Remembering Bill Russell’s brief stint as Kings coach, GM originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Bill Russell, who peacefully passed away Sunday at the age of 88, is best known for winning 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics across a 13-year Hall of Fame career.
But his legendary basketball career also crossed paths with the Kings organization in the late 1980s.
Russell signed a seven-year contract to serve as head coach of the Kings ahead of the 1987-88 season. It didn’t last long, however, as Russell and the Kings parted ways after 58 games and a 17-41 record, which was followed by another short stint as the franchise’s general manager.
Despite the limited stay with the Kings, Russell’s time in Sacramento is still revered by those who were in the building.
Reggie Theus, a guard on that team coached by Russell, recalls being starstruck by the NBA legend when he arrived in Sacramento.
“It was always just sort of surreal in some ways because I grew up watching Bill play,” Theus told NBA.com in 2017. “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.”
The Kings were Russell’s third stop in his coaching career. He pulled double duty for the Celtics as player/coach for the final three seasons of his playing career, then retired after back-to-back championships in 1968 and ’69. Russell returned for four seasons on the sidelines with the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973-77 but put his coaching career on hold until the Kings came calling 10 years later.
“When you’re being told by someone who has that type of background, you really do listen, and you listen intently,” Theus said. “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. 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.’ And Bill goes, ‘That’s why you never won!’”
In just about every story told about his time with the Kings, Russell seemed to keep things real.
Kenny Smith, the sixth overall pick by the Kings in the 1987 NBA Draft, fondly recalled a story about Russell sharing his all-too-honest opinions on the roster during a team bus ride.
“He said, ‘You’re going to have to sit next to me on the bus the whole time.’ I didn’t want to do that,” Smith recalled with a smile. “I don’t want to sit next to the coach the whole bus and the plane rides and everywhere. So I started walking to the back and he grabs me back. He said, ‘Young fella you got to sit next to me.’ “
When Smith asked why, Russell pointed at the players and dubbed them “losers” who were “never going to win.”
“I’m trying to trade them, but nobody wants them,” Russell said.
A winner through and through.
As NBA players, coaches and executives celebrated and mourned Sunday’s passing of the basketball legend, the Kings published a statement about his legacy on and off the floor.
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“The Kings join the basketball community in grieving the loss of NBA legend Bill Russell,” the team wrote in a statement. “A storied champion and fierce advocate for civil rights and social justice, Bill was a trailblazer who always led with his values. His immeasurable impact will continue to resonate both on and off the court for years to come. We are keeping his family and friends in our thoughts during this time.”
While serving as the coach and general manager of Sacramento did not go as planned, Russell maintained the respect he earned as a legendary figure in basketball and society.
“We’re all flawed and he had his flaws, but I have nothing but respect for Bill Russell,” Jerry Reynolds, a Kings assistant coach under Russell, told NBA.com. “He’s a unique man. He’s Bill Russell. I grew up idolizing him. I thought the world of him. And all the players respected him.”