Russell Westbrook had allowed himself to dream of playing for the Lakers before. But as quickly as the L.A. native pictured himself in the purple and gold jersey, he snapped himself back out of it, aware of how unlikely the possibility was.
Now, after skipping school to attend championship parades as a youth, Westbrook will have the opportunity to bring one of those parades back home after officially being introduced as a Laker Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s surreal,” Westbrook said. “I think it still hasn’t kind of hit me yet that — being from LA, growing up not too far from here, being able to watch the (championship) parades, trying to miss school to try to go to them, being a Laker fan and being from L.A., now everything is coming full circle for me. It’s is a blessing. You know it’s a lot of things I can’t put into actual words just because some of these dreams don’t come true for people like myself. I’m truly blessed and thankful for this opportunity and I can’t wait to get started.”
Born in Long Beach, Westbrook grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. After one year at UCLA, though, Westbrook spent his NBA career in Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington, far away from the West Coast. Fate finally intervened for Westbrook this summer as LeBron James, general manager Rob Pelinka and Westbrook himself helped construct the trade that brought him back home.
“Obviously, being from LA, you always wish that you can play for your home team and being able to do that,” Westbrook said. “But that’s definitely something that always kind of circled around in my mind, and ‘maybe one day’ but I always would come back and be like ‘that probably won’t happen.’ I just kind of waited to see if that ever happened. But now we’re here and I’m gonna take full advantage of it.”
Westbrook was the final newly-acquired Laker announced (for now) after a busy offseason that saw the roster nearly entirely overturned. After a disappointing title defense marred by injuries that ended with a first-round exit, Pelinka and his front office staff overhauled a roster inside of 12 months after winning an NBA title.
The crown jewel of that overhaul, Westbrook represents the third star the Lakers have sought to play alongside James and Anthony Davis since the latter was acquired. After building an identity on defense in recent years, the Lakers will have a greater focus on offense - perhaps more so than ever in the last decade - with Westbrook a key cog in that shift.
Even if he represents a new era of the Lakers and a shift toward a new focus, Westbrook is coming to L.A. ready to learn from the core of a team and franchise tone season removed from winning an NBA title.
“One thing I always have done and always will do is stay true to myself, I think you can never waver and I can never waver in this league,” he said. “I’ve been in (the league) for a long time, and I always want to stay true to who I am. With that, making sure that I’m able to listen and be all ears because I am coming to an unbelievable organization, team and players that I’m able to learn from. Each year I try to find things I can learn to be able to help improve my game and be a better player and I will do that here as well.”
What the Lakers won’t change, but instead are doubling down on, is the idea that being bigger, faster and stronger than their opponents will lead to success. That was often the case inside the bubble in Orlando when the Lakers wore teams down with a relentless attack of the rim and a suffocating defense.
While the team may be sacrificing a bit on the latter, they will only gain more forcefulness and competitiveness that was paramount in winning the title last October.
“I think he is in an elite class of players in terms of his competitive nature,” Pelinka said of Westbrook. “One of the core qualities as we build a roster is seeking out guys that have an ultra sense, a heightened sense of being competitive warriors on the court. Players that play with the ultimate sort of grit and grind and tenacity. And Russell stands in an elite class in that category. And that’s drawn us to him.”
In a star-driven league, Westbrook will give the Lakers a big three that they haven’t had in a decade. Like many of the players introduced in the days before him, he expressed a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the team, particularly alongside James and Davis, with the ultimate goal being to bring another parade back to his hometown.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to go into my 14th season and each year I try to find ways to be able to uplift and make my teammates better around me,” he said. “AD and Bron are friends of mine first. And me being a teammate, my job is to come in and uplift and they’ll do the same with me, vice versa. And as the season prolongs, we will figure it out. There will be ups, there will be downs and that’s normal. That’s okay. But we will figure out how to play the best way that we want to play to be able to win a championship.”