LONDON — Russell Westbrook was fighting the urge to surrender himself completely to the moment Friday afternoon.
Sure, Olympic competition in some sports had already begun, but not for the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team. The opening ceremonies had yet to begin and Westbrook, experiencing the Summer Games for the first time, didn’t want to false start.
“Maybe later tonight, when we’re in there for the opening ceremonies,” he said when asked when it would hit him that he was really here. “Maybe then, but not before that. Right now, I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this team.”
After the extravagant, brilliant and simply breathtaking production from famed British filmmaker Danny Boyle at the Olympic Stadium, complete with Sir Paul McCartney ending the show with a rendition of “Hey Jude,” it’s safe to assume that Westbrook and the rest of his teammates who were diving into the Olympic phenomenon for the first time are completely immersed in the moment now.
They were warned.
“It’s not something you can really prepare anybody for,” said veteran point guard Chris Paul, making his second appearance in the Games for the U.S. “We went through it in Beijing and you don’t understand the magnitude of what’s going on until you get here [to the site of the Games] and realize what it means to the people hosting it and all of the people who are involved in putting it on. It’s unreal.”
Fellow first-timer Kevin Love said Kobe Bryant tried to give all of the Olympic rookies a primer on not just the opening ceremonies, which lasted hours and included a detailed history lesson and cultural look into with lavish sets, comic interludes and featured everyone from the Queen (the real one and stunt double that parachuted into the stadium with James Bond actor Daniel Craig‘s stunt double, that could have fooled members of the Royal family) to Mr. Bean and most anyone else famous and British that you can think of, but the entire scope of the Games.
(Queen Elizabeth II, the real one, would later declare the Olympics open, with seven young British athletes lighting the Olympic cauldron after David Beckham drove the torch up the Thames in a speed boat and handed it to British Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave.)
“This whole thing is just a lot of fun,” Love said, “even before we got here. From [Las] Vegas and then to Washington D.C., we got to see Arlington National Cemetery, we got to meet the President. And then in Barcelona we got to see different venues, and churches and architecture. It’s pretty unbelievable what we get to experience through this outside of basketball, and obviously basketball is why we are here and what we enjoy and love doing and is our livelihood. But you do get to take on this kind of rock star persona, especially with USA Basketball. We went to the [Olympic] Village last night and it was a special time. We got to see all of the different athletes and people flocked to LeBron [James] and Kobe because they have international fame because of basketball. It’s fun to be around it.”
Love has been here before, having come to London during training camp before his third NBA season. So he’s already done a little sightseeing.
But this Olympic experience is totally different monster altogether, there were reportedly 15,000 volunteers needed just to help stage the opening ceremonies.
“I’m open to anything,” Love said. “As far as events go, Kobe said Michael Phelps in the pool is an unbelievable thing to watch. I want to see Lolo Jones. I’d like to see gymnastics, I grew up watching gymnastics and was friends with a lot of the girls on the gymnastics teams at UCLA. And then there are a lot of sports that we’ve been talking about, like archery and the trampoline and handball, different sports that we would never go see in the States that we would love to see here.”
Westbrook and Love were teammates and even roommates at UCLA, but Westbrook admitted that he wasn’t “into” the Olympic growing up, he was born four years after his hometown of Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Games and was just a baby when the Dream Team dazzled the world with their play in Barcelona in the 1992 Summer Games.
He got the same primer on what to expect that Love did from the veterans, but he has a few other personal items on his to-do list outside of helping the U.S. bring home gold in basketball for the 14th time in the Olympics.
“I’m looking forward to doing some shopping,” he said and then smiled, “and I want to see a lot of these other sports … as long as I have time to do it.”
The U.S. Team’s opener is Sunday morning against France.