If you want a reminder that “failings” on a basketball court cannot dim the spirit of a well-balanced ballplayer who knows what life is all about, give Bryon Russell a call.
“How you doing, man?” the 52-year-old Russell answers jovially when I call the number that Utah Jazz Director of Alumni Relations Quincy Lewis gave me. Attention ’90s hoop fans, please feel free to re-read that sentence for the full experience.
Not that it was easy to hear Russell talk over the music thumping in the background but a) he apologized for the noise and b) why shouldn’t he be partying on a Thursday night? In the “Calabasas area,” where he lives, no less? This is a gentleman who spent 13 seasons in the NBA and cleared more than $25 million in the process.
And Russell was about as relevant a non-All-Star could be for several of his seasons in, of course, Utah. A second-round pick for the Jazz out of Long Beach State in 1993, the 6-7 swingman from San Bernardino, CA, spent the first nine years of his pro career in Utah, making the playoffs every last one of them (and the Finals twice; we’ll get back to that in a minute).
While he was occasionally deployed as a versatile sixth man, the bulk of Russell’s time in Utah was spent starting alongside the legends Karl Malone and John Stockton, usually guarding the opponent’s best player. Over his nine seasons in SLC, Russell averaged 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.2 steals, numbers that speak to all the ways he provided value.
Asked for a favorite memory of his time there, Russell doesn’t hesitate, if not in the way you might expect from a multi-NBA Finalist.
“Everything there is a positive memory,” he gushes. “There was never a dull moment, and it was all phenomenal. When I played there, we had great chemistry, great teammates and great coaches. And the atmosphere was great, too—probably the loudest fans in the League, I’d say.”
All this to say that, yeah, if you want to remember him for something else, like, being the defender Michael Jordan made his famous “last shot” over to lock up the ’98 NBA Finals and give the Bulls their second straight six-game Finals win over Russell’s Jazz, fine. Bryon is not sweating it. “I wish we woulda got one, sure,” he says. “But I’m not mad or disappointed at all. We did our best.”
Russell certainly did. In the ’97 Finals loss, he played a workmanlike 39 minutes per game, second only on the team to Malone, scoring 11.3 ppg in the process. Similarish story in the ’98 Finals, when Russell was second to Malone with 36.2 mpg. And almost all of these minutes, over both series’, were spent covering the greatest player of all time. What a time for Bryon Russell to be alive.
With Utah’s near-dynasty winding down in the early ’00s, in the summer of 2002 Russell signed a free-agent contract with the Washington Wizards, who featured none other than…Michael Jordan, playing his truly last season. The year in DC was followed by a season with the Lakers—where he played for former nemesis Phil Jackson and with long-time teammate Malone—and then wound it down with two seasons in Denver.
Russell’s been out of the League since ’06, and mostly out of the spotlight as well. As mentioned up top, he lives happily in or near Calabasas, heading back to Utah “whenever [the Jazz] call me.”
The outro on our call is as amusing as the intro. When I follow standard current protocol and ask Bryon what fans could look out for from him—anything to plug, so to speak?—he says, “just look out for Bryon having a good time.”
Photos via Getty Images.
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