Russell Westbrook is known for his magic on the basketball court, his finely honed fashion sense and his media interviews that have spawned memes and GIFs across social media.
A nine-time NBA All-Star and former star at UCLA, Westbrook has also channeled his energies into an off-the-court pursuit long important to him: Philanthropy.
Last month, he unveiled plans to expand his Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation and his enterprise firm, Russell Westbrook Enterprises. The expansion will focus on education and investments in finance and other areas that are intended to aid underserved communities.
As the 32-year-old point guard settles into his first season with the Washington Wizards, Westbrook says he plans to continue his philanthropic work full time once his playing days are over — whenever that may be.
The Associated Press spoke recently with Westbrook about his philanthropy and other work. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Q: The name of your foundation is called The Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation. Why that name?
A: Why Not is like my mantra and attitude. It’s the mindset I was able to instill at a young age. A few buddies of mine came up with the mindset, and it got me through adversity and naysayers. It instilled confidence in me to believe, “Why not me? — why not be the person to change this?" That’s something I try to spread throughout the world, with basketball as my platform. Alongside that, making sure I use it in the community to give back as well. That’s where the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Foundation originated. I wanted to have a positive, strong message to give to people and our youth. To give them a sense of confidence and swagger when they see the Why Not? Foundation.
Q: You recently partnered with the LA Promise Fund to launch the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Academy in Los Angeles. What are you aiming to do with that project, and are you planning to expand it to other cities, like Washington, D.C.?
A: It’s a blessing to be able to partner with the LA Promise Fund. It’s such an amazing partnership when given the opportunity to help our underserved communities, especially in education, given that I started my foundation around education. It was an amazing opportunity to get in the middle and high school: To create curriculums, to help after high school and in job creation. Finding ways to give better education to our youth and underserved communities — proper books and the good things other schools have. And internships for people. When you grow up in the inner city, like myself, you understand how the schools in the city are not as good as the schools outside of the city.
That’s something I wanted to make sure my foundation and I took control over, especially in our education system. To start with Los Angeles, and hopefully in the years to come there’s opportunity to create somewhere else. Los Angeles was something I wanted to wrap my hands around since I’m from there. I wanted to make sure I have resources for inner-city kids, so they have somewhere to go where they can feel they have the resources they need in job creation and even with mental health. And, obviously, having the best education provided for them.
Q: You are also partnering with Varo, the online bank, to create financial literacy programs and also joined forces with businessman Chad Brownstein to invest in renewable resources and other areas. Is there a reason you're focusing on these areas? How do you see it fitting into your overall philanthropic work?
A: Chad is a UCLA alum, which is where we created our connection. The biggest thing that I always try to connect with somebody on is: What do they want to do for the underserved communities?
Chad had already done a lot of work in underserved communities. We had conversations on what we can better do to help those communities in Los Angeles. We’ve been able to create different vehicles and partnerships. We just did a partnership with Varo to help in financial literacy and find ways to impact our financial system, which has been plagued over many years, especially for the underserved and people of color. That’s the area I want to tap into with the help of people that have the same goals and visions.
There’s been such a huge disparity in our financial system. In order to close that gap, you have to be able to put systems in place and partner with the right people to help underserved communities. Because that’s who gets hurt the most — especially African American communities. Those are the people that don’t create family wealth or generational wealth.
I want to make sure I have something in place. So I partnered with Varo, because they understand how important it is to serve the underserved and the unbanked. I’m excited about creating a curriculum and strategy. We're in a process of trying to figure out exactly what that is. But I want to make sure I lead the way.
Q: You’re producing a documentary about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. How did your years playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder influence you and what you learned about this event?
A: I was in Oklahoma for 11 years and kind of grew up in Oklahoma City. I wanted to understand more about the origins of Oklahoma and Tulsa. I had been going to Tulsa almost every season, and I had a camp in Tulsa. I heard about Black Wall Street but never really dived into it or understood the impact of the people and community.
Once I was able to learn the history and dive more deep into it, I was in shock. It’s truly sad what happened to all the business and African Americans and people of color that had their businesses wiped away. Now, more than ever, I want to be able to show how history can affect our future. To make sure we understand our history and know that there were people that paved the way and had to struggle and things were taken away from them. I want to be able to share that with the world and the significance of Black Wall Street.
Q: What are you thinking about for your future philanthropic work?
A: The overarching theme of my enterprise, foundation and everything I do is for the underserved communities. Every aspect of my business, whether it’s financial literacy, education or anywhere I work — I’m always focused on giving our underserved communities access and resources to be able to educate themselves and do anything they want to do in this world.
The Associated Press receives support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP is solely responsible for all content.