“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.”
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