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 The gym in which Westbrook began his basketball education is no longer standing, having recently been replaced by a more modern facility.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.”
Not everything was advanced.
“He couldn't shoot a lick,” Hamilton said. “If Russell made a shot back then, that was just a bonus.”
A display case of photos hanging on the wall just outside the office inside the gym at Jesse Owens Park still has a picture of a 10-year-old Westbrook as a member of his youth league Rebels. Hamilton recalls Westbrook playing with the same emotion then as he displays now.
“He was way more emotional then,” Hamilton joked. “Russell would go out there and cry if he was going through some problems.”
Hamilton was one of only two men Westbrook Sr. allowed to assist in his son's development. His eventual high school coach, Reggie Morris, was the other.
“I didn't want too many people inside his head,” Westbrook Sr. said.
Instead, Sr. had a stringent and specific formula for his son's success. The two spent hours in the gym together. Sr. made Jr. shoot until his arms hurt and his legs gave out. They would shoot 500 shots a day, working from 20 feet out and sliding over by mere inches to instill proper repetition of proper mechanics at various spots. Soon, old-fashioned calisthenics were added as a focal point. Push-ups and pull-ups. Sit ups and dips. Sr. was never a fan of weights.
Westbrook was a willing worker. Whatever he fought, his father patiently explained how it would pay off. And by then, Westbrook had his heart set on landing a college scholarship.
Westbrook's family moved from Los Angeles to a nearby city called Hawthorne when Westbrook was 12. The workouts only intensified as Westbrook's younger brother, Raynard, joined in.
But Westbrook Sr. can pinpoint the moment Jr. became totally committed. It was his freshman year of high school. The family was enjoying Thanksgiving Day when Westbrook surprised his father.
“He said ‘Dad, I know it's Thanksgiving. But I want to shoot. Let's go shoot.' I looked at my wife. I looked at Ray. I said, ‘Let's go shoot.' And we put it in like it was a normal day,” Westbrook Sr. said.
As a freshman at Leuzinger High School, Westbrook still stood just 5-8. But even then he stood out to his older teammates.
“He just soaked up everything,” said Golden State forward Dorrell Wright, a senior when Westbrook was a freshman. “I still got video from my senior year when you see Russ at the end of the bench, big ol' clothes on, little as I don't know what, with some (size) 15s on.
“He was one of them kids that you knew was always going to be good. He was always the smallest one but he was always the toughest one.”
At Leuzinger, a relatively small school tucked away in a largely Hispanic neighborhood just past the corner of Rosecrans and Hawthorne Boulevard, Westbrook had to work even harder. He entered high school on a senior-laden team and wasn't given anything. So when he wasn't in his high school gym, Westbrook and his father were at Rowley Park, a five-minute drive away on South Van Ness. Westbrook and his dad would make the trip together, making the short trek through the plazas, fast-food joints, check cashing companies and body shops that line the streets.
The green and beige building became home to even workouts.
“I just knew that I had to get better each and every year,” Westbrook said. “That's what I tried to do.”
Westbrook wasn't heavily recruited until he shot up to 6-2 before his senior season. The growth spurt supplied the last bit of confidence Westbrook needed.
The rest of Westbrook's success is all a product of his roots.
“Nobody knew he'd be this good,” Wright said. “But with him being an All-Star is big. I'm happy for him. Somebody coming out of where we come from, not too many people make it out of there. Russ deserves it.”