The New Kings coach walked slowly onto the floor of Arco Arena in Sacramento last Friday night before the season opener against the Golden State Warriors and stared into an explosion of flashbulbs. An NBA championship ring adorned the third finger of each hand—the one for 1957 on his left, '69 on his right. "My bookends," he calls them, because they represent the first and last of his 11 championship seasons with the Boston Celtics. He wore a double-breasted blue sport coat with a red boutonniere pinned to the left lapel in honor of the night's special occasion, which happened to be him.
William Felton Russell was back.
Russell talked quietly with his assistants, Willis Reed and Jerry Reynolds. He used to vomit before games as a player, and he was nervous now, too, though not enough, as he said later, "to do something physical about it." Suddenly, the 5'9" Reynolds leaped in front of the 6'10" Russell, his arms raised to shield Russell from the photographers. Russell threw back his head, opened his mouth and out it came—the famous cackle. "Boy, he still lets that fly, doesn't he?" said Reynolds. "I just hope by the end of the year I've become cackleproof."
Outwardly not much has changed on the Russell checklist: He's still giggly, still goateed, still gangly, still grandiose. And still very much Bill Russell.
November 16, 1987
The third—and evidently last—Russell coaching era began in splendid fashion as his Kings routed the Warriors 134-106. Isn't that the way you always heard it should be? Sacramento deflated the following night in Salt Lake City, where it lost 121-100 to the Utah Jazz, proving that. Bill Russell or no Bill Russell, mediocre is still mediocre. The Kings aren't about to add to their coach's ring collection.
But Russell, 53, needn't be in a hurry. The contract he signed runs for seven years. He'll coach for either two, three or four years, after which he'll slide into the dual position of president and general manager now held by his buddy Joe Axelson. Russell also will be given a special option to purchase a share of the Kings when the franchise begins issuing public stock, although no date has been set for such a sale. Estimates of his yearly pay range from $500,000 to $1 million but have not been confirmed. At any rate, his signing was a major deal—the only kind he would have accepted.
"There are 99 guys you can get to coach, but only that 100th guy can get it done," says Axelson, who orchestrated Russell's return. "It's his presence, his intelligence, the way he can explain the whys and why nots. I hate to use this word because it's so overused in college, but it's 'program.' Russell is one of the few guys with the ability to put together a real program."
But if the Russell program gets off the ground slowly, the questions will follow quickly:
•Is Russell too impatient with his young team? In his quest for perfection in Seattle he sometimes expected too much from his players and lost patience with them. How will he handle the inevitable mistakes of a basically young team like the Kings?
•Is Russell really in charge, or is the team under the control of Reed and Reynolds, who by and large handle the X's and O's right now?
•Is Russell out on the ninth fairway deciding between a two- or a three-iron instead of back in his office puzzling over the Laker fast break?
Then there's the most intriguing question of all: Why did a financially secure man, a man who enjoys his freedom, give up the life of Russell for the life of (Pat) Riley?
Russell won two NBA championships, in 1968 and '69, in his three seasons as player-coach of the Celtics. He retired after the last one, but returned to the NBA in '73 as coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics. He did an excellent job in his first three seasons, but the fourth, when the Sonics won only 40 games and failed to qualify for the playoffs, was a major disappointment. Some observers blamed no-cut contracts and players who were lazy and in some cases were rumored to be on drugs. Others blamed Russell. They said he spent most of his time playing golf instead of working. They said he was aloof. They said the Sonics wouldn't put out for him because he was egotistical and uncompromising.
So Russell quit, never to return, or so virtually everyone thought.
He continued to cast his long, stoop-shouldered shadow over the NBA, though. He was the Zen master, the eternal yardstick. Larry Bird's a winner, but can he win as much as Russell did? Akeem Olajuwon can block shots, but can he block as many as Russell did? Patrick Ewing is intimidating, but is he as intimidating as Russell was?
Russell never courted publicity—if anything, he did the opposite—but he was always there, doing color commentary on the NBA telecasts of several networks, acting in a two-character play in Seattle called The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion, appearing on Miami Vice as a crooked judge who commits suicide.
From time to time, Russell says, he would get overtures from NBA teams, one of them coming last February from an Eastern Conference team, which he won't identify, that wanted to hire him as general manager. He called Axelson, a friend of 20 years, for advice.
"Stay away from it," Axelson told him. "It's a franchise on the way down."
"Well, what about you?" Russell asked. "What's your status there?" Axelson wasn't sure whether Russell was kidding—without a cackle, it's sometimes impossible to tell—but the comment got him thinking. On Feb. 9, just a few weeks before Russell's phone call, Axelson had dismissed Phil Johnson as coach and replaced him with Reynolds, one of Johnson's assistants. He made the move five days after a debacle in Los Angeles in which Sacramento surrendered the first 29 points of the game to the Lakers and trailed 40-4 after one quarter. The final score was 128-92. The Kings were in desperate need of a transfusion. Reynolds, personable and always quick with the one-liners, was, and still is, an extremely popular figure in Sacramento, but Axelson definitely considered him an interim coach.
"When Bill called I had a list of about 40 names of possible coaches," said Axelson last week. "Bill wasn't on it, simply because I never thought he'd consider it. And I had some pretty strange names on there, too." Such as? "Such as Tommy Heinsohn," said Axelson.
Axelson and Russell decided to meet. About a week after that initial phone conversation, they had a four-hour lunch at Aldo's, a Sacramento restaurant, and the talk turned to specifics. The original plan called for Russell to replace Axelson as president and general manager when Axelson retired, in a few years. But Axelson had gradually come to the opinion that Russell should return to the NBA as a coach to fully familiarize himself with the personnel of both the league and the Kings. "I insisted on that," said Axelson, and Russell, to Axelson's surprise, didn't disagree.
They also talked about a long-term commitment, and seven years seemed ideal. "It takes that kind of time to build a good team," says Russell. "That was the first reason for the long-term contract. Second, I wanted ownership to know that it wasn't a lark for me, that I wasn't going to say, 'O.K., see you later,' after a couple years. And, finally, this will be the last job I'll ever take. I'm not going anyplace else."
All that remained was for Axelson to sell Russell to Gregg Lukenbill, the managing general partner of the Kings' ownership group. Axelson gave Lukenbill a copy of Russell's autobiography, Second Wind, and asked him to read it. A few weeks later the three of them met at Russell's home on Mercer Island near Seattle. "Gregg fell in love with him immediately," says Axelson. The contract was signed nine days after the Kings ended a disappointing 29-53 season.
For some obvious reasons the job is ideal for Russell. He grew up 80 miles southwest of Sacramento, in Oakland, where his father, Charlie, still lives. He likes Sacramento, and he gets along well with Axelson. Nevertheless, his decision was a shocker. "I simply never thought he'd get back into coaching," said Bob Cousy, his old Boston teammate.
Russell shakes his head when pressed about his reasons and says, "See, people are always assigning their own motives to the actions of others. I happen to like what I'm doing. This is what I want to do at this stage in my life, whether or not anyone understands it. There are only 23 of these jobs in the world. It's the top, and that's important for someone like me. It doesn't have to be drudgery. It doesn't have to tear you up inside."
Russell is sitting on a folding chair on the gym floor of Cosumnes River College, the Kings' practice facility when Arco Arena is otherwise engaged. He appears relaxed. He looks his age, particularly when he dons a pair of glasses to study a box score, and perhaps more than ever his visage suggests a philosophy professor or perhaps a beat poet. His beard is sprinkled with wild little gray curlicues.
The Sacramento players have been impressed by the organization of Russell's practices, though much of that can be credited to Reed, the former Knicks' All-Star center who, says Axelson, is "an i-dotter and t-crosser if there ever was one." The players have also been overwhelmed by the practices. The three-hour sessions in training camp could have been worse, says Reed—Russell had been considering four-hour practices. That doesn't sound like a man who had a reputation for being a bad practice player and a lazy coach.
"For what I did for the Celtics I couldn't practice with the team," says Russell. "I was averaging 45 minutes a game, so I obviously didn't need the conditioning. What would have been the point?
"And as far as those who said that when I was at Seattle I was too lazy or didn't want to work, a lot of it was pure racism. I did all the coaching. All of it. That never changed in my four years there."
So why did the rumors about his laziness persist?
Russell doesn't miss a beat: "Because I've been uniquely successful and not very humble about it. People just got tired of my success. They always do. So they decided, Well, he's not that good. Let's say this about him."
The Sacramento players say this about him: He's easygoing—in temperament, he's more like Reynolds than Reed, with whom he forms the first double Hall of Famer coaching combination in NBA history. They also say he's detail-mad. "And the smaller the detail, the more he worries about it," says Kenny Smith, the Kings' rookie point guard.
For the most part Reed and Reynolds run the practice sessions, with Russell watching from the sidelines, "doing the captain-of-the-ship type of things," says Sacramento's veteran guard, Reggie Theus. Russell is as much administrator as coach, and that extends to games, during which he doesn't appear to be doing nearly as much coaching as Reed. Although Russell is fairly demonstrative during the action, directing players and working the referees, it is Reed who does most of the talking with players during timeouts. Surely that will be fuel for the cynics who believe that Russell won't put his all into this job.
But it's not true, say his assistants. "We exchange ideas," says Reed. "He's completely open. I'll give him my opinion. Maybe he'll take it. Or maybe he'll say, 'No, I don't think so.' " And then? "There's no argument. We do it his way."
Says Reynolds, "Russ wants information being fed to him. He has decided that if Willis and I are going to be around, we may as well do something."
Russell believes that teaching is his strength. "People don't think players at this level can be taught, but I disagree," he says. "You take a Kenny Smith. He's a marvelous player who was well coached in college. But his style was not suited to the NBA. Rookies go through a period of confusion in this league, and it's the coach's responsibility to help them get through it."
Did you need such help when you were a rookie?
"No," says Russell quickly, "because I determined how the game was going to be played. It was going to be played my way. Today there are only three players like that, players who make the game adjust to them. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. They're the only ones."
To a man, the Kings call Russell "a player's coach." Says Smith, "To me that means he's a guy who notices the little good things you do, just like he notices the little bad things." To Joe Arlauckas, a little-known fourth-round rookie from Niagara, it means that Russell is sensitive to the little off-the-court things, too, like the pronunciation of Arlauckas's name. Before some preseason games Russell made sure that the P.A. announcer could handle Ar-LUKE-us. "When they got it right, he'd give me the thumbs-up sign," says Arlauckas.
This is exactly what the noisy, basketball-mad Sacramento fans have given to Russell, even when he rejects their outstretched paper and pencils. "I don't sign autographs," he has told scores of them so far, as he has told thousands of others over the years, "but thank you for asking." He is the obvious focal point—last week he made appearances at a reception sponsored by the Kings and the Chamber of Commerce and at a Rotary luncheon—in what is being billed as a renaissance for the Kings, who will move into a new 16,400-seat arena next season.
But this is honeymoon time. There will be many more games like the one against Utah, many more nights when Russell ("uniquely successful and not very humble about it") will have to ponder if it's all worth it.
"I want to put a team on the floor that's competitive every year and, I hope, one day can challenge for the championship," says Russell. "That's my goal. And I'm committed to it."
"I had a lot of people tell me, 'You'll be sorry. He'll let you down,' " says Axelson. "Well, I don't think so. This is his last hurrah, and I'm convinced he's going to get it done."