He has the sort of contagious smile and sweet-natured disposition that dissolve even his most stone-faced teammates into laughter. They can't help it. Bryon Russell likes to joke. He laughs and mugs and spews out comical boasts, like, "Teams don't have an answer for me." Other Utah Jazz players say he has always been thus, even when Russell was struggling to prove he belonged in the NBA. Watching the do-it-all small forward now—draining jumpers and helping to spark Utah in its Western Conference final series against the Houston Rockets—it's easy to forget what he has been through in his four NBA seasons.
Russell grabbed his first fistful of glory in Game 3 of last year's Western finals between the Jazz and the Seattle SuperSonics. He came off the bench to contribute a then career-high 24 points in a 96-76 Utah victory. When the locker room door was flung open and the media mob rushed in, Russell couldn't believe his ears: The reporter who asked the first question mispronounced Russell's first name.
"Byron?" Russell yelped. "You called me BY-ron? Gawwd, it's BRY-on, it's BRY-on!" Leaning forward now toward a reporter's tape recorder, he says, "Repeat after me: B-R-Y-O-N."
Russell's performance against Seattle didn't make him a household name, but it was his springboard into Utah's starting lineup this season. With opponents predictably double-teaming Jazz power forward Karl Malone and blanketing guards John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, Russell averaged 10.8 points per game and sank a franchise-record 108 three-pointers in the regular season. He played straitjacket defense and finished drives with acrobatic moves that drew gasps of disbelief. He continued his sparkling play as Utah swept the Los Angeles Clippers in three games in round 1 of the playoffs and knocked off the L.A. Lakers four games to one in round 2. In those two series he averaged 14.0 points and shot 32.4% percent from three-point range. In the Jazz's series-opening 101-86 victory over the Rockets on Monday, he had six points and helped to hold Houston's Clyde Drexler to just 13.
It was Russell who made sure the Lakers were sent into off-season oblivion, scoring 29 points in Game 4 and 22 in Game 5. "I'm not taking anything away from Stockton or Malone or Hornacek," said Lakers coach Del Harris after Los Angeles was ousted, "but to me, Russell was the difference in the series. He got so many of the hustle points, whether it was on key offensive rebounds, running the court or getting out on the front end of a fast break. He created things even when their offense broke down. He made some big, big shots."
"The only way I can explain Bryon is to say Bryon's confidence is different from that of a lot of other guys," Malone says. Then he breaks into a fond grin. Russell has mushrooming confidence. It's the sort of confidence that helped him weather the two seasons when the Jazz tried three other small forwards: Tyrone Corbin, then David Benoit, then Chris Morris. Russell says it's the sort of confidence you can't know unless you've spent a year or two—"fall, winter, spring and summer"—launching 500 shots a day from the three-point are to perfect your stroke.
"In our offense, the 3 position is always going to get the most open looks," says veteran forward Antoine Carr. "Bryon worked at his three-point shot, and he worked at it because he knows if our small forward is hitting those shots, forget it, we're almost impossible to stop."
Still, it took some prodding by Malone to get Russell completely on track. "It really helped me when Karl got angry at me during a game early this season and said, 'If you don't take the open shot when I give you the ball, I'm going to tell [ Utah coach Jerry] Sloan to get your ass out of the game,' " says Russell. "When a guy like Karl says that, I say, Man, say no more. That's all I need to hear."
A year ago Russell probably wouldn't have had the gall to walk back onto the court as he did in the final seconds of regulation against the Lakers in Game 5 and make an impromptu decision with Hornacek, who isn't as strong a defender as Russell, to swap assignments. After a timeout, Russell, who had been guarding Eddie Jones, told Hornacek, "Let's switch. Let me take Kobe Bryant." Why? "Jeff and I figured Bryant was going to get the ball," Russell explained after hounding Bryant, the Lakers' 18-year-old wunderkind, into an air ball. The game went into overtime, and the Jazz won 98-93.
To say Russell is laid-back off the court doesn't begin to capture him. His everyday uniform is a plain T-shirt, baggy denim shorts and a baseball hat he cocks slightly sideways. His idea of a good time is a game of dominoes or cards. He enjoys spending family time with his wife, Kimberli, and their one-year-old daughter, Kajun. He still drives the same navy-blue Toyota Land Cruiser he bought as a rookie. He's still putting off buying the two Jet Skis for which he has long pined, though he knows he may quintuple his $385,000 salary when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. "I've guess I've been doing well," Russell says. "I'm starting to feel as if I'm prime time. But I know people around the country are still asking, 'Who is this guy? Where did he come from? How did he get into this league?' "