Russell Westbrook’s first public comment after news broke of his trade from the Washington Wizards to the Los Angeles Lakers was a short Instagram caption, and his brevity did nothing to conceal the level of excitement and enthusiasm he had.
Anyone familiar with Westbrook’s social media presence recognizes the second word as his catchphrase. But the first word also represents something just as significant: the realization of the Long Beach-born Westbrook’s long-held dream to play for his hometown NBA team. And while much of the coverage of Westbrook’s trade to the Lakers has rightfully focused on his on-court fit alongside fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that homecoming was what the product of Leuzinger High School and UCLA most wanted to talk about at his introductory press conference on Aug. 10. It should be appreciated by Lakers fans, too.
Given the storied history of the Lakers and many basketball stars who have come out of the Los Angeles area over the years, it’s a bit shocking that Westbrook almost immediately becomes the most accomplished greater L.A. native-turned-NBA-player to ever wear the purple and gold.
The list of actual L.A. locals to have memorable careers and spend time with the Lakers is considerably thin — the most notable names include Pasadena’s Michael Cooper and, ironically, 2009 NBA champion and Westchester High School alum Trevor Ariza, who returned to the Lakers this offseason. (Thanks to his time anchoring John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty in the 1960s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was already an LA basketball icon when he was traded to the Lakers from the Milwaukee Bucks in 1975. But Kareem grew up and got his start in basketball 3,000 miles away in Harlem.)
Sports is a business, after all, and it’s still pretty uncommon for a star athlete to play in the pros for his hometown team. Part of what makes LeBron James’ career arc so special is that the kid from Akron not only returned to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for a second stint, but also carried that franchise to its first-ever NBA championship and first major pro sports championship in over 50 years.
Combine that fact with the reality that Los Angeles is a city of transplants and the Lakers’ own history of luring big stars to join them, and the purple and gold’s success has been much more about convincing stars to diminish their hometown ties, rather than exploiting them as a siren song to return. A rookie Magic Johnson famously told Jeanie and Jerry Buss that he would leave for his hometown Detroit Pistons the first chance he got; today, Johnson is not only a Lakers icon who played his whole career here, but as influential a figure in Los Angeles as there is. It was Johnson, for all his many flaws as Lakers president of basketball operations, who convinced James to leave his native Ohio for a second time and move to L.A. Like Johnson, Kobe Bryant was also adopted into Los Angeles through his Lakers stardom, and upon his sudden and tragic death in January 2020, L.A. mourned the man who had grown up in Europe and the Philadelphia suburbs like he was one of their own — because at that point, he was.
Westbrook, on the other hand, was born in Long Beach and made his name in the blue-collar town of Lawndale, before eventually transitioning to the blue-and-gold court in Westwood.
Before anyone knew who he was, Westbrook was just another SoCal kid trying to skip school to watch the championship parades of the Kobe/Shaq threepeat. Just like the rest of us.
Before he played a second of college basketball, Westbrook started turning heads — including Kobe’s — as a teenager at the legendary open gym runs at UCLA. The veteran, as he remembered years later, was stunned at how this fiery kid was flying under the radar. The kid said he saw a kindred spirit in his idol.
Before Westbrook was Oklahoma City’s fan favorite, he was Pauley Pavillion’s, one of the brightest stars on a 2008 Bruins team full of them. After seizing the starting point guard role from Darren Collison, Westbrook averaged over 12 points and 4 assists as UCLA made its third straight Final Four.
And even when Westbrook finally left L.A. to pursue his NBA dreams, he never fully left. Westbrook owns 10 car dealerships, several of which bear his name, in the greater Los Angeles area. His WhyNot Foundation has also been active in Southern California for years, including when a joint donation from the foundation and Nike’s Jordan Brand provided for a massive remodel of a Crenshaw YMCA, and when Westbrook himself launched his signature Jordan sneaker in an L.A. event with dozens of kids from the area in attendance.
Now, Westbrook is really home. When he steps out on the court next season, he will do so as one of the greatest NBA players of his generation, wearing the jersey of the team he grew up rooting for. It’s not only his dream come true, but also what Lakers fans dreamed of for years during the depths of the team’s rebuild. Most of those dreams were unrealistic, while other rejections, like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, felt like your crush led you on only to date your weird neighbor instead.
Yes, Westbrook is now 33 and towards the end of his prime. Yes, he’s an awkward fit on an aging roster centered around another ball-dominant, shooting-deficient superstar. Yes, the question of how this will all work on the court is an important one and should be addressed.
But Russell Westbrook is also home. He gets to play for the team that inspired him, just down the road from where he got inspired. The kid who tried to miss school for championship parades, the kid from Leuzinger whose fearlessness got the attention of his idol, the kid from Westwood and one of the last great UCLA teams in recent memory, the kid who became a star far away but never forgot where he came from, is now the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. If you’ve ever appreciated full-circle moments, you can appreciate this one.
Welcome to the purple and gold, Russ.