WHAT'S WRONG WITH this picture? Karl Malone walks through the Jazz locker room Friday morning at Westminster College, and a handful of reporters ignore him. They're preoccupied. They're huddled around - who's this? - Bryon (or is it BY-ron?) Russell.
"A star is born!" Malone says as he passes Russell's locker. "I'm glad someone else is gettin' the attention. You can have all the pressure.""I love pressure," Russell says.
It beats anonymity. Russell has been there, done that. He's the guy from the far end of the bench, the guy with the name nobody can get right, the guy you call on when nothing else is going right. Suddenly, he's the guy in the spotlight, too, at least for the moment. He has been there, done that, too.
How long will it last this time?
Russell has been the biggest surprise in the Jazz's playoff run so far. Their opponents figured on Stockton and Malone's pick and roll. They counted on Jeff Hornacek's shooting. They banked on Adam Keefe picking up the garbage.
But nobody saw Russell coming. Nobody saw him burying three-point shots. Nobody guessed that he'd stop All-Star Sean Elliott. Nobody saw him playing a huge part in helping the Jazz split the first two games in San Antonio, giving them the home-court advantage heading into Game 3 today in the Delta Center.
No one guessed that he'd provide speeches for the Spurs' locker room wall, either. "The one thing I can do is play defense," he was saying Friday. "Just look at Sean Elliott's numbers. That'll tell you how good I play defense."
If Russell sounds like he's advertising, you can hardly blame him. He's rotated from bench jockey to starter and back throughout his three-year NBA career. He was the 12th man heading into this year's playoffs. The last man. Mister DNP-CD - the statistical abbreviation for Did Not Play-Coach's Decision. Russell had 23 DNP-CDs this season. Somewhere in there he also had nine consecutive starts. But then he wound up on the bench. The end of the bench. Again.
Russell figured he was outta here. The Jazz had four small forwards - David Benoit, Adam Keefe, Chris Morris and Russell - and Russell was No. 4. If three's a crowd, what is four?
"I figured they'll let me go. I'll be gone." he says.
But everytime someone writes off Russell, even Russell himself, he returns with a flourish. With the Jazz in a horrible late-season funk, Coach Jerry Sloan was desperate enough to try Russell in the last three regular-season games. He played well, but it was only a warmup for the playoffs.
In the opening game against Portland he had 12 points in 12 minutes. In the last three playoff games he has scored 37 points, while his playing time has soared from 10 minutes a game to 30 minutes. In the last two games he has made seven of nine three-point shots - not bad for a guy who isn't supposed to be a good outside shooter.
Offense hasn't even been the best part of his game. Russell has guarded Elliott in both playoff games. The Spurs' star, who averaged 20 points per game this year, has made just four of 16 shots and committed eight turnovers.
"He loves to go right, he loves the baseline," says Russell.
Don't even think about giving Russell double-team help. "I just want to guard him myself," he says. "I feel I can play him."
Russell says he's living a dream come true, but he knows he could wake up tomorrow and it would be finished. A second-round pick in 1993, he beat the odds just to make the team, but wound up starting 48 games as a rookie. His playing time has fallen and his DNP-CDs have risen each season since then.
Russell has had two problems - his outside shooting and David Benoit, not necessarily in that order. Russell can make dazzling, explosive drives to the basket, but he has been handicapped by a poor outside shot. He spent hours in the Deseret Gym last summer improving his shooting.
But he can't shoot from the bench. Russell sits while Benoit plays. Benoit is a wonderfully athletic, but highly erratic player. Teased by the occasional nights when Benoit explodes, the Jazz have never been able to resist playing him, despite his streaks of mediocrity. So Russell sits and waits without complaint.
"He has stayed ready," says one Jazz official. "He's not a brooder."
Russell was ready again when the Jazz called this time. Benoit benched himself with a sore knee last week, giving Russell even more floor time. The timing couldn't be worse for Benoit or better for Russell. Benoit is about to become a free agent . . ..
Russell has emerged from hiding once again, just as he did briefly as a starter last winter. Maybe this time he'll play long enough for people to learn his name. "They say BY-ron," says Russell. "I hear it all the time. SportsCenter got it wrong just the other day."
Sounds like he needs to do more advertising. "If it was up to me," he begins with a smile, "I'd play myself the whole game. I can drive, shoot, rebound, play defense . . .."