Names Behind the Games: Sam Russo

Names Behind the Games: Sam Russo
By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
September 8, 2011

Hired by the Hornets in 1988, Executive Vice President of Operations Sam Russo has witnessed every significant development in the 23-year history of the team, dating back to the franchise’s birth in Charlotte. Amazingly enough, those 23 years don’t even represent half of Russo’s professional career. By the time he joined the original Hornets, he had already enjoyed a front-row seat to some of the biggest sports moments and teams of the 20th century.

While working as a 17-year-old gopher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in October 1960, Russo was sitting in a right-field press box at Forbes Field when Bill Mazeroski belted a home run in Game 7 of the World Series to beat the vaunted New York Yankees. Mazeroski’s round-tripper remains one of the most historic hits in Major League Baseball history.

The following decade, Russo was an Oakland Athletics executive when the Reggie Jackson-led club captured back-to-back World Series titles in 1972 and 1973. Ten years later, Russo joined the front office of the Denver Nuggets, who were part of the highest-scoring game in NBA history, a 186-184 triple-overtime loss to Detroit in December 1983. In 1984-85, the Nuggets reached the Western Conference finals, where they were ousted by the Magic Johnson-led and eventual NBA champion Lakers.

After joining the Hornets, Russo received an up-close look at the NBA’s late-1980s wave of expansion, which included new teams in Charlotte, Miami, Minneapolis and Orlando. Although longtime basketball fans may remember that era primarily for helping grow the league from 23 franchises to its current 30 members, Russo says the Hornets, Heat, Timberwolves and Magic helped make other lasting impacts.

One major obstacle each member of the quartet faced was that the NBA rules for expansion teams were designed to make it difficult for them to even contend for a playoff berth early in their existence (for example, the first three Hornets squads went 20-62, 19-63 and 26-56). As a result, the franchises realized they would need to commit additional resources to retain fans, who’d likely be watching losing basketball for the initial few seasons.

“I believe that the four teams really helped boost the NBA to what we know today,” Russo explained, “because we all knew going in that we were going to have to do more for our fans in order to keep their interest. We knew (short term that) we weren’t going to have a good team.

“The four expansion teams were very competitive with each other and very innovative with some of the things they brought to game presentation. Before that expansion in 1988, the NBA wasn’t very innovative. The ABA had done some very unique things, but it hadn’t carried over to the NBA. We all worked to make the fan experience better than it had been.”

Speaking of impacts, Russo – who will retire from his position on Dec. 31, 2011 – says one of the most personally rewarding aspects of his half-century in sports has come from being a mentor for colleagues. Many of the people who’ve worked at Russo’s various stops have gone on to climb the ranks of the sports industry. He’s also served as an invaluable resource to the Hornets organization in multiple critical roles, while the franchise confronted unprecedented challenges, from starting a brand-new team in ’88, to moving to New Orleans in ’02 and a Hurricane Katrina-forced relocation three years later.

“I think what I will look back on the most is being able to help out many people in their sports careers, for them to develop and go on to bigger and better things,” Russo said. “That’s the most important part of it to me. Having people come up to you and thank you for what you’ve done for their career is a tremendous feeling. That’s what makes me feel good about my career in sports – not what I’ve accomplished, but what I’ve been able to do to help other people get to where they wanted to go.”

Here’s more from Russo on his experiences working in sports:

I think this has to be a toss-up between opening night in 2002 – the team’s first-ever home game in the city – and winning the Southwest Division title in 2008, then going seven games with the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. They were both defining times for the Hornets in New Orleans.

Like most jobs in pro sports it seems that I learn something new every day and that makes the job both challenging and rewarding, but what I love most about my job is that it never gets boring!

In 2003 while working for the Hornets, I also managed a team in the East Coast Hockey League called the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies. I hired the former GM of the New Orleans Brass as the team’s GM, and we won the Kelly Cup that year in the ECHL playoffs.

In most cases, as in mine, it is about getting a foot in the door, but after that it boils down to hard work and willingness to be a team player. Making yourself available to help no matter what department or what needs to be done. Pitching in makes you an ultimate team player and recognized as a keeper.

I started my career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a “gofer,” basically picking up and delivering mail and running general errands for the staff and doing jobs in each department. This afforded me an opportunity to learn about different departments and how they functioned on their own and eventually came together as a unit with one common goal. After graduating from high school I had the opportunity to move into the accounting department. From there I went on to enjoy a career in sports that included working for the following franchises: Pittsburgh Hornets (AHL), Oakland Seals (NHL), Oakland A’s (MLB), Minnesota Fighting Saints (WHA), Denver Nuggets (NBA), Denver Dynamite (arena football), Charlotte Knights (minor league baseball), Gastonia Rangers (minor league baseball), Raleigh/Durham Skyhawks (World League of American Football), Charlotte Sting (WNBA), Charlotte Checkers (ECHL) and Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies (ECHL). I’ve been with the Hornets (NBA) for the past 23 years, since their inception in 1988.

blog comments powered by Disqus