Westbrook: The honor guard
The young, dashing Oklahoma City point man plays in memory of a fallen friend
Russell Westbrook doesn't say much, but his bracelets speak volumes.
Before every game, Oklahoma City's point guard slips two rubber bracelets onto each wrist; an orange one with "KB3" written in blue and a blue one with "Why not?" written in orange.
The story of their meaning, of their solemn pledge, intertwined as the colors that bind them, is the story of what drives the Thunder's rising young star.
When Ben Howland called Leuzinger High (Lawndale, Calif.) coach Reggie Morris seven years ago after becoming UCLA's coach, he didn't inquire about Westbrook, who at the time was a scrawny 5-foot-8, 140-pound freshman. Howland wanted to know about Khelcey Barrs, a 6-6, 200-pound small forward who had just been offered a scholarship to attend DePaul.
The 16-year-old Barrs popped up on the radars of college coaches around the country after he had led Leuzinger to an upset win over Long Beach Poly in the CIF Southern Section quarterfinals in 2003, averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game during his sophomore season.
Growing up in Lawndale, Westbrook and Barrs were inseparable. They had always been teammates, whether it was on the playground or at Leuzinger. The plan was for the two of them to continue being teammates in college, although the odds of that becoming a reality seemed remote considering Barrs was getting scholarship offers and calls from around the country while Westbrook had heard only from Loyola Marymount, Creighton and Kent State.
They both figured things would eventually work themselves out, and decided not to worry about it for another year or so. Until then they would still enjoy playing together, with Westbrook flying down the court with the ball and KB3 never more than a bounce pass away.
Their plan, however, would never come to be. During a routine pickup game at L.A. Southwest College with some of their teammates and friends, Barrs suddenly collapsed. Barrs, who had an enlarged heart, was pronounced dead at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.
Westbrook was supposed to be playing basketball with Barrs up the street that Saturday afternoon, not attending his best friend's funeral. Suddenly the 15-year-old kid who was still growing into his size 14 shoes became a man.
Barrs died on a Tuesday and funeral services were held four days later at Grace United Methodist Church. Westbrook was supposed to be playing basketball with Barrs up the street that Saturday afternoon, not attending his best friend's funeral. Suddenly the 15-year-old kid who was still growing into his size-14 shoes became a man.
Westbrook not only doubled up his effort on the court as if he were now playing for two people; he also doubled up on his chores off the court. He began taking the trash out for Barrs' grandmother, who lived across the street, every week as Khelcey had done. It wasn't long before the undersized freshman had grown into a talented 6-2, 180-pound point guard who was being recruited by nearly every major school. He ended up choosing UCLA, the school that had originally wanted Barrs and didn't officially offer Westbrook a scholarship until his senior year.
"I feel like I'm playing for him in a way," Westbrook said. "We were playing pickup basketball one day and he just stopped and fell and out of nowhere and that was it. I always think about him and his family and I wonder how they're doing and check on them any chance I get."
Westbrook had always been a hard worker, but Barrs' death triggered a fire inside of him that continues to burn. He saw firsthand how quickly life can be taken from you, and he would never again question himself or his ability. He wanted to become the best point guard on the planet. It seemed like an unlikely goal for a kid who wasn't even a starter on his high school varsity team until he was a junior, didn't receive his first college recruiting letter until the summer before his senior year and wasn't able to dunk until midway through his senior season. But any time someone doubted Westbrook, his response was simple and to the point:
"It's how I think," Westbrook said. "It's how I play and go about things. I say why not to everything."
His tenacity on the defensive end and his mid-range game on the offensive end were born from countless hours sitting on the sideline of concrete basketball courts at Ross Snyder Park in South Central watching his father, Russell Westbrook Sr., play pickup basketball. It wasn't until his family moved to Hawthorne, about 15 miles south, that he finally got on the court himself, at Rowley Park and Jesse Owens Park. The parks would not only serve as his introduction to the game but also his home away from home; he would spend hours on the court with his father, practicing a shot that's as effective today as it was when he was practicing it after school.
"The cotton shot," Westbrook Sr. says with a smile.
"You know about the cotton shot?" Westbrook Jr. asks surprisingly. "From the 15-20 feet range is the cotton shot. I'm supposed to hit that shot. That's my mid-range game."
"If he had practice from 7 to 9 p.m., we would go shoot 9 to 11 p.m.," said Westbrook Sr., who would lead his son through a series of shooting drills around the court that would have him shooting more than 500 times, a number that would rise unless he hit three consecutive baskets from specific spots on the court. "We would shoot for hours and it was that extra effort that got him to where he's at. It's something he wanted to do. I remember one Christmas he caught me off-guard and said, 'Dad, let's go shoot.' He would want to shoot right after we got home from church, too. That's all he wanted to do."
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While Westbrook still practices the "cotton shot" and takes pride in his YouTube dunks ("You should see some of the ones I had in practice," he said), the only subject he's usually in the mood to talk about in the locker room before or after games is defense.
"Very few people take it personally when the guy they're guarding scores," Morris said. "If you ever watch Russell when his guy scores, it's like a direct slap in the face. You can see his whole demeanor kind of change. He gets upset and he takes it personally when people score on him. He never takes a play off, and that's why he's so hard to score against."
Westbrook's work ethic hasn't changed much since Barr's passing six years ago. He's usually the first one to arrive at the training facility and the last one to leave.
"I've always had to prove myself to people growing up," Westbrook said. "I had to show them that I could do this and I could do that and paying no mind to what the critics said. Just go in every day and work hard when other people are not."
It didn't take long for Westbrook to prove he deserved to be the fourth overall pick in the draft. He was one of only five rookies 21 years or younger -- along with Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Chris Paul -- to average 15 points, five dimes and four boards in a season. He followed that up this season by averaging 16.1 points, 8.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds and teaming up with Kevin Durant to lead the Thunder to the postseason. Yet, despite being a nightmare for the Los Angeles Lakers, forcing Kobe Bryant to guard Westbrook in Game 5, Westbrook still approaches the game with the same chip on his shoulder as the benchwarmer nobody believes in.
"I remember everything that happened to me," he said. "Sitting on the bench in high school, sitting on the bench in college; I remember all that. I'll never forget that and that's what pushes me now to work hard and continue to outwork everyone else every day."
Westbrook needs only to look down at the orange and blue wristbands on his arms to be reminded he's not only playing for himself. When you see No. 0 out there slashing to the basket for a dunk, he hopes you see KB3 out there as well.
"He was my best friend," Westbrook said. "He lived across the street from me and we were together all the time. When he passed, it just made me think about life and how every time I step on the floor I have to give it my all because every time he played he gave 100 percent. You can't take life for granted. Every day when I get on the floor I give it my all and play because you never know what tomorrow holds."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.