This is the story of the greatest basketball talent to ever play at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California.
At 15 years old, he played on the same varsity team as Dorell Wright, an eventual first-round pick and 11-year NBA veteran. The next season, those who saw both boys play agreed that he would eventually surpass Wright entirely. He dreamed of attending UCLA with his teammate and childhood friend who grew up across the street from him in Hawthorne, California, about 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. After that, the NBA would almost certainly beckon, where he seemed destined to do extraordinary things. Perhaps he'd win an MVP someday. That's how good he was already.
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On May 9, 2004, he debuted in Los Angeles' prestigious Drew League at age 16, a rarity for such a young player. DePaul, the school where Wright had committed prior to opting for the NBA draft, extended the first scholarship offer, with a truckload more to come. USC watched him work out. They were drawn to his frame, long and projectable, but more so to the preternatural polish in his game.
"You had this sophomore who could rebound the ball, dribble the ball up court, and set somebody else up," says Patrick Cleveland, a former high-school teammate who is now an assistant coach at Leuzinger. "He could go coast to coast and finish. He could shoot the ball. He can pass the ball. He defends."
"He was the best three-point shooter we had and the best shot blocker," says Jamelle Tolliver, another Leuzinger teammate who now plays for De Groene Uilen in Holland. "How the fuck do you do that?"
But this is not a story about Russell Westbrook.
Khelcey Barrs III was 16 years old when he died on the floor of the Los Angeles Southwest College gymnasium. Barrs and his high-school teammates would go to this gym every Tuesday to scrimmage against older talented players. After the fourth game, the six-foot-six, 185-pound Barrs collapsed onto the feet of one of his teammates. At first, his friends thought he was joking. He had that type of personality. But Barrs did not get up. He began wheezing.
"Khelcey, this isn't funny. Khelcey, stop playing," his friend and teammate Roy Walker implored.
Southwest's head coach performed CPR. At some point between an on-campus nurse rushing down and the ambulance arriving, Barrs lurched awake. His eyes snapped open, then scanned around the room. He sat up, shrugged his shoulders—"Like, What is all this attention for?" one of his coaches remembers—and then, a second or two later, he fell back once more, his eyes rolling back into his head. He would not awaken again.
Friends and family convened at the hospital. Barrs' mother, Mona, was inconsolable. No one recalls when, exactly, they were informed that his last moment of consciousness had been that desperate gulp of air in the gym. Or that the cause of death was an enlarged heart, a condition no one, least of all Barrs himself, had been aware of.
Everyone was crying, even the nursing staff. A hospital worker turned to one of Barrs' coaches and asked: Who was this boy?
"I kept trying to tell her he was special," says Chris "Ghetto Bird" Young, a Drew League legend and assistant coach at Leuzinger from 2003 to 2010. "I kept saying, 'This wasn't any normal high school kid that this happened to.' I just kept saying that and kept saying it. She probably had no idea what I meant, but I kept saying, 'He was better. He was special.'"
When Young and Reggie Morris, Leuzinger's head coach, left the hospital, they knew they needed to visit Lemoli Avenue before heading back home. They parked on a stretch between Rosecrans Avenue and 135th Street in Hawthorne, which is dotted with apartment buildings and modest homes.
First, they stopped at Barrs' grandmother's house. Then they crossed the street to Russell Westbrook's apartment. The walk took about 30 seconds. As kids, Westbrook and Barrs were fixtures at each other's homes, seemingly always dueling on the basketball court or on NBA Street on Barrs' GameCube.
Westbrook had already heard the news by the time they arrived. He had been in the gym that day, playing on the third court, but he'd left well before his friend's heart stopped. When the coaches walked in, they found him glued to the television, watching the Lakers take on the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. Westbrook acknowledged them, briefly, and then his eyes returned to the screen, almost catatonic. According to Young, they haven't spoken about Barrs' passing since.
Many of those who knew Westbrook then believe that his career might have been different if Barrs had lived. Prior to that day, he had always walked in Barrs' long shadow. "Russell was not on the radar to anybody outside of Reggie, myself, people at Leuzinger and his family," Young says. Westbrook's dogged work ethic and intelligence were readily apparent. His coaches believed he had a chance to rival Barrs as the best player in the area during their senior seasons if he matured physically. Together with Donnell Beverly, an eventual UConn signee one year younger than them, Leuzinger had a roster capable of winning a state title.
That dream shattered when Barrs died. Former teammates say that Westbrook became even more determined, playing as though he could glue the pieces back together if he just tried hard enough. The state title never happened, but UCLA and the NBA did. Now, as Westbrook seemingly bends the league to his every whim, Young says he knows exactly where the inexhaustible supply of resolve comes from.
"Russell is living his dream for his friend," Young says. "I believe Khelcey's energy is in Russell, pushing him to be the MVP of the NBA.... The situation with Khelcey, I'm almost 100 percent sure that even tonight, even today, that happening gives him that extra drive, that extra push. It will never allow him to quit, just because of that."
Khelcey Barrs was ravenous about basketball. He spent hours in the backyard of his grandmother's house mimicking Kevin Garnett, and then dispatching his three younger half-siblings to videotape his best highlights and skateboard around the block to track down loose balls. He had Garnett pictures on his bedroom wall and Garnett jerseys in his closet.
At first, the game was a struggle. Barrs was always tall, but he couldn't always meet the expectations that came with his size. The kids at the playground at Yukon Middle School teased him, recalls Mykell Mathieu, who played on the freshman team when Barrs played varsity and is now an assistant coach at Leuzinger. "Man, you're the tallest person at the school but you suck!" they'd tell him. "You should be the best player at our school."
It never happened at Yukon. Then Barrs went off to high school and, suddenly, everything clicked. He spent his high school years always in search of the next opponent. If it wasn't an organized tournament, it was a pickup game, and if there was no pickup to be found, he trawled for people to play one-on-one. When he got desperate, Barrs would cajole his three half-siblings to face him in hilariously uncompetitive games of H-O-R-S-E. "Why do you even want to play?" his brother, Joseph Gordon, remembers asking. "We're not going to make the shot."
He'd often give his toys to neighbors—in part, his sister Marilyn recalls, because he was a magnanimous spirit, but it didn't hurt that "all he cared about was basketball at that time, anyway." Once, when Morris suspended him for a game, Barrs put on a disguise and tried to sneak back in incognito. When he overslept on the day of a tournament and his ride threatened to leave without him, he dashed to the car in boxers, pausing only to throw on shoes and a hat. He enjoyed teaching his little siblings the fundamentals of the game. When he did, he called it "Camp GoodBarrs."
He loved to laugh. Dance, too. Most of all, Barrs delighted in pulling pranks, usually with Walker—who, despite being a grade level older, shared the same exact birthdate—by his side. They'd pants teammates in the locker room, slap classmates on the back of the neck, instigate endless water fights. At home, Barrs' go-to move was to surreptitiously place ketchup on his fingers and tickle his sister Marilyn's neck, then cackle once she inspected the area and came away with a handful of red goop.
He was never above mischief. Walker remembers the time Barrs' grandmother summarily grounded him from attending a party, then shooed Walker out her front door. "Just wait," Barrs whispered. A few minutes later, Walker saw Barrs' six-foot-six frame slinking out his bedroom window onto the low-slung roof, and then, with a running start, leaping off and bounding for his friend's car in a dead sprint as soon as his feet met pavement.
There was one underlying goal beneath it all.
"He never wanted you to be sad around him," Walker says. "If he caught you and you're mad—'Man, I don't want to talk, I don't want to talk.'—he'd do something. He'd tickle you, grab you, put you in a headlock. 'You're going to talk!'"
Everyone was drawn to him. His siblings looked to him as their protector. He walked his sister Chelcey home from school and he tried to cajole their grandmother out of whipping Marilyn when she got into trouble. He slept nearly every night in a twin bed across from Joseph, even though he had his own room, and even though his legs hung well off its tiny frame. He never said why. He never had to.
He went out to parties with Walker and on double dates with Tolliver. Cleveland remembers the night that he, Tolliver, and Barrs had to run home from the mall because they had missed the last bus. The relationships ran so deep that his friends' family was his family, too. Cleveland's sister, Dee Dee, became another sibling. Barrs showed up at Tolliver's house so often that sometimes Khelcey would beat Jamelle home. And when he did, he helped Tolliver's father, who is in a wheelchair, with errands around the house.
Barrs was the antithesis of the more reserved Westbrook, and they would often play off of each other. According to Walker, when he and Barrs would pull their pranks, Westbrook would be the one help the team snap back into focus. Young remembers how Barrs could coax Westbrook to ease up in a way that nobody else on the team could. On the court, Barrs was the team's heartbeat, its vocal leader. Meanwhile, Westbrook would often keep to himself.
"In the huddle, if somebody's arguing about something, even if Russell knows the right answer, he may not say it," Tolliver says. "He'll just do it."
But Westbrook and Barrs' friendship worked. Early in their high-school careers, Morris brokered an arrangement between the old friends: Westbrook would assist Barrs with his schoolwork, and Barrs would help Westbrook develop his game. By the time their sophomore seasons were over, Barrs' GPA had climbed toward 3.0 and Westbrook was on the brink of breaking into the starting lineup as a junior. They had already planned out their college destination: UCLA, the holy grail of college basketball.
Young first met Westbrook and Barrs when the two were teenagers. He is one of the select few whom the MVP candidate allows into his orbit, and among the still-smaller circle who truly knows him. Yet even for him, Westbrook's barriers recede only so far. There is a part of Russell Westbrook unknowable to everyone, sealed off and out of reach. During his short life, Khelcey Barrs accessed it in a way that perhaps no one else has since.
"No one understands Russell," Young says. "But when you try to understand, [Khelcey's] story has to come up."
May 11, 2004, fell on a Tuesday, which for the Leuzinger basketball team entailed a special type of practice. Reggie Morris would gather his team after school and decamp for Los Angeles Southwest College, where his father was on the coaching staff, and where future NBA talents including Trevor Ariza, Ivan Johnson, Bobby Brown, and Gabe Pruitt roamed the courts.
The scene was always the same. Three courts running games: two for the adults and elite talent, and a third for high schoolers and other less physically developed players. Five-on-five, full court, win by two.
By then, Khelcey Barrs had long outgrown the third court. Players his age rarely stood a chance of stopping him. Mykell Mathieu, who had run circles around Barrs only two years earlier, was now just one in a string of opponents whom Barrs once beat in a string of rapid-fire, one-on-one games while talking on his cell phone and using only his right hand.
Barrs went directly to the main courts, where he often teamed with Morris and Chris Young, alongside a rotating supporting cast. On that day, the 16-year-old "was by far the best player in the gym" according to Young. He was also, by several estimates, playing the best basketball of his life. After the team finally lost after having strung together three consecutive wins, Young still remembers one onlooker telling another that Barrs was a sophomore. The other replied that Southwest would have a hell of a team next year.
"The dude turns around and says, 'No, he's a sophomore in high school,'" Young says, "And the [other] guy was like, 'Oh my God.'"
After that fourth game, the coaches and players split off to catch a breather. Young and Morris went to one side of the court while Roy Walker and Jamelle Tolliver went to the other end and sat on a table. They were the last of the Leuzinger contingent still in the gym; Westbrook, by that point, had gone home. Barrs plopped down at Walker's feet, splaying himself across his friend's legs. It didn't strike Walker as unusual: Khelcey sometimes announced his presence by theatrically flopping his huge frame across the nearest friend.
"Man, get off me, you're too big for this," Walker scolded him. Then Barrs passed out. Walker snapped to attention. He kicked the table aside and searched for an adult. "Something's wrong!" he shouted.
Barrs was rushed to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. The hours in the hospital waiting room were a series of carefully crafted denials. He was just dehydrated. He might be epileptic. Worst case, he can't play basketball again. "In your heart, you knew," Young says. "We just waited around for them to tell us."
That Russell Westbrook would be so moved by the death of his friend is not unique. Westbrook is a product of his environment, and everyone at Leuzinger was shaped in some way by Khelcey Barrs.
"Everything we do has to be for Khelcey now. It's got to be for KB3," Patrick Cleveland remembers the team telling itself. "In a sense, it helped us in the long run because it gave us even more to play for. It put even more emotion for us into the game because now we feel like we don't want to let him down. We're not just doing this for us, we're not just doing it for our teammates who are here. We really want to make a name for him."
They mourned him at the high school. A memorial service was held in the auditorium and the crowd in the room swelled past capacity. People lingered outside the entrance just so they could hear the service. His sister Chelcey read a poem over Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You," one of Barrs' favorite songs, while Mona read a selection of her own titled "Basketball in Heaven." The basketball team sat together in a row, each clad in a custom white long-sleeve T-shirt that read, "In loving memory of Khelcey Barrs," along with his photograph and dates of his birth and death. On the back of the shirt was a larger photo of Barrs dunking in his backyard. Cleveland and Jamelle Tolliver still have the shirt hanging in their closets. "A little bit faded [but] still there," Cleveland says.
Barrs' family considered scattering his ashes at the Staples Center. He'd rest in the biggest arena under the brightest lights, the stage he was supposed to play on. In the end, they decided to keep him close. Today, Mona lives in Los Angeles' Baldwin Hills neighborhood. Her children, now aged 24, 20, and 19, live with a different grandmother a short drive away. Their brother's ashes sit in a gold rectangular box next to the fireplace, with a photo from elementary school scotch-taped to the lid.
Westbrook takes the court with KB3—Barrs' initials and jersey number—printed on a rubber bracelet that he wears on his shooting wrist. Several of his signature shoes feature a small "RIP" printed on one tongue and "KB3" on the other. After Barrs died, Westbrook took over doing his chores at his grandmother's house until he went off to UCLA. Barrs used to wash his younger sister Marilyn's hair once a week, so in stepped Westbrook to fill the role. To this day, Marilyn considers Westbrook to be another big brother. Westbrook has mentioned Barrs in several interviews, but mostly talks about him in generalities. He was unavailable to comment for this story.
Most members of that Leuzinger team are no longer playing basketball, but they continue to keep their friend's name alive. Roy Walker keeps a photo of Barrs in his office and stares into his friend's eyes every day he settles in for work. Young and Dorell Wright founded their own Drew League team, Kings of LA, in Barrs' memory. At least three former Leuzinger players got KB3 tattoos. Back at Leuzinger, there are plans to retire Barrs' old No. 3 locker; his jersey was similarly honored years ago, a tradition that Reggie Morris and his coaching circle take with them wherever they work.
"Even though we've changed schools and are coaching at different schools, we still don't allow anyone to wear 3," says Walker, who currently coaches at Redondo Union High School. "No one."
At a game in late December, Cleveland noticed that a few of his current Leuzinger players had begun to honor Barrs, too. Barrs' birthday was coming up and, without prompting, a handful of players took the court with "KB3" written on their sneakers. "I'd seen some of his footage [and] he was a beast," one of them explained to Cleveland. The coach was speechless.
Chris Young has one more ritual. Every year, he and Morris have dinner on the day of Barrs' death. Wright joins them when he can; Westbrook and Donnell Beverly have made it out, too. No matter what else happens during the year, Young knows where he'll be on May 11. And he knows that when he picks up the phone and dials someone from Leuzinger, they'll answer.
"We're all united," he says. "We don't all get along, we don't all talk all the time, we definitely have our disagreements. But there's a common goal. There's a common denominator in all our lives, outside of coaching a basketball team. It's that we all lost a friend when he was ascending, when he was starting to reach his goals. We saw that taken away. Donnell, Reggie, me—we saw that. Seeing something like that happen, you had to have some kind of bond. Everyone has their own degree of what that means but for me, I'll always be close to people and I'll always have something to talk about and I'll always have somewhere to come together."
He understands that, on the surface, the depths of that bond may not add up. He only knew Barrs for nine months, and yet the coach has thought about him every day for the last 13 years.
The best way of explaining it, according to Cleveland, is by watching the Ball brothers, Lonzo, LaMelo and LiAngelo. Again, the paradox: How could a group of players who were completely unrelated to Barrs by blood ever claim to understand an on-court bond like the most famous set of siblings coming up in the hoops world?
"That's what it was," he says. "It was playing with our brother. It just made every moment that much more cherished."
Every year on December 30, Tolliver, Cleveland, and Cleveland's sister Dee Dee join the Barrs family at the house to commemorate Khelcey's birthday. They laugh, eat, and swap stories. Every year, they try to honor him in a different way. This December, they incorporated balloons. Everyone chose their own message to write down, and together they released them into the sky, their love ascending to meet Khelcey Barrs in the heavens.
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