LOS ANGELES -- There’s a spirit inside the gymnasium at Jesse Owens Park, at the corner of Century and Western in South Los Angeles. It’s not the fanciest building. The floor isn’t shiny. The walls aren’t covered in artwork. But when the people from the neighborhood squeaked their shoes across the court on Monday night, there was something much more irreplaceable in the room – a community.
That camaraderie and togetherness amongst people who sprinkled in from all around the area near the park was inspired by one man, who comes back as frequently as possible to make his presence felt. Russell Westbrook grew up playing basketball in that gymnasium. He wasn’t very tall. He wasn’t extremely skilled. But there was a spirit about him.
“Growing up you could tell he was likable, lovable, all the kids and adults gravitated towards him,” said Regina Minor, a smiling mother from the neighborhood who helped coach Westbrook’s summer team when he was a child. “You could tell this would be something he would do in the future – to give back to the community. You can tell he didn’t forget where he came from.”
Westbrook still goes back to that gymnasium in the summertime to work out with his father and to host a summer camp. Usually, his Why Not? Foundation hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for people in the neighborhood, but since it’s during the heart of the NBA season, Westbrook’s family takes the reins. This year, with a fortunately-timed trip to play the Lakers on Tuesday, the Thunder point guard had a chance to ladle out some stuffing in his hometown, for the families who lived just like him a decade ago.
“It’s very important to be able to know where you come from. Humble beginnings always lead to something great,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be in the position I’m in now.”
“It means everything, especially for the homeless in the community and other members of the community,” said Milan DePillars, a fit 20-something man who has come to the Thanksgiving event for five straight years. “To come out and get a hot meal is always a good thing, but to come out and be served is an added bonus on top of it.”
Like a true leader does on the basketball court and off of it, Westbrook brought some teammates along too. Alex Abrines, Cameron Payne, Domas Sabonis, Jerami Grant, Joffrey Lauvergne, Josh Huestis and Semaj Christon all supported their teammate by serving drinks, cornbread and cranberry sauce.
“It’s beautiful. It’s cool to see everybody happy, everybody smiling,” Payne said. “Doing it for Russ and having our teammates here makes it a very special moment for us.”
“It’s amazing to be able to see all the people that come out and support and help and give back,” Westbrook beamed. “It’s something I never take for granted.”
Watch: Westbrook Serves Up Thanksgiving in L.A.