newborn polo Westbrook’s competitive nature rose to the surface beginning in college
It’s technically named the UCLA Student Activities Center. But no one calls it that.
To most, the gym where Russell Westbrook spent his formative basketball years is simply “the men’s gym,” the spot where any current Bruin will go play pickup and many former ones stop by to join. NBA players of all alma maters come to the men’s gym in the summer for games.
The men’s gym has seen UCLA legends. It’s seen players like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and far more. And it’s seen Westbrook in all of his incarnations.
It’s the place where the reigning MVP used to play one on one through five on five.
He spent the summer of 2006 in that gym along with two other incoming freshman: James Keefe and Mustafa Abdul Hamid.
The summer took on a Groundhog Day effect quickly: lifting in the mornings, summer classes later in the day and back to the men’s gym for late afternoon pickup with some cameos from NBA players. Abdul Hamid and Keefe set up a hoop in their room. It was basketball all the time, including the threesome’s daily, late night return to the gym for competitive one on one.
“We took it pretty personal when we lost,” Keefe said.
It was king of the court style: Winner stays on, loser jumps off. Whoever comes in last on any given night has to buy ice cream sandwiches at Diddy Riese, UCLA’s most popular ice cream shop.
“I don’t know if Russell would admit it, but James would win most of the games,” Abdul Hamid said.
Keefe was notorious for intrusive elbows, too.
“James would hurt you, man,” Abdul Hamid said.
But Keefe winning much of the time wasn’t just about height or physicality. The big forward was the one McDonald’s All American of the summer threesome. He was the anchor of a UCLA recruiting class while the Bruins were in the middle run after run to the Final Four.
He grew up from not too far away in Orange County, the semi local kid about to jump into immediate UCLA fame. Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, was the hyper local and under recruited one living in relative obscurity considering some of the high flyers he called his teammates.
“I remember one time,
we’re sitting around the lunch table, and Russ and I are sitting there and some girl comes up and says, ‘What’s up? Hey, James.'” Abdul Hamid recalled. “She looked at Russell and me and was like, ‘What are you guys doing here?'”
That anonymity translated to the court.
He may have eventually turned into the No. 4 overall pick, a selection met with the criticism that Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti “reached” for a man who became one of the league’s most dynamic players. But when he entered college, Westbrook was a raw athlete who even mid majors thought they had a chance at landing.
It’s part of where his obvious edge comes from.
One time, while at the Wooden Center another UCLA gym he’d frequent, one where non student athletes would play pickup someone started talking trash to him from the court. Westbrook was done playing for the day, sitting on the side with Abdul Hamid, watching others hoop in a way too big, starched and ironed white t with Vans on his feet.
The cocky student identified Westbrook as the freshman from the UCLA bench. He averaged only 9.0 minutes during his first collegiate season.
The guy wouldn’t stop.
“You think you’re all that,” he yelled to Westbrook. “You ain’t trying to play. You’re sitting there with your shoes off.”
Westbrook didn’t say much. He just borrowed someone else’s playing shoes, not an easy task for someone who wears a size 15, didn’t bother to change his clothes and went to work on the guy.
“Russell grabbed those shoes and went on him and just abused whoever this was talking,” Abdul Hamid said.
He was dunking on him. Sinking shots. The competition didn’t know what or who he was up against.
“He killed him,” Abdul Hamid said. “Then he took the shoes off, looked at him,
went ‘Hehehe’ and walked off. And everyone in the gym was just cracking up.”