SACRAMENTO -- Bill Russell hasn't played ball in 18 years and he hasn't coached in a decade, but his court sense hasn't faded and his eyes still burn with the intensity that brought him 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons.
"Stop," he yells, when something suddenly bothers him about a play his Sacramento Kings are running in practice. "It doesn't look right."
Russell doesn't map out what's wrong with the play, the way some coaches might.
"On the paper is one thing and on the floor is something different," he says. "And I understand the difference. The players cannot run the play exactly as it's diagrammed. I know how it should look and we'll go through it and find out what's bothering me visually." So he acts like a band leader, taking it from the top again and again, until he's satisfied and the players know how it should be done.
"I want to teach the players how to teach themselves," he says.
Russell, as teacher, tempers his toughness with patience and humor.
"He jokes with the guys a lot," says Willis Reed, the former New York Knicks center and head coach recruited by Russell as an assistant. "He was my idol growing up and the guy I tried to emulate. Now I have an opportunity, just like the players on the team, to learn from a man who was voted the greatest player in the first 25 years of the NBA."
Russell's achievements as a player are so impressive they can be inspiring or intimidating.
"It's a little scary to hear about all the things he did," said Jawann Oldham, a 7-footer whom Russell hopes to develop into a defensive force. "But it's nice to be able to learn from the best."
Russell, a lanky, sinewy 6-foot-9 center, was the best on defense and in court leadership, and he has the 11 titles and five Most Valuable Player awards to prove it. Wilt Chamberlain, his perennial rival, was bigger, stronger and scored more points, but Russell had the knack for winning.
So intense was Russell during his playing days with the Boston Celtics from the 1956-57 championship season to the 1968-69 championship season that he frequently got sick before the games. He's calmed down a little in his gray-beard days, but at 53 the drive to win is no less powerful.
"I'm a tough guy, not a brother," he says.
Russell coached the Celtics for three years until the end of his playing career, winning the NBA title twice, then coached Seattle for four years. He took the young SuperSonics to the playoffs twice, but never quite got used to mediocrity.
He was criticized as a coach for not attending to details in practice, a charge Russell admits was partly true. He didn't like practice much as a player, preferring to save his art for the actual performance.
"I didn't like certain kinds of details," he says. "I'd have a practice planned in my head but I wouldn't write it down, so I didn't have a program that anyone else could sit down and read because I was doing practically all the coaching myself."
This time, as he begins a 7-year contract that can take him from coach to general manager to president of the Kings, Russell has two assistant coaches who are sticklers for detail and preparation: Reed and Jerry Reynolds, who served as Kings interim head coach last year after Phil Johnson was fired.
Russell is trying to turn around a team that finished 29-53 last year, the fifth worst record in the NBA. He says he has the foundation of a winner with guards Reggie Theus, Derek Smith and rookie Kenny Smith, plus forward Otis Thorpe.
"What I have is an overall vision of how this particular team should play," Russell says. "I'm trying to make my system flexible enough so that I can use the physical talents of the players, which has nothing to do with their personalities. That determines what I call style."
He bristles, though, at attempts to categorize his style as a product of the "Celtic tradition."
"I'm not acquainted with the Celtic tradition," he says coldly. "That's something I've heard about."