Kobe Bryant kid,” Johnson said.
The coaches had a high time with that. To this day, Krzyzewski will ask Johnson, “found any more prospects, Trent?”
Reminds me a story our man John Rohde tells on himself. Early in Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse, Rohde saw a Syracuse game and was quite impressed. Rohde knew that Kansas had tried to recruit Carmelo, so the next time Rohde talked to his pal Bill Self, the then-Illinois coach put down the phone, yelled down the hall to his staff members, “Hey, guys, Rohde says Carmelo Anthony is pretty good.”
At least he didn’t tell Carmelo to run track.