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MVP, 8-time all star, almost Golden Flash

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Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook is seen during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

The inside story of how Russell Westbrook nearly signed with Kent State

Before Russell Westbrook became the triple-double MVP, he was taken by the Seattle Supersonics with the fourth pick in the 2011 draft.

Before he was drafted, he was UCLA’s star sophomore, a lightning-quick point guard who led the Bruins to the Final Four.

Before he was The Man in Los Angeles, he was an unheralded high school prospect, a 5-foot-11 high school junior with no collegiate offers.

Westbrook’s journey to the NBA was a series of twists, turns and serendipitous moments that turned him into a basketball icon.

But once there was a time when Russell Westbrook looked as if he was on the way to becoming a Kent State Golden Flash.

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Former Kent State assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer remembers the first time he saw Russell Westbrook. It was by accident in the winter of 2002.

Oppenheimer, then an assistant at DePaul, traveled to Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California, to recruit Dorell Wright, one of the top small forwards in the country. Oppenheimer spent a lot of time in the Leuzinger gym, and there he got to know one of Wright’s teammates, a 5-foot-8,130-pound freshman named Russell Westbrook. That said, to call the two teammates is a bit of a stretch. Wright was starring for Leuzinger’s varsity squad; Westbrook played for the freshman team.

Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook

UCLA’s Darren Collison, left, and Russell Westbrook celebrate their 77-67 overtime win over Stanford in Los Angeles Thursday, March 6, 2008. 

Kevork Djansezian / AP Photo

Westbrook was always in the gym. And despite his diminutive frame, Westbrook had the confidence of a 12-year NBA veteran.  

If Westbrook ever lost a game of one-on-one, it wasn’t because he lost it. Sometimes the ball was too flat. Sometimes the rim was too bent. Sometimes he was fouled too much. No matter what happened, Russell Westbrook always believed he was the best in the gym.

“Russell’s a guy who was always a great competitor,” recalls Oppenheimer, a coaching veteran who is now doing personal training for NBA players. “He wasn’t afraid and probably thought he was better than he was. He had unwavering confidence in himself.”

The more time Oppenheimer spent around Westbrook, the more he liked him — not because he thought he was going to be a star, but because he liked him as a person. Off the court, Westbrook was a respectful, courteous and humble 4.0 GPA student, the type of player coaches fall in love with.

“He was a perfectionist and an incredible competitor,” says Reggie Morris Jr., his high school coach, now an assistant at Pepperdine.

“He had a chip on his shoulder and always had an edge about him about wanting to be considered one of the best players.”

Oppenheimer was mulling over the idea of being a college basketball head coach. If he were to get a job at a low- and mid-major school, Westbrook was the exact type of player he could build around.

So after Oppenheimer left DePaul to become an assistant at Kent State in 2005, he stayed in contact with Westbrook and Morris.

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Westbrook had averaged 12 points per game as a junior but wasn’t generating the attention from college coaches that he wanted. He was an unranked, undersized guard, and it didn’t help that he was playing in a state that, at the time, featured high school talent like James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Derrick Williams and five-star recruits Chase Budinger, Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez. Oppenheimer knew that Westbrook needed an opportunity to show his talent in front of the right people. So he called in a favor. Oppenheimer contacted his friend Daren Kalish who ran the Adidas All-American Camp in Suwanee, Georgia, and asked Darren to invite Westbrook to the camp.

“I wasn’t afraid he was going to go there and get over-recruited, and I’d lose him,” Oppenheimer says. “I just wanted to do something for a kid I liked.”

Westbrook raised money for the trip, and in July 2006, took a red-eye flight to Georgia, then a bus to the hotel where he would check in. There was only one problem.

His name wasn’t on the list of campers.

Westbrook called Oppenheimer in a panic, who directed Westbrook to Darren.

“Sit tight,” Kalish told him. “We’ll get it figured out.”

David Stern, Russell Westbrook

UCLA’s Russell Westbrook, right, is congratulated by NBA commissioner David Stern after being picked fourth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics during the first round of the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 26, 2008, in New York.

One by one he watched players like Martell Webster, Gerald Green and CJ Miles get their room keys and pick up their jerseys. Even Stephen Curry, the slim three-star guard from North Carolina, got a room before he did. Westbrook sat in the lobby.

At 4 o’clock that afternoon, Westbrook called Oppenheimer to tell him he was finally in his room.

Once Westbrook got on the court the next day, however, people noticed the rail-thin, 160-pound player in a baggy jersey running around at a million miles an hour, diving on loose balls but still missing more than a few shots.

He was playing hard and fast — the Russell Westbrook way. He started off playing in the first and third quarters with the less talented kids at the tournament.By the end of the first day tournaments officials were considering moving him into the group that played in the second and fourth quarters.

“Hey,” Kalish told Oppenheimer. “Your guy’s kind of good.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said matter of factly. “How good do you think he is?”

“He looks like he could be a mid-major player.”

As Oppenheimer hung up the phone, he felt a sense of relief. That was what he was hoping to hear. Now he had to persuade Jim Christian, Kent State’s head coach, to take a chance on Westbrook.

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The following fall, Oppenheimer and Christian went to California to visit Westbrook. They watched him practice. They met his parents. They talked about his grades.

Afterward, the two coaches sat in a booth at an IHOP on Manchester Boulevard awaiting their flight back to Cleveland.

“I like him more than I did,” Christian said. “I’m still not sure about where we’ll play him, but I like him. Let’s bring him on a campus visit.”

And on the weekend of Oct. 21, 2005, Russell Westbrook came to Kent State.

At the time of Westbrook’s visit, Kent State had finished its seventh straight 20-win season.

“We were fresh off our Elite Eight run three years earlier,” former Kent State player Mike McKee said. McKee, who is now an assistant for the Kent State women’s team, was a redshirt freshman when Westbrook visited.

Thunder Bucks Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee.

“There was a buzz around the program. We were the most dominant team in the Mid-American Conference.”

In 50-degree fall Ohio weather, Westbrook showed up dressed in short shorts, a button-down shirt and Vans shoes (before they were cool, mind you). Westbrook squired around campus and the city of Kent with Oppenheimer, Christian and senior captain DeAndre Haynes.

“He had this Cali-type swag about him,” Haynes, now an assistant at Michigan, recalls. “Real quiet guy. When we were in the car, we were talking basketball, but I didn’t get to know him too much.

“Nobody ever believes me when I tell them he went on a visit to Kent State.”

Kent State had two scholarships available. The Flashes knew they’d need to replace Haynes (MAC Player of the Year in 2006) and fellow senior guard Jay Youngblood.Christian and his staff had already found one high school guard they liked in Rodriguez Sherman, a 6-foot-3 senior from Pike High School in Indianapolis. Christian and the staff knew that whoever they gave scholarships to would lead the next generation of KSU basketball.

“When you have scholarships you probably need to be right on both guys,” Oppenheimer says. “You have three or four, you can drop the ball on one. With two, you need to hit on both.”

Schools like Creighton and San Diego also were recruiting Westbrook. The big schools weren’t convinced.

“I can remember it like it’s yesterday, sitting in the gym watching him shoot,” says Bob Cantu, who was an assistant at USC. “Left wing 2-for-20, right-wing 1-for-20, top of the key 0-for-20. He wasn’t a two guard and I thought he was a little, too wild to be a point.”

Kent State was at the top of Westbrook’s list.

Christian knew that Oppenheimer might leave if an assistant coaching job opened up with a bigger school, and knew that Oppenheimer was Westbrook’s connection to Kent State.  Christian told Westbrook he didn’t want him to sign with Kent in the November signing period, because, if Oppenheimer left, Westbrook would still be committed to Kent.

So Westbrook and Christian agreed that he was informally committed and would officially sign with the Flashes in April.

“I felt great about it,” Oppenheimer recalls.

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Then Westbrook’s senior season started.  Russell Westbrook had always loved basketball, but that year basketball began to love him back.

First, he got a 50-point game. Then a 40-point game. Then another 40-point game.

The big schools — Miami, Arizona State, USC, Wake Forest — got interested.

They called Morris, his high school coach, who mentioned Westbrook’s relationship with Oppenheimer. So they called Oppenheimer, who told them he’d help them get in contact with Westbrook, but reminded them about Westbrook’s commitment to Kent State.

“I was like, sure I’ll help you with Russell,” Oppenheimer recalls telling coaches. “But I’m trying to help him, so I have to see what he wants to do.”

One of Westbrook’s dream schools was UCLA. The Bruins, however, looked like a pipe dream. They appeared to be set at guard with Jordan Farmar, an NCAA All-Tournament team selection the season prior, and Arron Afflalo, the PAC-10 Player of the Year that season.

But then Farmar declared for the NBA draft.

Ben Howland and the Bruins coaching staff needed a guard late in the recruiting season, and there was this guard in their own backyard who had spent his senior season dominating against California’s best.

Trail Blazers Thunder Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes up for a dunk in front of Portland Trail Blazers forward Meyers Leonard, left, in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. 

In Kent, Oppenheimer and Christian knew they couldn’t compete with UCLA. The Bruins offered Westbrook a scholarship. He accepted. The dream of having Russell Westbrook at Kent State was over.

The summer before Westbrook’s freshman year, Oppenheimer got a call from Westbrook.

“I played pickup today against Kobe,” Westbrook said.

NBA players often worked out at UCLA in the offseason.

“He busted your ass,” Oppenheimer responded.

“Nah, coach,” Westbrook rebutted. “I locked him down.”

All Oppenheimer could do was laugh.

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Even with Farmar leaving for the NBA, Westbrook’s playing time wasn’t guaranteed. UCLA still had Afflalo and Darren Collison, a rising sophomore who played in every game the previous season.

In his freshman year Westbrook averaged a pedestrian 3.4 points in nine minutes a game for a Bruins team that lost to Florida in the Final Four.

Westbrook was still finding himself

on the offensive side of the game; his athleticism was the main reason he was on the floor.

“Our game plan against him his freshman year was, ‘Don’t guard him,’” says then USC assistant Bob Cantu, who is currently head coach at Portland State. 

“Keep one foot in the paint was the scouting report. Don’t ever go to the perimeter.”

Westbrook liked UCLA, but knew that if he transferred he could get more playing time. But then Collison heard a pop in his knee on the first play of UCLA’s season-opening exhibition against Azusa Pacific. Westbrook wasn’t recruited to play point guard, but now Howland and the Bruins coaching staff had no choice.

Westbrook became the starter and Collision never got the job back. He had 10 points in 30 minutes in the season opener against Portland State. A game later against Youngstown State he had nine points and nine assists in 29 minutes.

His introduction to the country came on Jan. 5, 2008, when the 6-foot-3 Westbrook dunked California’s 6-foot-8 forward Jamal Boykin into the floor.

Thunder Bucks Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook sits on the bench during a timeout during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

The dunk showed “wow athleticism,” Oppenheimer said, and was a foreshadowing of the Westbrook the nation would see in the NBA.

Westbrook played 1,318 minutes that season, which was, at the time, the highest total in UCLA history and finished the season averaging 12.7 points while also finishing fifth in the PAC-10  with 4.28

assists per game.

All of a sudden Westbrook’s name started popping up on draft boards around the country. In a span of 24 months, he had gone from being under-recruited to thinking about putting his name in the NBA draft.

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Two weeks after the season ended, Westbrook and freshman teammate Kevin Love declared for the draft. For Love, the decision seemed like a no-brainer. He had just completed the greatest freshman season in UCLA history and seemed like a lock to be a top-five pick.

For Westbrook, things were more complicated. He played well in the NCAA tournament, scoring a career-high 22 points against Derrick Rose and the eventual champion Memphis Tigers in his final collegiate performance.

But skeptics thought Westbrook’s high-energy play wouldn’t translate to the NBA. Some thought he was too small to play the point. Some thought his lack of a jumper was too much of a roadblock.

In late May, he was invited to a workout with the Supersonics. That morning, Oppenheimer got a call from Westbrook.

Westbrook told him that all the other players brought in for the workout were likely second-round picks.

His agent was pushing him to pull out of the workout. If Westbrook played bad against them, he might end up in the second round, too.

“Well, what do you think?”

Oppenheimer asked.

“I want to play,” Westbrook said. “If they’re better than me and I’m not good enough, I need to know that.”

He later told Oppenheimer he had an unbelievable workout despite turning his ankle halfway through.

Then they brought him in for a second workout.

The Supersonics selected Westbrook with the fourth pick in the June draft.

Three summers after he sat by himself in that lobby in Suwanee, he was in Madison Square Garden, shaking hands with NBA commissioner David Stern.

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The way Westbrook’s career has played out, it’s hard to imagine him ever being defined as a “mid-major talent.”

Thunder Bucks Basketball

The shoes of Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook are seen during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. 

He’s an eight-time all-star and the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double three years in a row.

Not bad for a guy who had no major offers as a high school junior.  

But if there’s some other universe somewhere where Westbrook ended up at Kent State, it’s not hard to imagine his jersey hanging in the M.A.C. Center.  

“He would have been all-time great,” Haynes said.

Henry Palattella is the sports editor. Contact him at hpalatte@kent.edu.

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