Russell didn't play organized basketball until he was in the 10th grade at San Bernardino ( Calif.) High. He earned a scholarship to Long Beach State but didn't dream of a pro career until assistant coach Bob Thate pulled him aside one day during his junior year and said it was a possibility. Even after he dedicated himself to the goal of reaching the NBA, Russell says, he never went to a Lakers game at the Forum until he played there with the Jazz.
The spring after his senior season at Long Beach State he heard that Magic Johnson was leading some pickup games at Loyola Marymount. He went there, introduced himself to Johnson and soon became a regular in those games. "I can't tell you how much playing and talking with Magic helped," Russell says. "When I got to the predraft camp in Chicago, I outshone a lot of bigger names. I'll never forget, when it was over, Butch Carter, then a Milwaukee Bucks assistant, walked up to me and said, 'Congratulations. You just played yourself into the NBA.' "
The Jazz made him the 45th pick in the 1993 draft, but Russell had no idea how tough-minded he would have to be to stay in the league. After starting 48 games and averaging 5.0 points as a rookie, he lost the job to Benoit during the 1994-95 preseason. In 1995-96 the 6'7", 225-pound Russell spent much of the season fighting off the dread that any day he was going to get waived. "We were afraid to go through with buying our house, and we were even afraid to spend the money on a second car," Kimberli says. "So we shared one."
Meanwhile, Bryon kept tearing around the floor at practice and working on his shot. He also kept smiling and needling his teammates. "I don't discriminate—I try to pick on them all," he says.
"I won't say Bryon is funny, but he's fun," Malone says. "He's constantly telling me he's going to be an All-Star. And you know what? I believe him, I believe him."
Should Russell help the Jazz win the NBA title or finally land his first huge contract this summer, he already knows exactly what he's going to do. "I'm going to get me a Mercedes S600," he says. "And those two Jet Skis. I want to do some family things: take my daughter to Disneyland, take a trip to Maui. Someday I want to go to the Bahamas. Acapulco...."
He says he may even order up another batch of the T-shirts he had made halfway through this season to sell at the Delta Center souvenir shops. The front of the shirt features his smiling face and gray type that commands DON'T CALL, ME BYRON.