Russell happy to be aligned with Jordan

Wizard forever linked to legend from '98 Finals

Pro Basketball

October 04, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WILMINGTON, N.C. - It's a bit of an overstatement to say that Michael Jordan and Bryon Russell are inextricably intertwined, in the way that, say, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are bound together in basketball history.

After all, Jordan is a living legend, whose place in the basketball annals has long been established, while Russell is trying to find his place during training camp here with the Washington Wizards, who signed him as a free agent last month.

But even if they are not linked like Johnson and Bird for a career, you really can't think of Russell without thinking of Jordan for a moment: The jumper Jordan hit over Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals that gave the Chicago Bulls the title over Russell's Utah Jazz.

Even last year, Russell sustained a hairline fracture of his pelvis while guarding Jordan. Now, they are teammates in Washington, and Russell couldn't be happier, even if he has to sit behind Jordan.

"It [not starting] doesn't even matter to me," said Russell, 31. "I don't mind coming off the bench behind the greatest player ever to play the game. I can learn something from him. I'm never too old to learn. I'm going to make him compete for it if he wants it [the starting small forward slot]."

It's precisely that willingness to fit in that made the 6-foot-7 Russell, who signed a two-year, $2.5 million deal, so attractive to Wizards officials.

Russell, a second-round draft choice in 1993, played the first nine years of his career in Utah, in the shadow of future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, as well as former standout Jeff Hornacek.

To be sure, Russell got his occasional moments in the spotlight, averaging 9.2 points per game for his Jazz career, hitting 37 percent of his three-pointers in Utah, while starting in 366 of his 628 games there.

In addition, Russell would usually draw the opposition's best perimeter player on defense, which is how he came to be on Jordan in that Finals game, in which - depending on your perspective - Jordan either pushed off or steadied himself on Russell, before nailing a jumper that clinched the Bulls' sixth and final championship.

"He's a guy who has never had to have the ball," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "He's played off of Stockton and Malone and Hornacek, and he's found a way to be successful playing within a team concept, which is vital. He's played with Malone getting double-teamed and getting to the open area and making shots. He's played with Stockton pushing the ball and running for layups. He's played where he's had to guard the other team's best perimeter player defensively.

"So he's always played a role that you have to have, what I call a glue kind of guy. When the Bulls won championships, I always looked at a John Paxson or a Bill Cartwright as glue kind of guys or a Luc Longley or B.J. Armstrong or Stevie Kerr. You've got your players who make things happen and then you have players who play off those players. And he knows how to do that."

Russell will apparently be called upon to fill the leadership void left when veteran forward Popeye Jones signed with the Dallas Mavericks last month, as well as provide some playoff experience, with 96 postseason games in the books, should the Wizards get that far.

"I'm 10 [years] in the game now," said Russell, who averaged 9.6 points a game last season. "It doesn't take much for me to speak up and say what's on my mind if I see something happening. I'm just going to come in and try to get these cats to play as hard as they can for as long as they can. We want to get something out of them every time we're on the court."

Russell was signed Sept. 10 with the idea that he would start at small forward and that Jordan would come off the bench at shooting guard with Washington's second unit.

The next day, however, the Wizards swapped shooting guards with Detroit, sending Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse, who could, in some situations, play small forward. And with Jordan making noises this week that he doesn't yet consider the issue of him being a reserve completely settled, Russell could find himself on the second unit.

"If you want to win, yes, there are enough minutes," Russell said. "If you don't want to win, well ... somebody will have to sacrifice, and if everybody wants to be selfish, then you won't win."

If nothing else, Russell comes across as a man who knows he will always be answering questions about Jordan, and has no problem providing the answers, just like the other day when a television reporter asked him how Jordan looked in drills.

"[Jordan] looks fine. He's a handsome black man," said Russell to big laughs. "You asked me how he looked. He always looks good to me on the court."

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