There was Reggie Hamilton, the man who gave Westbrook his first shot at organized basketball back in Los Angeles-area pee-wee leagues.
There was Reggie Morris, the former coach at Leuzinger High, Westbrook’s alma mater.
There was UCLA coach Ben Howland — barely.
Then, along came a start-up professional basketball franchise called the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team employed decision-makers named Sam Presti and Troy Weaver and Scott Brooks. Collectively, they decided to use the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft to select Westbrook.
Suddenly, Westbrook needed more fingers.
Because of the Thunder’s long-standing belief in him, Westbrook on Thursday gladly signed a five-year contract extension worth roughly $80 million. The deal, which was first reported by Yahoo! Sports, will go into effect next season and keep the All-Star point guard with the Thunder through the 2016-17 season.
“It feels great,” Westbrook said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman on Thursday night. “It’s a great opportunity. The organization, they’ve been believers in me since college and I thank them for that. They’ve been great in just believing in me throughout thick and thin and ups and downs…I’m just thankful.”
Westbrook has had more than a fair share of doubters.
When the Thunder selected Westbrook nearly four years ago — with Weaver, the team’s assistant general manager serving as his biggest supporter — analysts were appalled at what they considered a reach pick. Soon, questions arose over whether Westbrook was or was not a point guard. Then it was his turnovers…then his decision-making…then his relationship, both on and off the court, with teammate Kevin Durant.
The Thunder, though, stood by Westbrook through all the tough times and the questions and the criticisms. Brooks, the coach, never benched or blasted Westbrook for mistakes that were part of the process of developing into a sensational performer.
“They reached out and grabbed me, and everybody kind of was surprised and shocked at what was going on,” Westbrook remembered. “(People) didn’t really think I could play the point. From then on, they always stuck with me, always stayed positive with me and always just looked out for me and the team. That shows how much I’m appreciated around here. I love to be somewhere you’re appreciated.”
The Thunder had until Wednesday to re-sign Westbrook or watch him become a restricted free agent. But the organization would have had the right to match any offer Westbrook might have received from another team. The completion of the deal illustrates the Thunder’s unwavering support for Westbrook, who joined Chicago point guard Derrick Rose as the only two players from the 2008 draft class who have been re-signed to extensions of their rookie contracts.
“We are thrilled to solidify Russell’s future with the Thunder,” said Presti, the team’s general manager in a statement. “Since we arrived in Oklahoma City, Russell’s work ethic, persistence, character and involvement in our community have helped us establish the standards that we are committed to on a day-to-day basis. He is a valued member of our organization and we look forward to his continued contributions on and off the floor.”
Westbrook has averaged 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals in 261 career games. He was selected by coaches as an NBA All-Star for the first time last season and also was an All-NBA Second Team selection at the end of last season.
Through the Thunder’s first 15 games, Westbrook is averaging 20.5 points, 5.5 assists and five rebounds, joining L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Miami star LeBron James as the only players to post a 20-5-5 this season.
With his long-term security squared away, Westbrook said he is now focused on taking his game to another level. Doing so with the team he started his career with is a big deal, Westbrook said.
“They gave me an opportunity, and now they’re giving me another opportunity to make another step for this team and for this city,” Westbrook said of the Thunder. “I’m just going to take it all in and try to get myself right to be able to make the next jump for this organization.”
After inking Durant last summer to a five-year extension that runs through 2015-16, the Thunder has effectively held on to two of the top talents in the league despite doubts by some over whether stars of their stature would stick around in a small market like Oklahoma City.
Rumors ran rampant about Westbrook having a desire to flee to his hometown of Los Angeles and play for the Lakers the first chance he could. But Westbrook has never done anything but express his commitment to Oklahoma.
“I love Oklahoma, man,” Westbrook said. “I think it’s one of the best places. The fans are great. The organization is the best in the league. I love my teammates. Things around here are done the right way, and I like to be around things that are done the right way and be around people that love you and show that you matter in the organization. And the fans and the way the city has appreciated me and my family has been great and has made it easy for me to want to stay here for many, many years.”
Westbrook showed his commitment by signing for the full five years. Many players negotiate an “opt-out” clause that allows them to become free agents following the second-to-last season of a new deal. But, like Durant, Westbrook signed on for the long haul. Westbrook even turned down an opportunity to make more money under a 5 percent, incentive-based raise known as the “Derrick Rose rule” that he would have qualified for should he be selected as an All-NBA performer a second time this season. That decision could help the Thunder retain James Harden and Serge Ibaka when they come up for extensions.
Need more evidence that Westbrook’s heart has always been in Oklahoma City?
Westbrook said he has never considered L.A. as a destination and said he doesn’t know where the Los Angeles rumors came from.
“Most of the time, I don’t know how most of the stuff is started,” Westbrook said. “I just try to stay focused on what’s going on in Oklahoma City and what’s going on with our team over here and try to make this team better.”
Westbrook has done just that.
Since Westbrook arrived, the Thunder has gone from 23-win non-playoff team, to a 50-win club that lost in the first round to a 55-win Western Conference finalist. It’s continued a winning tradition that follows Westbrook wherever he goes.
Despite receiving a last-ditch scholarship offer by Howland at UCLA, the Bruins advanced to the Final Four in each of Westbrook’s two seasons on campus. After starting as an unlikely member of the USA Men’s Basketball Team that competed in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Westbrook became one of the team’s stars that led the red, white and blue to its first gold medal since 1994. And without Westbrook, the Thunder doesn’t make it to the conference finals last season.
“Winning is very important to me regardless of what’s going on,” Westbrook said. “That’s just how I’ve always been. Just continuing to win is something that I was always brought up in my family doing; regardless of what the circumstances are, find a way to get a win.”
The Thunder has all but guaranteed its fans will now see wins stack up. Westbrook and Durant both are still just 23, an age that is considered three to four years away from the start of a player’s prime. It’s something that hasn’t been lost on Westbrook.
“You definitely think about that and the team we have,” Westbrook said. “You definitely think about that with the relationship me and Kevin have and becoming closer. As we become closer on and off the floor, you definitely think about some of the things that we can do.”
There will be plenty of time for that. Thursday, though, was a day for Westbrook to celebrate, to bask in what he called the best stage of his bumpy but blossoming career.
Finally, he can see he has folks in his corner. Finally, he can see folks that truly believe in him.
“It provides a sense of security,” Westbrook said. “Once a team puts faith in you to be one of their guys on their team and be here for the long haul, it shows a sense of security and it’s a good thing to be around.”