"I tell them that if they intend to lose, they better do it by the lowest score possible," Russell says. "That's what's called emphasizing defense.
"We have guys on this team who are sensitive. I tell them being sensitive is a right you earn and that they can't be sensitive yet because they haven't gotten good enough. If you're on a team that won only 26 games, maybe part of your problem is your inability to take criticism. I also tell them they can be good. They have talent but are so shockingly lacking in fundamentals that I brought my cousin up here during training camp. He's a college coach and he ran them through drills you usually give to freshmen in high school. If I didn't like these guys, I wouldn't waste my time on things like that."
Few coaches other than Russell could get away with these rigorous measures. His record of 11 titles in 13 seasons at Boston and the imposing force of his personality, from the extra jut he gives his chin in anger to his wild, cackling laugh, make it easy for him.
"It's all very simple," says Guard Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, who seemed near the end of his career last season but shed 15 pounds to play for Russell. "He's the world's greatest winner and he knows the system of Red Auerbach, the greatest pro coach ever."
That reputation allowed Russell some straight talk when Schulman offered him the Seattle job. "I told him, 'Look, Sam, nobody wants to work for you. You've always got your fingers into everything.' Still, I decided to take it, and not just because of the Brink's truck he gave me. I've always liked the city of Seattle. I didn't know much about the rest of the team, but I knew Haywood was a great player. And I realized that when Sam agreed to give me complete control it would be the kind of job I'd like, the kind that I could put all of myself into."
Russell has taken over more than Schulman's basketball operations. He seems to have an option now on the entire populace of Seattle. A crowd of more than 14,000 appeared for the first exhibition game, and attendance has remained strong even though the Sonics won but two of eight preseason games and ended their first two weeks of the season with a 3-4 record.
Nonetheless, Seattle shows signs of being an improved team. Passes frequently end up in the hands of a Sonic who manages to slip free of his man and, as Russell proved last week in the loss to the Kings when he yanked Guard Fred Brown, he will bench anyone who blatantly fails to yield the ball to an open teammate. A touch of defense has also been added, but with two starters learning new positions and only four truly experienced pros on the roster, Russell may have to wait a few months, or perhaps a full season, before his team has a winning record. Until then the Sonics will be mostly running in circles.