LOS ANGELES — Just beyond the walls of the green and beige building that sits on South Van Ness Ave. between 131st Street and 132nd Street, two children, no older than 6, are fiercely battling one another in a game of one-on-one. A female coach looks on inside this dimly lit gymnasium, barking instructions and bellowing orders.
Three more kids are standing at half-court, fidgety but focused while waiting their turn. They get their chance whenever a shot finally drops. As it falls through the net, the shot sends the defender on a series of sprints the length of the court.
One kid hangs his head. The other walks away more relieved than pleased at his victory. The next two are quickly rotated in. It's just another Saturday morning at Rowley Park.
This is where Russell Westbrook's basketball journey began. Before he transformed into a transcendent talent in his third season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook had to will himself to want to get better. His development originated here, inside community center gyms in and around the Los Angeles area.
Today, the once polarizing point guard has returned to his roots as a first-time NBA All-Star. Westbrook's first All-Star Game experience comes tonight inside Staples Center, the state of the art arena located 20 minutes south of the streets where Westbrook honed his skills.
“Russell was always focused,” said Reggie Hamilton, the man who first coached Westbrook in organized ball. “He wasn't distracted by anything. He had a vision at a young age of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to get. And that's where he's at now.”
Westbrook has been sold on the sport since he was 7. That's when Westbrook began shadowing his father, Russell Westbrook Sr., to Ross Snyder Park, then a rundown recreation center in a raggedy part of town. The gym in which Westbrook began his basketball education is no longer standing, having recently been replaced by a more modern facility.
But it was there, at the intersection of 41st Street and Compton Ave., that Westbrook fell in love for the first time. Basketball became Westbrook's backbone. The game, along with some precious parental guidance from Sr. and his wife Shannon, helped keep Westbrook out of the streets.
“I never was that type,” Westbrook said. “My family put that in me at a young age. Nothing happens good in the streets.”
Westbrook would much rather be at the gym. And his father was all in. Sr. grew determined to teach his son the right way to play the game while almost fearfully guarding against allowing the wrong methods to creep in.
Westbrook Sr. never played organized basketball at a high level. His principles were born out of hard-nosed runs at Ross Snyder Park. He also was a sports junkie. Football, basketball and boxing were his favorites. Sr. could explode off the ground, and his leaping ability got passed down. Jr.'s height, however, comes from his grandfather, who is 6-1 and has a sister who is 6-2 and a brother who is 6-5. Sr. stands just 5-8.
Westbrook Sr. also took mental notes while watching Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson run his team. Those notes eventually got passed down to Jr., and Magic quickly became Jr.'s favorite player.
Just before his 9th birthday, Westbrook met Hamilton at Jesse Owens Park, a new gym on the edge of the Los Angeles city limits that Westbrook Sr. had began taking his son to.
Jesse Owens Park is sprawling. A playground and playing fields sit on one side of the street. The gymnasium and separate aquatic center rest on the other. In the distance of the pool facility is downtown Los Angeles, where Westbrook's likeness now appears on billboards as part of his endorsement deal with Nike. The gym is to the left of the pool and sits on a hill.
Hamilton coached a traveling team known as L.A. Elite out of the gym at Jesse Owens Park. It didn't take long for Westbrook to request a roster spot. Hamilton happily obliged Little Russell. And he never regretted it.
“He was very competitive from a real young age,” Hamilton remembers. “He did not like to lose. And he definitely always played hard. So that was a good, positive thing right off the bat.”