The New Kings coach walked slowly onto the floor of Arco Arena in Sacramento last Friday night before the season opener against the Golden State Warriors and stared into an explosion of flashbulbs. An NBA championship ring adorned the third finger of each hand—the one for 1957 on his left, '69 on his right. "My bookends," he calls them, because they represent the first and last of his 11 championship seasons with the Boston Celtics. He wore a double-breasted blue sport coat with a red boutonniere pinned to the left lapel in honor of the night's special occasion, which happened to be him.
William Felton Russell was back.
Russell talked quietly with his assistants, Willis Reed and Jerry Reynolds. He used to vomit before games as a player, and he was nervous now, too, though not enough, as he said later, "to do something physical about it." Suddenly, the 5'9" Reynolds leaped in front of the 6'10" Russell, his arms raised to shield Russell from the photographers. Russell threw back his head, opened his mouth and out it came—the famous cackle. "Boy, he still lets that fly, doesn't he?" said Reynolds. "I just hope by the end of the year I've become cackleproof."
Outwardly not much has changed on the Russell checklist: He's still giggly, still goateed, still gangly, still grandiose. And still very much Bill Russell.
The third—and evidently last—Russell coaching era began in splendid fashion as his Kings routed the Warriors 134-106. Isn't that the way you always heard it should be? Sacramento deflated the following night in Salt Lake City, where it lost 121-100 to the Utah Jazz, proving that. Bill Russell or no Bill Russell, mediocre is still mediocre. The Kings aren't about to add to their coach's ring collection.
But Russell, 53, needn't be in a hurry. The contract he signed runs for seven years. He'll coach for either two, three or four years, after which he'll slide into the dual position of president and general manager now held by his buddy Joe Axelson. Russell also will be given a special option to purchase a share of the Kings when the franchise begins issuing public stock, although no date has been set for such a sale. Estimates of his yearly pay range from $500,000 to $1 million but have not been confirmed. At any rate, his signing was a major deal—the only kind he would have accepted.
"There are 99 guys you can get to coach, but only that 100th guy can get it done," says Axelson, who orchestrated Russell's return. "It's his presence, his intelligence, the way he can explain the whys and why nots. I hate to use this word because it's so overused in college, but it's 'program.' Russell is one of the few guys with the ability to put together a real program."
But if the Russell program gets off the ground slowly, the questions will follow quickly:
?Is Russell too impatient with his young team? In his quest for perfection in Seattle he sometimes expected too much from his players and lost patience with them. How will he handle the inevitable mistakes of a basically young team like the Kings?
?Is Russell really in charge, or is the team under the control of Reed and Reynolds, who by and large handle the X's and O's right now?