He has the sort of contagious smile and sweet-natured
disposition that dissolve even his most stone-faced teammates
into laughter. They can't help it. Bryon Russell likes to joke.
He laughs and mugs and spews out comical boasts, like, "Teams
don't have an answer for me." Other Utah Jazz players say he has
always been thus, even when Russell was struggling to prove he
belonged in the NBA. Watching the do-it-all small forward
now--draining jumpers and helping to spark Utah in its Western
Conference final series against the Houston Rockets--it's easy
to forget what he has been through in his four NBA seasons.
Russell grabbed his first fistful of glory in Game 3 of last
year's Western finals between the Jazz and the Seattle
SuperSonics. He came off the bench to contribute a then
career-high 24 points in a 96-76 Utah victory. When the locker
room door was flung open and the media mob rushed in, Russell
couldn't believe his ears: The reporter who asked the first
question mispronounced Russell's first name.
"Byron?" Russell yelped. "You called me BY-ron? Gawwd, it's
BRY-on, it's BRY-on!" Leaning forward now toward a reporter's
tape recorder, he says, "Repeat after me: B-R-Y-O-N."
Russell's performance against Seattle didn't make him a
household name, but it was his springboard into Utah's starting
lineup this season. With opponents predictably double-teaming
Jazz power forward Karl Malone and blanketing guards John
Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, Russell averaged 10.8 points per
game and sank a franchise-record 108 three-pointers in the
regular season. He played straitjacket defense and finished
drives with acrobatic moves that drew gasps of disbelief. He
continued his sparkling play as Utah swept the Los Angeles
Clippers in three games in round 1 of the playoffs and knocked
off the L.A. Lakers four games to one in round 2. In those two
series he averaged 14.0 points and shot 32.4% percent from
three-point range. In the Jazz's series-opening 101-86 victory
over the Rockets on Monday, he had six points and helped to hold
Houston's Clyde Drexler to just 13.
It was Russell who made sure the Lakers were sent into
off-season oblivion, scoring 29 points in Game 4 and 22 in Game
5. "I'm not taking anything away from Stockton or Malone or
Hornacek," said Lakers coach Del Harris after Los Angeles was
ousted, "but to me, Russell was the difference in the series. He
got so many of the hustle points, whether it was on key
offensive rebounds, running the court or getting out on the
front end of a fast break. He created things even when their
offense broke down. He made some big, big shots."
"The only way I can explain Bryon is to say Bryon's confidence
is different from that of a lot of other guys," Malone says.
Then he breaks into a fond grin. Russell has mushrooming
confidence. It's the sort of confidence that helped him weather
the two seasons when the Jazz tried three other small forwards:
Tyrone Corbin, then David Benoit, then Chris Morris. Russell
says it's the sort of confidence you can't know unless you've
spent a year or two--"fall, winter, spring and
summer"--launching 500 shots a day from the three-point arc to
perfect your stroke.
"In our offense, the 3 position is always going to get the most
open looks," says veteran forward Antoine Carr. "Bryon worked at
his three-point shot, and he worked at it because he knows if
our small forward is hitting those shots, forget it, we're
almost impossible to stop."
Still, it took some prodding by Malone to get Russell completely
on track. "It really helped me when Karl got angry at me during
a game early this season and said, 'If you don't take the open
shot when I give you the ball, I'm going to tell [Utah coach
Jerry] Sloan to get your ass out of the game,'" says Russell.
"When a guy like Karl says that, I say, Man, say no more. That's
all I need to hear."
A year ago Russell probably wouldn't have had the gall to walk
back onto the court as he did in the final seconds of regulation
against the Lakers in Game 5 and make an impromptu decision with
Hornacek, who isn't as strong a defender as Russell, to swap
assignments. After a timeout, Russell, who had been guarding
Eddie Jones, told Hornacek, "Let's switch. Let me take Kobe
Bryant." Why? "Jeff and I figured Bryant was going to get the
ball," Russell explained after hounding Bryant, the Lakers'
18-year-old wunderkind, into an air ball. The game went into
overtime, and the Jazz won 98-93.
To say Russell is laid-back off the court doesn't begin to
capture him. His every-day uniform is a plain T-shirt, baggy
denim shorts and a baseball hat he cocks slightly sideways. His
idea of a good time is a game of dominoes or cards. He enjoys
spending family time with his wife, Kimberli, and their
one-year-old daughter, Kajun. He still drives the same navy-blue
Toyota Land Cruiser he bought as a rookie. He's still putting
off buying the two Jet Skis for which he has long pined, though
he knows he may quintuple his $385,000 salary when he becomes an
unrestricted free agent on July 1. "I've guess I've been
doing well," Russell says. "I'm starting to feel as if I'm prime
time. But I know people around the country are still asking,
'Who is this guy? Where did he come from? How did he get into
Russell didn't play organized basketball until he was in the
10th grade at San Bernardino (Calif.) High. He earned a
scholarship to Long Beach State but didn't dream of a pro career
until assistant coach Bob Thate pulled him aside one day during
his junior year and said it was a possibility. Even after he
dedicated himself to the goal of reaching the NBA, Russell says,
he never went to a Lakers game at the Forum until he played
there with the Jazz.
The spring after his senior season at Long Beach State he heard
that Magic Johnson was leading some pickup games at Loyola
Marymount. He went there, introduced himself to Johnson and soon
became a regular in those games. "I can't tell you how much
playing and talking with Magic helped," Russell says. "When I
got to the predraft camp in Chicago, I outshone a lot of bigger
names. I'll never forget, when it was over, Butch Carter, then a
Milwaukee Bucks assistant, walked up to me and said,
'Congratulations. You just played yourself into the NBA.'"
The Jazz made him the 45th pick in the 1993 draft, but Russell
had no idea how tough-minded he would have to be to stay in the
league. After starting 48 games and averaging 5.0 points as a
rookie, he lost the job to Benoit during the 1994-95 preseason.
In 1995-96 the 6'7", 225-pound Russell spent much of the season
fighting off the dread that any day he was going to get waived.
"We were afraid to go through with buying our house, and we were
even afraid to spend the money on a second car," Kimberli says.
"So we shared one."
Meanwhile, Bryon kept tearing around the floor at practice and
working on his shot. He also kept smiling and needling his
teammates. "I don't discriminate--I try to pick on them all," he
"I won't say Bryon is funny, but he's fun," Malone says. "He's
constantly telling me he's going to be an All-Star. And you know
what? I believe him, I believe him."
Should Russell help the Jazz win the NBA title or finally land
his first huge contract this summer, he already knows exactly
what he's going to do. "I'm going to get me a Mercedes S600," he
says. "And those two Jet Skis. I want to do some family things:
take my daughter to Disneyland, take a trip to Maui. Someday I
want to go to the Bahamas. Acapulco...."
He says he may even order up another batch of the T-shirts he
had made halfway through this season to sell at the Delta Center
souvenir shops. The front of the shirt features his smiling face
and gray type that commands DON'T CALL ME BYRON.
COLOR PHOTO: NORM PERDUE Russell threw down points at a rate of 14.0 a game in series wins over the Clippers and the Lakers. [Bryon Russell dunking basketball in game]