Going Back, Giving Back to Cali: Russ Makes Impact on Trip Back to His Childhood Home

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

LOS ANGELES -- On Friday, as the early morning dew dripped off the grass just outside, a gaggle of 10-year-olds sat on the floor in a previously unused classroom at Highland Elementary school in Inglewood, Calif.

On pins and needles, they looked around at the bean bag chairs, the bookshelves and the signage all over the walls, including a large image of Russell Westbrook, donning a UCLA jersey. The implied reminder that higher education’s importance, even for an NBA player, was there for the young Angelenos to soak up.

Then, without a drumroll, Westbrook himself showed up. The looks of shock and awe were priceless.

“I thought it was going to be fake, but it turned out to be real,” a bubbling student named Irvin Morales squeaked.

If Westbrook was bleary eyed after playing back-to-back games, he didn’t show it. The Thunder point guard immediately sprung into action, delivering a speech to the students, cutting the ribbon to announce the unveiling of the new Russell’s Reading Room and then helping the students pick out books. There are few, if any, NBA players who would be willing to give back in such a meaningful way eight hours after playing for the second straight night in Los Angeles, which also happens to be Westbrook’s hometown. Yet there he was, somehow with all the energy in the world.

“It’s very easy when you love something and you’re passionate about it. For me it wasn’t a second thought. It’s something I wanted to do,” Westbrook explained. “Basketball is something I love to do and obviously it’s very important to my life. The impact that I have on other people and kids is more important than anything else. I understand the platform that I have.”

The Reading Room at Highland Elementary is one of 10 that Westbrook and his Why Not? Foundation announced on Friday, bringing the total to 20 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. The students selected to take part in the event were rewarded for their attendance records during the first half of the school year, and they showed their eagerness to reap the benefits of the educational materials Westbrook helped provide.

“This space is basically just endless possibilities,” said Dr. Annette Beasley, principal of Highland Elementary. “We can use this to promote family literacy, bringing parents in to teach them how to help their students at home, bringing our students in and showing them and demonstrating cool books that they can have access to.”

“It's true dedication to give back to the community he grew up in and just to students who look up to him as a role model,” Beasley continued. “It means a lot to him, a lot to me and the whole Inglewood Unified School District. We’re really impressed with his work ethic.”

Westbrook’s Reading Room will have a broader impact on hundreds of families over the course of years, but while the league’s reigning MVP was in Los Angeles he also managed to touch one specific family in a very deep, very crucial way.

On Tuesday, just 90 minutes after the Thunder landed in California, Westbrook was pulling into the parking lot at St. Joseph Center, a community organization that aids people who need housing and food, and to help families with self-sufficiency. Teaming with Kia and the United Way, Westbrook surprised Jennifer Hall, Hassan Ibrahim and their four sons with a brand new Kia Sorento. Recently, the family has been dealing with health issues, and on top of that, their car just broke down. Hall is pregnant with a fifth child, and in Los Angeles, it’s impossible to provide for such a large family without a car, so Westbrook was able to swoop in and fill a desperate void.

“I just try to find a family that is definitely in need and parents that take care and love and cherish their children and find ways to get them to school and get them to be able to do great things in life,” Westbrook explained. “It’s definitely tough without a car, so it was a perfect family for me to choose.”

Watch: Westbrook Shares His Generosity in L.A.

At first, Hall, Ibrahim and their kids were at a bit of a loss at what was actually happening, as Westbrook simply walked into the middle of their meeting at the St. Joseph Center. It wasn’t until Hall registered Westbrook’s face that she and her family realized that something special was in store.

There was a rush down the stairs and out to the parking lot, where the car readily awaited. Hall herself had to stop once to catch her breath, and hold back some emotions. Once outside, the boys inspected every inch of the family’s new SUV as the parents gladly stood back and admired the grace bestowed. For those who are invested in helping the needy, including Westbrook, being able to deliver exactly when a blessing is most needed is one of the best feelings in the world.

“He’s a southern California boy and the fact he’s home for a limited time during the season and that he would take time out of his buys schedule to make a difference for a family speaks volumes about who he is,” said Elise Buik, the President and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “He really sets the bar as a philanthropist and somebody who gives back to the community.”

“That’s the most important part. The basketball stuff comes and goes,” Westbrook echoed. “For me it’s always been about giving back and finding ways to impact the community where you come from.”