Bill Russell Leaves Lasting Impact on Kings
Nearly 30 years later, Reggie Theus still pinches himself reminiscing about the legendary figure slowly stepping foot on the ARCO Arena practice court – an NBA championship ring decorating the third finger of each hand.
In early October 1987, newly-hired Kings Head Coach Bill Russell – an 11-time champion with the Boston Celtics, a five-time League MVP and a highly-revered civil rights leader – introduced himself to an awestruck team who’d watched him revolutionize the game in grainy, black-and-white TV footage.
“It was always just sort of surreal in some ways because I grew up watching Bill play,” said Theus, now the head basketball coach at Cal State Northridge. “Being a student of the game, I go back to (watching him on) ‘NBA Action’ when I was in junior high school. He was just a joy to be around, and it was an absolute honor to be coached by him.”
Theus’ teammates were similarly not immune from being starstruck at the sight of the recently-named Greatest Player in NBA history demonstrating defensive techniques and directing drills with the same fiery passion he was known for as an iconic superstar.
“I was in awe of him when he first walked in,” said LaSalle Thompson. “It was inspiring to play for him, because this was Bill Russell. You wanted to play as hard as you could and bring your ‘A’ game.”
"I was overwhelmed and I really didn’t know what to say to him," Kenny Smith, Sacramento’s first-round pick in 1987, told The Boston Globe. "I didn’t know whether to call him, ‘Coach Russell,’ ‘Bill,’ or ‘Mr. Russell.’”
Russell – who redefined the game of basketball as the anchor of the Celtics unparalleled dynasty in the mid-1950s and late 1960s – became the first African-American coach in not only the NBA, but all major U.S. professional sports when he succeeded Red Auerbach prior to the 1966-67 season. The 12-time All-Star won a pair of titles as player-coach in Boston before retiring, and led the Seattle SuperSonics to consecutive Playoff berths as coach and general manager in 1973-74 and 1974-75.
After a decade-long hiatus from the sidelines to work color commentary on NBA telecasts, Russell, who grew up 80 miles southwest of Sacramento in Oakland, returned to teach the Kings the indelible concept of defensive accountability and instill the philosophy of team unity.
“What I know about is winning,” Russell said at his introductory press conference. “I know what it takes, and how to do it.”
The consummate victor during his 13-year playing career, Russell perfected the art form of blocking opponents’ shots into the hands of teammates and firing precision outlet passes to generate fast-break opportunities.
“When you’re being told by someone who has that type of background, you really do listen, and you listen intently,” said Theus. “He talked about defensive mentality. It wasn’t always what you get (statistically), but it was your mentality, and how your mindset had to be about the time and score. Down the stretch of the game, these are the things that have to happen.”
The second-leading rebounder in League history, Russell worked closely with Sacramento’s big men, preaching proper box-out practices and studying counterparts’ tendencies during frequent three-hour training sessions.
''Defense is a team enterprise that has to be built brick by brick, over a long period of time,'' he told the N.Y. Times in 1987. ''Just as on offense, you try to get the ball to the best shooters, on defense you have to get the most appropriate abilities into the right positions. We think we'll be quicker than we were, and we're optimistic.''
Under the legendary leader’s tutelage, Otis Thorpe set multiple career-highs and became one of five players in the League to average over 20 points (20.8) and 10 rebounds (10.2), per Basketball-Reference.com.
Thompson raised his rebounding rate from 17.3 the previous season to 18.5 in 1987-88 – a mark that ranked sixth in the NBA (min. 60 games played).
“He taught me little tricks and techniques about being a better rebounder and playing defense,” said Thompson. “When we would play somebody, he would always tell me what I could do against them (offensively) and what I couldn’t do – like certain moves I had. He’d say, ‘Don’t use that because that’ll get blocked.’ He was usually right!”
Russell’s coaching methods were, at times, unorthodox and unconventional. During practice sessions, the 6-foot-10 trailblazer would often spring from a folding chair on the gym floor to instruct players to re-run plays – again and again – relying on his own eye test rather than diagramming schemes on paper.
Still, no Sacramento player could dispute the sport’s all-time greatest winner’s acumen, and in his first game at the helm, the Kings routed the division-rival Warriors 134-106.
“It was very interesting because Bill, as a player, he was a phenomenon – at his size, to be able to do the things that he did, no one else has ever been able to duplicate,” said Theus. “He would try to teach us the way he did things. And a lot of the things he did, were not how we were taught to play basketball.
“I said, ‘Bill that goes against everything I’ve ever been taught,’” said Theus with a chuckle. “And Bill goes, ‘That’s why you never won!’”
Russell’s impeccable sense of humor consistently lightened the mood of even the most arduous practices and film sessions, as his infectious laugh punctuated his larger-than-life persona.
“Bill would come out there on the court and shoot around sometimes, and he had one of the ugliest shots ever,” laughed Thompson. “So I said, ‘Coach, you have an ugly shot! How many points a game did you average?’ He said, ‘I averaged 11 championships in 13 years. How many points did you average?’ I said, ‘Oh. Never mind.’ He shut us all up with that one.”
Kings Color Analyst Jerry Reynolds – who served as an assistant on Russell’s coaching staff – still holds an appreciation for his basketball hero’s lighthearted temperament and ear-piercing cackle.
“The coaches, the players and I would talk about, the toughest thing to get used to working with Bill was to become cackle-proof,” said Reynolds. “It almost split your eardrums. He enjoyed life. If Bill was anywhere within a quarter-mile radius, he let out his cackle and you knew who it was.”
For Reynolds, lengthy road trips presented an opportunity to not only pick the brain of one of the most decorated stars the game has seen, but learn about Russell’s impassioned activism for human rights and campaign for equality.
“I (gained) a great appreciation for the man,” said Reynolds. “Certainly, what he went through during his career with some of the racial problems that existed in the '50s and '60s during his career, which was horrific, he dealt with a lot of discrimination and faced a lot of issues regarding race relationships … (But) he was always very thoughtful and did what he thought was right. I enjoyed him, and respect the heck out of him.”
Outside of the Xs and Os, Kings players similarly felt empowered to learn about Russell’s societal impact in breaking racial barriers.
The typically reserved Hall of Famer shared some of the hardships he endured throughout his childhood and professional career, inspiring the locker room with stories from his participation in the 1963 March on Washington and supporting Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the military.
“We talked about activism, the things that he’s done in his life and what he wanted us to be as African-American young men – to be socially conscious,” said Theus. “I was always really impressed by his demeanor and his confidence. When you know who you are and you’ve been through the fire – and you were a superstar on top of all that – you come out on the other side a little bit hardened in certain areas, but your understanding is tremendous.
“Not everybody can be that way. I’m sure there were things that happened in his life that could’ve broken him if he were a different individual.”
Russell taught players to recognize how their approaches and achievements in sports are in many ways inseparable from real-life experiences.
“He talked about how you see the game and you see life, and there’s an enormous amount of synergy between the two -- from a social standpoint, from a conscious standpoint, and from a basketball-purist standpoint,” said Theus, his voice softening. “How you handle yourself as a basketball player is exactly how you’re going to handle yourself as a businessman. If you take shortcuts here, you’ll take shortcuts there. If you grind it out here, you’ll grind it out there. If you’re successful here, you’ll be successful out there, because the mechanisms are all the same.”
Russell’s legacy, both inside and outside of basketball, has been solidified in countless ways. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2011, and two years later, the Celtics unveiled a statue honoring No. 6’s incomparable triumphs on Boston's City Hall Plaza.
Although his Sacramento tenure lasted 58 games as a head coach and an additional season as general manager, Kings players from the era continue to speak of him in revered tones, grateful for his unforgettable basketball lessons and invaluable mentorship.
“Honestly, he taught me what teamwork was about regardless of what was happening -- winning and losing,” said Smith, who’d go on to win two consecutive titles with the Houston Rockets. “I sat next to him four hours a day, and if I went to sleep, he would nudge me and say, ‘Sleep nights, young fella, listen to what I’m saying.’ And I listened to those stories. It was a great feeling to know I was a part of that.”
"From a basketball perspective, it was one thing, but I really enjoyed Bill outside of the game," echoed Theus, who'd follow in his idol's footsteps by coaching the Kings later in his career. "It was just a real honor for me to be in his presence, and that I can say at my age now, that I was coached by Bill Russell. Not many people can say that."