- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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?