SAN FRANCISCO – D’Angelo Russell credits luck for his nine-figure contract and presence in the NBA. Now that he has secured the bag, and the ability to buy anything he or his family desires, he can cruise, right? Count money by day, jack up shots at night, party in the wee hours.
Except his memories and goals won’t allow that. Russell has experienced a few hard knocks, and he has bounced up every time. He knows what might happen if he were to stay down.
That much is obvious in hearing his sober response to a question I asked after the Warriors practiced Tuesday.
What motivates you to want to be great?
“Just knowing where I come from,” he said. “Not a lot of people make it out where I’m from.”
Russell grew up mostly on the west end of Louisville, Ky. Louisville has the highest violent crime rate in Kentucky, more than three times that of the rest of the state. West Louisville has the highest violent crime rate in the city, as it was most afflicted with the grand slam of urban despair: Joblessness, substance abuse, assaults and murders.
Russell and his two brothers, Antonio and LeShawn, always have had a bond, sometimes competitive (one-on-one games could get nasty) and other times quite tight. His father, Antonio Russell, Sr., and his mother, Keisha Rowe, were devoted to keeping the boys safe and out of trouble. They didn’t always succeed, but what “trouble” they found usually was minor, such as young D’Angelo squabbling with a middle school teacher he says lied on him.
There was, for Russell, a measure of stability not available to many in the neighborhood. Thankfully, he also had basketball. After initially going to Louisville Central High – the same school Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, attended in the 1950s – D’Angelo left at age 15 to attend Montverde Academy, a boarding school in Florida.
It was there that Russell learned he had a chance to be special. NBA special. He grew into the star guard on a national powerhouse and received dozens of scholarship offers. He gazed right through the factories in his home state, University of Louisville and University of Kentucky.
D’Angelo chose Ohio State, considered by some to be an odd choice. No matter. It was the only visit he took, and he was hooked. it took him “a while” to realize just how good he was.
“When I first got there, it was straight, my head down, plan on being here for three or four years; that was what our program was,” Russell said. “Just coming in with that mentality that I’m going to be here (for a while). I’m going to get comfortable.
“And then, all of a sudden, I looked up and the success was there.”
Russell lasted one year with the Buckeyes, leaving Columbus, Ohio after a freshman season during which he averaged 19.3 points and 5.0 assists. By the time he turned 19 late in the season, he had established himself as the team leader.
Two months later, he declared for the 2015 NBA draft and was taken second overall by the Lakers. He displayed some immaturity, according to coach Byron Scott, and notably became infamous for recording teammate Nick Young discussing sexual exploits with someone other than his fiancée, Australian hip-hop artist Iggy Azalea.
It was a prank gone wrong that broke an engagement and shattered any trust with Russell’s teammates. He was traded to Brooklyn 15 months later, after team executive Magic Johnson concluded he was not leadership material.
These accusations explain why there was some surprise that, after two years with Nets, including an All-Star season in 2018-19, the Warriors would be interested.
They believe in Russell, presented him with a contract worth $117.3 million. They said so when they acquired him in July and they continue to say it. They see a talented combo guard who can help keep defenses honest and, therefore, help Steph Curry.
It is, for Russell, something of a crossroads. If he thrives, he becomes a verified star. If not, he risks being vilified.
Which would disrupt his plan to reach his NBA peak and share his experiences and economic power with those who need help. Like a lot of folks on the west end of Louisville.
“Just getting that platform to showcase the work that I put in to get here, the route that I took to get here, and the work that I put in to stay here,” Russell said. “I try to be able to go home and sprinkle that onto the other players. And just hearing the questions they ask me, as if I was 30 years old and I’m 20-something. It’s kind of cool to see that. That’s my motivation.”
Russell wants to be, in some form, a man who makes a difference. It’s a goal as lofty as it is commendable.
I asked Russell how he made it out Louisville when so many others did not.
“A lot of luck. A lot of luck,” he said. “You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time and have a lot of luck on your side to make it to this level.”
You also have to have specials gifts and be committed to making the most of them.