Getting to Know D'Angelo

To better understand D’Angelo Russell the basketball player, the best thing to do is to understand him better as a person.

For that, look no further than his relationship with his two big brothers, Antonio and LeShawn.

Russell is very close with both his mother and his father, but the way the 19-year-old conducts himself on and off the hardwood has been most directly shaped by his 21-year-old brothers, who now live with him in Los Angeles.

We sat down with the Lakers’ No. 2 overall selection in last summer’s NBA Draft for an extended conversation about his family, his contrasting experience from high school and college to the NBA, academics, video games, music and more.

Below is a transcription of the conversation:

MT: I know you’re very close with your brothers. We’ll get into what your relationship was like with them growing up, but how do you reflect on your childhood when you chat these days?

Russell: When we’re hanging around in the living room today, we always reminisce about all the fun stuff we used to do growing up, and the things we used to get in trouble for. Man, we had so much fun. And who didn’t get into trouble with two older brothers and four older cousins that lived right down the street?

MT: What kind of trouble did you get into? Just the typical young dude stuff? Breaking things?

Russell: Well, my granny had the biggest house that my granddad built it with his bare hands. She had so much stuff that was valuable, like chandeliers, lamps and everything. But we’d be dribbling basketballs in the house, running around playing football, climbing all over the place. We’d break stuff and she’d go crazy and tell my dad, and we’d try to figure out a lie, or say we all did it so he wouldn’t get mad at all of us. Then we’d fight about who snitched to my dad.

MT: Were you always close with your brothers*?

Russell: Oh no, Antonio and I hated each other. LaShawn wasn’t very involved with sports and things like that, but was always the spectator to my arguments and competitive battles with Antonio. It was a hate-hate relationship. But now I can’t live without my brother. We’re the best of friends now … it’s crazy. My dad always used to say to Antonio, ‘When your brother’s not around, you’re gonna miss him,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna miss me!’ And I’d use it against him. We all (went to the same school) growing up and I was a freshman at Louisville Central – where Muhammad Ali went – when my brothers were juniors. But then I left as a sophomore for boarding school in Florida (Montverde Academy) when I was 15.
*LaShawn shares the same father with D’Angelo and Antonio but has a different mother, while D’Angelo and Antonio have the same mother and father.

MT: I know Montverde is a good school academically, but it’s now well known for its hoops, with alums including Joel Embiid, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Michael Frazier and current LSU forward Ben Simmons. … So I’m guessing you didn’t lose much?

Russell: We’ve won three national championships*. We were the school beating the Oak Hills Academies when they were 40-1, and so on. I know I lost three times my entire time there, and most were when I (didn’t play).

*The athletic programs at Montverde compete nationally with other private schools, and not against schools in the Florida State High School Athletic Association. Russell won two national titles in his three years there, and Montverde won again when he was a freshman at Ohio State.

MT: What were Embiid and Simmons like when you were at Montverde?

Russell: Joel didn’t blow up until college. He was good, but nobody knew he was going to be a pro. Ben came when he was a sophomore and I was a junior – he’s actually a year older than me (20). But I knew he’d be a pro right away. He’s so versatile. He was a guy you couldn’t put into a box. He did everything. … he reminds me of (Giannis) Antetokounmpo.

MT: Getting back to your dynamic with your brothers, how was that transition from when you moved to Florida?

Russell: So I’d call my dad and check up on them, because I’d never call my brothers, and he’d say, ‘Your brother (Antonio) said he misses you.’ I’d be like, ‘What?’ And then I’d say, ‘Well I miss him too.’ Then I’d say, ‘OK I gotta go,’ because it was so weird.

MT: Right, the love was there, but it was weird to admit it after all the years of being rivals of sorts. How did basketball play into this?

Russell: (Antonio) was always better than me at basketball, but then I started getting really good, and we’d go back and forth. If we played when I was still living at home, it was competitive … I could beat him but he’d (often) beat me. But when I left for school and started to separate myself, he stopped playing me 1-on-1 because he knew I’d rub it in his face. I’d come back from boarding school a (much better) player, and he was like, ‘Man you kinda blew up on me.’ He used to think he’d do something with basketball, but then all of a sudden I was getting scholarship offers, and he was mature enough to acknowledge that and he became my biggest fan. He’d tweet about me, post on Instagram, do interviews and talk about me. He’d brag about me to his friends, everything. And then we just became closer (when I had that respect). My other brother LaShawn was never really competitive like that or as (into sports), but when it came to the books, both of my brothers were really smart.

MT: I had a similarly contentious relationship with my older brother, who is also two years older, and it took a long time to earn his respect. But since I did, when I was 18, we’ve been very tight. I get how that dynamic can work, where the older brother can really shape the younger one’s competitive edge. Did you feel that way?

Russell: For sure. I remember playing 1-on-1, and we’d always, always argue. My dad would come outside and shut us up, and then he’d just watch. I’d always call fouls, and my brother, who was bigger, wouldn’t. He’d just post me up, constantly backing me down, and I’d always try to go around him. But if I didn’t get the ball, I couldn’t do that, so I’d always be like, ‘Try to score on me without backing me down!’ It ended up really helping me to learn how to use my speed against bigger guys, but also to learn to be physical with people that were bigger. My dad would tell Antonio to rough me up, and I’d be crying, but it made me competitive. It made me want to beat him in everything. I feel like a lot of people have that type of relationship with their older brother, but it comes back to be a positive thing.

MT: So you are your own person, but your brother can take some real credit in shaping you.

Russell: Yeah, one thing I really remember was people saying we looked alike. But we hated each other so much that we’d say, ‘No,’ when people asked if we were brothers at school. ‘You look like him!,’ they’d say. ‘No, I don’t,’ I’d answer. Freshman year was the worst, because he was already at the high school as a junior. People would tell Antonio, ‘Your little brother is nice,* he’s good!’ My brother would say, ‘He’s all right.’ I was starting as a freshman and he wasn’t, and he wasn’t playing. Then when I started killing it, people would use it against my brother and say, ‘He’s better than you!’ He hated that.
*At hoops.

MT: I’m not an older brother, so I don’t know what that’s like, but I can imagine there’s an element to seeing your younger brother succeeding more than you at something you love that hurts. But since there’s also love there, eventually it turns over to support, maybe? That was probably hard for you to conceptualize as a 14-year-old especially when you were still battling one another…

Russell: I remember what hurt me the most was my brother getting this academic award. My dad is big time on grades, but he’s also a basketball fan. So he’d get excited about academic accomplishments, but he was really on top of things with my basketball (emergence). I guess my brother felt my dad was shading towards me more due to the basketball, and it hurt me because he got an Academic All-American certificate or something like that, and he just threw it away. He didn’t even show my dad, because he saw on the ESPN bottom line ticker that: ‘D’Angelo Russell got a scholarship offer from such and such.’ He felt like he couldn’t win. So to come around, now when people say we look alike, I say, ‘Yeah that’s my best friend!’ And sometimes people will think he’s me, and ask for a photo, and I’ll take it and pretend he’s me. He signs autographs as me too, sometimes, so it’s cool.

MT: Man … that had to be tough for Antonio, but it’s cool how he ended up being so supportive regardless. Meanwhile, I’ve read that your relationship with your father has always been really good. How would you describe it?

Russell: Yea, we’re (really tight). It’s like we’re all brothers and best friends. It’s crazy.

MT: And your mom?

Russell: We’re really close, too. My mom used to baby me. She was always like, ‘Don’t touch him,’ to my brothers, or try to keep me from playing football with them. I’d say, ‘Mom, yes I can!’ But if I had a scratch on me, she’d want to go to the hospital. She was overprotective of me.

MT: I know they still live in Louisville – would you ever want them to move to Los Angeles?

Russell: I’d want them to, but I have a younger sister that my dad is raising in Louisville. My mom, I’d want her to move out but she loves her friends and stuff like that – she’s lived in Louisville her whole life, so I don’t think she’d leave.

MT: You went from a really tight family unit to a different type of really close family unit in your one year at Ohio State … is the NBA a lot different?

Russell: Very. I always relate it to the locker room. When you’re in college, you go to the locker room and see your teammates after practice and see what everyone is doing. ‘Are you’ll trying to go eat? Are you going to a party?’ And everyone is talking about where we’re going to go, and when, and what we’re going to do together. Here in the NBA, you just have people with different priorities. One player has to go pick up his son from school, another has to go pay the rent. But me, at 19, I just have to make sure my Wi-Fi is connected so I can play “Call of Duty.” My priorities are totally different from (some guys). I’d say that’s the biggest adjustment.

MT: I’m sure this is different from team to team to some degree, but has this been hard for you, even if you understand the reasons why?

Russell: It’s just against the norm for me, like what I’m used to. I’m used to comfortability. It helps me stay sane, when your teammates are like your brothers. It’s like that (with the Lakers) too, it’s just the priorities that are different. In college, your priorities are the same: studying, basketball, have fun.

MT: Do you need that type of camaraderie with the Lakers players a little bit less because you have your brothers living with you?

Russell: For sure. I mean, my brothers can feel it. My brother (Antonio) just texted me not too long ago to stay focused. He can tell if I come home from practice and I’m not jolly, happy-go-lucky D’Angelo. He’s like, ‘What’s wrong, man? What happened today?’ I’ll say, ‘Such and such gave me the work today, he won that battle today.’ He’ll say, ‘Well, go at him tomorrow! You have 82 games and 100-plus practices!’ They always stay positive.

MT: Because of how high you went in the draft, the expectations and the hope for what you can be, some folks have already judged you, despite how early it is and how young you are. That’s not everybody, but still, have you felt like people want to see everything from Day 1?

Russell: Yeah, right away. But that’s why I don’t get caught up in social media (critiques). Right now, I don’t really like doing interviews … because I know that once I get comfortable with my team, my coaches and all that, the same problems I was having months ago, people are going to be like, ‘Dang, he’s come a long way.’ Because everywhere I’ve been, I’ve struggled first, but then made (success happen). At first when I got to Montverde, I was playing behind Mike Frazier*, and I felt like I was better than him. He’s really good, but I had confidence, and after a while I was starting, and had blown up a little bit and people were looking to me like, ‘Lead us, man!’ and I was thinking, ‘I’m 15 years old!’ But my coach gave me the keys. Then I got to college, and struggled at the beginning of the year, but soon I got comfortable and took off. I never knew I’d be the No. 2 pick in the Draft, but it happened. Out here, I struggled in the beginning, started to find my way and it’s up and down. But this is a whole different level. You’re playing against grown men … vets. Playing against Hall of Fame coaches that take away everything you do well. This is a whole different animal.

So I’d always rather be a late bloomer at anything I do. I don’t want to be great right away. I love the process. I love when people say, ‘You suck! You’re a bust!’ I love that. Because whether it’s months or years, whatever it takes, best believe they’ll be thinking about those words they said a while ago.
*Frazier stared at the University of Florida, and was invited to Lakers training camp this preseason before signing with the D-Fenders.

MT: How do you try to reach teammates right now given what you just said about understanding the process?

Russell: Right now it’s difficult because we’re losing. You have Kobe (Bryant) around, and so many young guys trying to prove themselves. I think time will tell who’s the leader, who’s a lead-by-example type guy, who’s the hard worker. Time is going to tell. Right now it’s all about listening to the coaches and getting your individual game up to par, getting physically ready for this. So when this game (shows) itself, you’re ready for it.

MT: Was it always hoops for you? Was there another sport you felt like you could have done something with?

Russell: It was always basketball. I actually was alright at football, but I didn’t see myself as a pro. I love soccer, too – I love watching and playing it, I’m just not good at it. My high school team was No. 1 in the country for like eight years. The guys were all from Brazil, or Costa Rica … from all over the place. They’d come to Montverde just to play soccer, and they all went on to play (for Division 1 teams). That’s where I started to love soccer. If I played, I’d probably be a defender.

MT: At 6-5, we could maybe get you out on the wing, but yeah, center back might be your best spot…

Russell: Yeah. But soccer’s like a hamstring injury waiting to happen. … The way my high school guys trained was crazy.

MT: I understand that you’re a fan of my favorite squad, Manchester United, which shows you’re very smart for your age.

Russell: Yup, Man U. That’s my team in FIFA. Then I like some individual players like Gareth Bale at Real Madrid. But for playing sports, it was always basketball for me.

MT: Since you were so relatively young when you got really good, maybe you never had to think about what career you’d have if you weren’t a hooper?

Russell: I really wouldn’t know what I would do if I didn’t make it to this level in basketball. I don’t know.

MT: OK … you mentioned that your brothers did great in school and your dad emphasized it … what about you?

Russell: My brothers were always at the top of the class. I was always just (doing) whatever it took to get by. And my dad would say, ‘Hey man, that doesn’t cut it!’

MT: So you applied yourself only to the extent that you had to?

Russell: Honestly, yeah, to be eligible for the next game. At least in high school. I was only in college for about six months, but I was a scholar athlete there, and I actually did my work. I wanted to prove people wrong a little bit about the ‘dumb athlete’ thing. I was smart, but (before college) I was just lazy about school.

MT: You’d never been lazy about basketball, I’m guessing…

Russell: No.

MT: So why in school?

Russell: I just wasn’t interested in certain things. I haven’t used algebra since I left. Social studies and English, I get that, you need to know that.

MT: Aren’t certain subjects like math about teaching your brain how to think in different ways? How to solve problems?

Russell: It’s all common sense to me. Then again, if school started at 2 p.m., I’d be interested. But at 7:30 a.m., it’s almost a set up.

MT: A lot of high school seems to be about introducing ideas and concepts, discovering what you’re really interested in. For me, it was the start of my sophomore year in college that I was able to start focusing more on the subjects and topics of real interest to me. That’s when it started being more fun and less about just getting good grades. But you were in such a unique spot probably knowing the NBA wanted you almost right away … how did you handle that?

Russell: School was fun, but the second class was over, I was in the gym. I was always just in the gym. Part of high school was pointless. There’d be people with all A’s in high school, but then they’d get to the SAT and fail it. That makes no sense to me. You’ve been studying from kindergarten up until this test to determine if you go to college or not. It shouldn’t be like that. But it’s too late now, that’s how the system is, to separate the Ivy Leagues and the rest of the schools because those people have crazy SAT and ACT scores, but what if the smartest person just isn’t good at taking tests?

MT: You do have some equalizers. For example, sports. Or music. If you’re that great at basketball or the violin, you have that much better of a chance at getting into a school that recognizes the combination of talent and work that it took to get that good. Then if your GPA is pretty good, maybe your test scores don’t have to be quite as high.

Russell: Right, but once you get there, all you have to do is be average … and I don’t like how getting there (seems arbitrary).

MT: OK let me turn it back to your experience. What were academics like for you at Ohio State?

Russell: It was tough. Especially coming from a small high school and a small city, and going to one of the biggest universities in the world. It was just so new that I used to go to class with my hoodie on, be there, listen and get out of there. I’d always do my work ahead of time. I knew I wouldn’t want to do all the work on a Thursday or Friday. I’d get the work on a Monday, and I’d go to tutoring, knock it all out on Monday and Tuesday and then I was done for the week. Then I just had to show up for class.

MT: What else stood out about your college experience?

Russell: The relationships I built with my coaches were great, I would say. That gave me a better perspective on life on and off the court, because they were role models, not just coaches. They weren’t perfect, but they knew people. I understood them.

MT: OK, since you’re only 19, I’m curious what your favorite video game was growing up, because at 34, I was probably playing it in college.

Russell: Probably Mario Kart?

MT: Yup, a great one for Nintendo 64 … Goldeneye 007 was my favorite though.

Russell: Yeah, James Bond. But Mario Kart was always the best. I liked the green dude.

MT: Yoshi? Yeah, he was my guy.

Russell: (pauses) … No, Luigi.

MT: Ah, he wasn’t as good as Yoshi, but fair enough. One of your brothers was probably Yoshi.

Russell: We were just competitive with everything. Who could throw the rock the farthest, who could throw the ball the hardest. We never wanted to be on the same team. We had to be on different teams just so we could go head-to-head.

MT: How about music? Did your brothers get you into certain artists or groups?

Russell: I love music. They knew about YouTube before I did, and I’d always hear them playing music, until they taught me you could type whatever song you wanted in and listen to it. They liked Usher…

MT: Ah, “My Way,” or “Confessions,” OK.

Russell: Yup, and I was a different dude. I’d listen to Green Day or something.

MT: “Dookie” was the first cassette tape I bought in the 90’s (1994, specifically). I love Green Day.

Russell: I knew Boulevard of Broken Dreams, American Idiot (off the 2004 “American Idiot” album) … I’d listen to all that.

MT: On the other hand, a lot of the best hip hop came out right around the time you were born. In fact, you were born in 1996, when the best rap album ever, 2pac’s “All Eyez on Me,” came out.

Russell: Right. Well, I was also into Drake, J. Cole, Young Jeezy, 50 Cent, Lil’ Wayne. ... My dad was big into music and he’d have the CDs weeks before the albums came out playing in the car.

MT: So you’re a few years past A Tribe Called Quest, who have only Wu Tang Clan and N.W.A. to compete with for my favorite hip hop group ever.

Russell: Hmm … do you listen to Logic? He mentions Tribe all the time, but I’ve really never heard (their music).

MT: You have to listen to Tribe. I’m trying to do you a favor. Just start with any one of these albums: “The Low End Theory;” “Midnight Marauders;” or “Beats Rhymes and Life.” You will thank me later. In fact, you mentioned J. Cole. He sampled one of Tribe’s best songs, “Electric Relaxation,” on his track “Forbidden Fruit” with Kendrick Lamar. Here, check it out: (*plays song on iPhone*)

Russell: Oh, OK. (*Recites lyrics*) ‘Hey yo, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, when %$^#@& hold tec's like they mad at the ref’.

MT: See, you’re halfway there. Go grab your headphones!

Russell: Tribe Called Quest … I got you.