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?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.