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HE'S GAME AGAIN FOR THE NBA : A Decade After Leaving, Russell's Back, With Kings

October 06, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — It's a story Bill Russell never told himself, at least not for publication.

Not while he was winning 11 championships in 13 seasons as center for the Boston Celtics. Not while he was coaching the Seattle SuperSonics. Not while he was broadcasting National Basketball Assn. games for CBS and then Ted Turner.

But his daughter, Karen K. Russell, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, wasn't as reticent. Writing a first-person story in the New York Times Magazine, she told of the time the Russell family returned to their suburban Boston home from a long weekend to discover that they had been robbed.

"Our house was in a shambles and 'NIGGA' was spray-painted on the walls," she wrote. "The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt. They had broken into my father's trophy case and smashed most of the trophies.

"I was petrified and shocked at the mess; everyone was very upset. The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then that my parents pulled back their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed."

Bill Russell, the new coach of the Sacramento Kings, stretched out his 6-foot 9-inch frame in the chair of his office here in the Arco Arena, his yellow golf cap still atop his head.

"I didn't particularly like that part," he said. "That might have revealed something about me.

"When I left Boston, I said I didn't like it, but I didn't say why."

It was ironic, Karen Russell wrote, that she should return to Boston for her postgraduate studies. The racism she now encounters is not as overt as that her father knew, she wrote, yet its subtlety makes it perhaps even more insidious. And she is angry.

"The article was too close to me," Bill Russell said. "All the things she wrote about, we talked about.

"I'm proud of the fact she has a social conscience. I tried to raise my kids to be independent and think for themselves, not to think like I think."

Would it have been possible to be a child of Bill Russell and not have a social conscience?

"My children had access to most material things," he said. "They didn't have to care. It would have been very easy not to do anything."

Instead, Karen has graduated from law school and is taking public stands. Russell shuffled through the pile of papers on his desk until he found a letter from his son, Jacob. Enclosed was Jacob's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. A third child, William Fenton II, is in restaurant management in Seattle.

"I'm proud of all of my children," Russell said. "All of them have had quality educations. One of the things I tried to teach them was to be able to deal within the system."

Now, at 53 and with all of his children grown, Russell is returning to a system from which he walked away in disgust 10 years ago. Last April, he signed a seven-year contract with the Kings, which stipulates that Russell will eventually ascend from coach to general manager to, ultimately, president of the franchise. That would make him the first black to reach such heights in professional sports.

Coincidentally, the night that Russell met in his Seattle home with Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill and team President Joe Axelson and agreed to come to Sacramento, was the same night Dodger Vice President Al Campanis made his "necessities" remark to "Nightline's" Ted Koppel.

"The two things don't have much to do with each other, although I read in the papers that they did," Russell said, unleashing one of his trademark room-shaking laughs.

Did he attach special significance to becoming the first black team president?

"No," he said. "When I was coaching the Celtics, someone asked me how important it was to be the first black coach. I said it would be important only when black coaches are hired and fired just like anyone else and nobody notices.

"I think about (becoming president), more so than being black, as being an ex-player. You know the song, 'Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma?' I'm pleased with what they've done with my game.

"I've talked to some of the players: Magic (Johnson), Larry (Bird), (Akeem) Olajuwon, Isiah (Thomas). I tell 'em it makes me proud to be an ex-NBA player, the way they conduct themselves and the way they play."

Bill Russell laughs at the idea that he's returning to the NBA. To his way of thinking, he has never been away.

"What baffles me is why anyone would be surprised that I'm going to coach," he said. "I like coaching."

Like coaching? This is the same man who wrote in his autobiography "Second Wind," that on the last day of his final season, 1976-77, as Seattle coach and general manager, "I was as relieved as a GI coming home from war."

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