For the better part of his adult life, Bill Russell has woven such qualities as pride, independence, eccentricity and even stubbornness into an eloquent statement. His return to coaching 10 years after a stint with the Seattle SuperSonics and nearly 20 years after winning the NBA title as a player/coach with the Boston Celtics is only part of the tapestry.

"It's hard to determine whom you pattern yourself after, whom you pick the parts of yourself from, but I hope I followed him," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson, who through the years has shown that he indeed picked up one or two things from his former Celtics teammate. "He is someone whom I greatly admired and respected before and after I came to Boston. Everything that became 'in,' everything that people are talking about today {racially}, Russell was talking about more than 20 years ago. He was a man who took things on his shoulders."

Although there's no doubt that Russell, 53, still harbors strong feelings on the topic of race relations, it's a different burden he struggles with today. That would be the Sacramento Kings, one of the worst -- albeit youngest -- teams in the NBA.

Why he would quit his job as an analyst for Turner Broadcasting's basketball telecasts and return to the sidelines -- particularly with a team as bad as the Kings -- they're 15-30 -- encompasses myriad factors.

"It's easy to say that it was the challenge," said Satch Sanders, another former teammate with the Celtics, "and I'm sure that's true, but Russ is also a sound businessman and this was definitely a sound business offer. I'm sure that made it worthwhile. He's got nothing to prove, but he's always set his own agenda. I'm sure he'll take care of business."

Apparently so are the Kings, who last summer signed Russell to a seven-year contract that reportedly calls for him to coach three seasons then replace General Manager Joe Axelson, who will retire at that point. In the last two seasons of the contract, Russell will be president and general manager.

"I came into this with my eyes open. I know what to expect and I know what I can do about it," he said. "That's why the Kings and I have a long-term commitment. As they say, 'I'm hurrying as fast as I can.' Of course we'd like immediate progress, but sometimes you're going to take one big step ahead and then two little ones backward, but that's how it goes; that's what it takes sometimes."

Despite his intentions, for much of the season the Kings have performed as if stuck in reverse. Recently, early in the first quarter of what would be a 90-87 loss to the New Jersey Nets, Russell called center Joe Kleine aside and told him to try to execute a pick and roll with guard Kenny Smith.

When play resumed, Kleine, a hulking pivotman, set a solid screen for Smith, a rookie from North Carolina, then turned toward basket. Defenders froze and Smith bounced a perfect pass that kicked three rows into the stands behind the Kings' basket.

The play was par for the Kings, one of only three NBA teams (the Knicks and Nets are the others) to average at least 19 turnovers per game. But if Russell says that he believes he can turn around the inept team, you listen.

You listen even though at times he doesn't call timeouts until a possession or two too late or that, once huddled, he rarely addresses the entire team.

You listen because he's Bill Russell, ex-Boston Celtic, forever legend. During his playing days, he was a part of 11 championships in 13 seasons. He played in 12 all-star games, won five most valuable player awards and has since been voted the greatest player in the history of the NBA in more than one poll.

Yet Russell, the coach, says -- with a look of complete seriousness -- that he doesn't expect his players to know such ancient history. "That was another lifetime ago," he said. "I don't even think about it."

Of course, the players do know, even the youngest rookies such as Smith and former Georgetown guard Michael Jackson.

"Coach Thompson used to talk about him all the time, especially when Patrick {Ewing, now the center for the New York Knicks} was there," Jackson said. "He'd talk about how he carried himself, about winning. And everything he said was right on.

"He's the reason why I'm here now. I'd had four different offers to try out for teams but I was going to just stay in school. Then Bill called. I knew I'd get a fair shot. If I was good enough I'd be in the league, and if I wasn't I wouldn't be."

If Russell is successful with the Kings, it will likely be despite a technique that runs contrary to what has become the norm for professional, college and even some high school coaches.

He prefers to work one-to-one, which makes a Sacramento timeout totally unlike any other you'll see in the NBA, with the coach talking to one player, assistant Willis Reed instructing a second and assistant Jerry Reynolds, a third. Meanwhile, the two neglected players are soliciting advice from other teammates.

"Bill has a different way of approaching things," said Reynolds, who served as the Kings' interim coach for the second half of last season when Phil Johnson was fired just after the all-star break. "He likes to do a lot of one-on-one work, and Willis and I see certain things and we want to make sure that the players are aware of them.

"The situation is still constantly evolving. Obviously all the bugs haven't been worked out -- unless this is as good as it gets. If we don't find ways of improving ourselves we're just marking time, but Bill has the framework and we'll go on from there."

Much has been made of that framework, of the aura of winning that Russell is expected to provide for the Kings. Some say that's perhaps more important than mere X's and O's. Others say that provides a convenient excuse for Russell to tend to some of the passions in his life.

Like golf. In recent years the legend of Russell, the golfer, has indeed surpassed the tales from his basketball career. Russell lived in rainy Seattle before joining the Kings. One oft-told, perhaps apocryphal story, had him waking up and getting into his car each day to play golf. If the weather didn't cooperate, he merely continued driving to the airport, where he'd catch a plane to somewhere such as Los Angeles where the sun was shining.

"He's very much his own man," said guard Reggie Theus. "He allots time to be a basketball coach but he just asks for time to lead his own life. The people who have problems with him are those who try to make him something he's not or say that he has to be a particular way."

Being independent, being a winner, cuts a large swath. Take airplanes. Unlike the arrangement used by the coaches of most NBA teams, Russell always sits in first-class, with a rookie -- usually Jackson -- flying in coach. That goes against the portion of the now-expired collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NBA Players Association that says all team members must fly first-class when such seats are available, but, of course, coach-class doesn't suit Russell's style.

"You have to coach the way you are -- that's what you try to do," he said. As for his one-to-one guidance, he adds: "I do collective things with the team, but I try to corral the young players so as to help minimize the damage that can come from a losing situation. I want to make sure they don't become part of the problem.

"I'm trying to teach these guys how to win. That's a process that's new to some of them; some have just gone out to play. Take Kenny Smith. He has to learn what a good point guard does, what's important. It's not just running around, it's how to run a team efficiently and getting the good shooters on a team their shots."

Perhaps that's why Russell will chuckle one moment when one of his players takes an awkward looking shot then glare a second later after a bad pass, as if offended by the sheer gall of such a miscue.

At one point in the game against the Nets, Smith took off on a one-on-one fast break against John Bagley. Smith scored, but Russell chastised the other four players for not trailing the play down the court. Moments later, center LaSalle Thompson walked over to the coach and apologized for not hustling.

The Kings' players do a lot of apologizing to Russell, so eager are they to please. They also insist that the coach is far from unapproachable.

"The lines of communication are open," said Theus. "In the sense that you can joke with him about stuff, he's like one of the fellows, but he's not the sort that you might try to sit down and have a beer with. I think people are afraid of him, intimidated by him, but that's because they never try to approach him."

At Newark International Airport the day after the loss to the Nets, a reporter approached Russell for an interview.

"Young man," came the response, "Why would I do that?"

"Because you're such a nice guy?"

"Obviously you have me confused with someone else," said Bill Russell.

Actually, the seemingly endless procession of airports and departure lounges provides him with an opportunity to do some of his best work. Forward Ed Pinckney, who had a big game against the Nets, is taken aside for a chat. A little later, there's a lengthy conversation with Smith, the two men bringing up the rear when the flight is boarded.

"I look for him," Smith said. "I like trying to find out . . . I need to know what's going on in his head. When he was with Seattle, Dennis Johnson said Coach protected him early in his career. He explained that to me once; he said that that Seattle team had bad people. We don't have that here; we just play bad basketball.

"But it's little things that change that. Take that breakaway against the Nets when no one chased after me. People take little things like that for granted but talking about them keeps you into the game."

Already conjecture has started that Russell will grow bored with coaching, that he'll depart from the sidelines sooner than planned and find a new golf course to conquer. He says such talk is absurd, that he returned not for the money but because he enjoys coaching.

"We're not going to win the championship this year or in the very immediate future, but we can lay the foundation for it," he said. "We'd all like to win more, but we now know where the problems are -- we just have to solve them. I think we will.

"I think they {the players} trust me. I know I trust them."