Bill Russell Is Back in the NBA
Nov. 01, 1987
SACRAMENTO (AP) _ Bill Russell hasn't played ball in 18 years and he hasn't coached in a decade, but his court sense hasn't faded and his eyes still burn with the intensity that brought him 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons.
''Stop,'' he yells, when something suddenly bothers him about a play his Sacramento Kings are running in practice. ''It doesn't look right.''
Russell doesn't map out what's wrong with the play, the way some coaches might.
''On the paper is one thing and on the floor is something different,'' he says. ''And I understand the difference. The players cannot run the play exactly as it's diagrammed. I know how it should look and we'll go through it and find out what's bothering me visually.''
So he acts like a band leader, taking it from the top again and again, until he's satisfied and the players know how it should be done.
''I want to teach the players how to teach themselves,'' he says.
Russell, as teacher, tempers his toughness with patience and humor.
''He jokes with the guys a lot,'' says Willis Reed, the former New York Knicks center and head coach recruited by Russell as an assistant. ''He was my idol growing up and the guy I tried to emulate. Now I have an opportunity, just like the players on the team, to learn from a man who was voted the greatest player in the first 25 years of the NBA.''
Russell's achievements as a player are so impressive they can be inspiring or intimidating.
''It's a little scary to hear about all the things he did,'' said Jawann Oldham, a 7-footer whom Russell hopes to develop into a defensive force. ''But it's nice to be able to learn from the best.''
Russell, a lanky, sinewy 6-foot-9 center, was the best on defense and in court leadership, and he has the 11 titles and five Most Valuable Player awards to prove it. Wilt Chamberlain, his perennial rival, was bigger, stronger and scored more points, but Russell had the knack for winning.
So intense was Russell during his playing days with the Boston Celtics from the 1956-57 championship season to the 1968-69 championship season that he frequently got sick before the games. He's calmed down a little in his gray- beard days, but at 53 the drive to win is no less powerful.
''I'm a tough guy, not a brother,'' he says.
Russell coached the Celtics for three years until the end of his playing career, winning the NBA title twice, then coached Seattle for four years. He took the young SuperSonics to the playoffs twice, but never quite got used to mediocrity.
He was criticized as a coach for not attending to details in practice, a charge Russell admits was partly true. He didn't like practice much as a player, preferring to save his art for the actual performance.
''I didn't like certain kinds of details,'' he says. ''I'd have a practice planned in my head but I wouldn't write it down, so I didn't have a program that anyone else could sit down and read because I was doing practically all the coaching myself.''
This time, as he begins a 7-year contract that can take him from coach to general manager to president of the Kings, Russell has two assistant coaches who are sticklers for detail and preparation: Reed and Jerry Reynolds, who served as Kings interim head coach last year after Phil Johnson was fired.
Russell is trying to turn around a team that finished 29-53 last year, the fifth worst record in the NBA. He says he has the foundation of a winner with guards Reggie Theus, Derek Smith and rookie Kenny Smith, plus forward Otis Thorpe.
''What I have is an overall vision of how this particular team should play,'' Russell says. ''I'm trying to make my system flexible enough so that I can use the physical talents of the players, which has nothing to do with their personalities. That determines what I call style.''
He bristles, though, at attempts to categorize his style as a product of the ''Celtic tradition.''
''I'm not acquainted with the Celtic tradition,'' he says coldly. ''That's something I've heard about. When I played, we played a team game, that's all. This tradition stuff happened after I left.''
Russell revolutionized basketball as a player with his shot-blocking and rebounding, dominating the game on defense instead of offense. He watched it change afterward as taller and faster players came into the game. A player his size now would be a forward, or even a guard.
However, Russell doesn't feel he missed anything in his years away from the bench, since he spent much of that time as television color announcer at NBA games.
''I was there during the evolution, so I was able to observe it as it was happening,'' he says. ''I learned the rule changes, the different kinds of plays people run and the different kinds of defenses along with everybody else in the league.''
Russell remains a very private man, although he doesn't hesitate to express his views.
''He's a man of conviction,'' Reed says. ''He's always been that and always will be that.''
Russell has written and spoken about racism in and out of sports, but one story he never told was revealed in a first-person story by his daughter, Karen K. Russell, in the New York Times Magazine. The recent graduate of Harvard Law School told of the time the Russell family returned to their suburban Boston home to discover they'd been robbed.
''Our house was in a shambles and 'NIGGA' was spray-painted on the walls,'' she wrote. ''The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt. They had broken into my father's trophy case and smashed most of the trophies.
''I was petrified and shocked at the mess; everyone was very upset. The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then that my parents pulled back their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed.''
Asked how he felt about the article, Russell says, ''It was too close. All the things she said, there was nothing unfamiliar to me.''
He says he never mentioned the robbery and racial attack because it never came up, dodging the obvious response that he could have brought it up himself in sheer outrage.
''It wasn't painful, not to me,'' he says, waiting for a plane to take him and the team to an exhibition game. ''I encountered many startling affairs, and that's just one of many. It was not that horrendous. It takes a sick mind to do something like that. It's someone who's obviously got a problem, a severe problem. In fact, I figured that for someone to do that to me, that might be the nicest thing they did. I'd hate to be part of their family.''
He laughs loudly at the absurdity of it all, then turns and heads down the ramp to the plane. There's a game to be played and new lessons to be taught to young players. ''I'm enjoying everything about this job, the whole life,'' he says.