Russell doesn't miss a beat: "Because I've been uniquely successful and not very humble about it. People just got tired of my success. They always do. So they decided, Well, he's not that good. Let's say this about him."
The Sacramento players say this about him: He's easygoing—in temperament, he's more like Reynolds than Reed, with whom he forms the first double Hall of Famer coaching combination in NBA history. They also say he's detail-mad. "And the smaller the detail, the more he worries about it," says Kenny Smith, the Kings' rookie point guard.
For the most part Reed and Reynolds run the practice sessions, with Russell watching from the sidelines, "doing the captain-of-the-ship type of things," says Sacramento's veteran guard, Reggie Theus. Russell is as much administrator as coach, and that extends to games, during which he doesn't appear to be doing nearly as much coaching as Reed. Although Russell is fairly demonstrative during the action, directing players and working the referees, it is Reed who does most of the talking with players during timeouts. Surely that will be fuel for the cynics who believe that Russell won't put his all into this job.
But it's not true, say his assistants. "We exchange ideas," says Reed. "He's completely open. I'll give him my opinion. Maybe he'll take it. Or maybe he'll say, 'No, I don't think so.' " And then? "There's no argument. We do it his way."
Says Reynolds, "Russ wants information being fed to him. He has decided that if Willis and I are going to be around, we may as well do something."
Russell believes that teaching is his strength. "People don't think players at this level can be taught, but I disagree," he says. "You take a Kenny Smith. He's a marvelous player who was well coached in college. But his style was not suited to the NBA. Rookies go through a period of confusion in this league, and it's the coach's responsibility to help them get through it."
Did you need such help when you were a rookie?
"No," says Russell quickly, "because I determined how the game was going to be played. It was going to be played my way. Today there are only three players like that, players who make the game adjust to them. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. They're the only ones."
To a man, the Kings call Russell "a player's coach." Says Smith, "To me that means he's a guy who notices the little good things you do, just like he notices the little bad things." To Joe Arlauckas, a little-known fourth-round rookie from Niagara, it means that Russell is sensitive to the little off-the-court things, too, like the pronunciation of Arlauckas's name. Before some preseason games Russell made sure that the P.A. announcer could handle Ar-LUKE-us. "When they got it right, he'd give me the thumbs-up sign," says Arlauckas.
This is exactly what the noisy, basketball-mad Sacramento fans have given to Russell, even when he rejects their outstretched paper and pencils. "I don't sign autographs," he has told scores of them so far, as he has told thousands of others over the years, "but thank you for asking." He is the obvious focal point—last week he made appearances at a reception sponsored by the Kings and the Chamber of Commerce and at a Rotary luncheon—in what is being billed as a renaissance for the Kings, who will move into a new 16,400-seat arena next season.