Poor Bryon Russell. For starters, nobody can ever seem to get his name right. His name is NOT Byron but that’s obviously not the main point of this piece. With the final two episodes of The Last Dance set to premiere tonight on ESPN, Russell is about to relive what he’ll always be best known for, being the victim of Michael Jordan’s legendary last basket with the Chicago Bulls, better known as “The Last Shot.” Say Bryon Russell’s name and that’s what the majority of people will go to, right?
Hey, I get it. It’s Michael Jordan and it’s “The Last Shot.” It’s arguably the most famous shot in NBA history and it’s unfortunate for Russell that he was on the wrong side of history. It’s not his fault. That shot was always going to go in. I mean, it had to, right? The Bulls were breaking up and it was the perfect end to a story that resulted in six titles in eight years for Chicago, the last two coming at the expense of Russell and the Utah Jazz. But Bryon Russell was so much more than a Jordan victim.
Bryon Russell has his number retired at Long Beach State
After leading San Bernardino (CA) High School to a state championship, Bryon Russell chose to stay close to home to play college ball and enrolled at Long Beach State, which has produced a number of NBA players, including Michael Jordan’s former teammate, Craig Hodges, as well as Russell’s teammate for three seasons, Lucious Harris.
While he didn’t put up crazy numbers as the second scoring option on the team behind Harris, Russell had a solid college career, averaging 11.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game in his three years at The Beach. He was a two-time All-Big West Tournament selection and helped the 49ers to the NIT in 1992 and a conference tournament title in 1993, which resulted in the school’s NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years. Russell was inducted into the Long Beach State Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000 and his No. 32 jersey was retired by the university in 2010.
He played a huge part in getting the Jazz to the NBA Finals
Despite not putting up big numbers in college, the Utah Jazz saw something in Bryon Russell and took him with the 45th overall selection in the 1993 NBA draft. With John Stockton and Karl Malone on the roster, Russell was never going to be the star and he didn’t need to be. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a key contributor for those great Jazz teams of the 1990s. In the 1996-1997 season, the first year Utah met Chicago in the NBA Finals, Russell started 81 games and averaged 10.8 points per game, pretty solid for a guy considered the fourth option behind Malone, Stockton, and sharpshooter Jeff Hornacek. He was even better in the Finals, putting up 11.3 points per night, again pretty solid for someone who also had to deal with Michael Jordan on the defensive end.
His role diminished a bit in 1997-1998 as he became the first guy off the bench for Jerry Sloan but he was still the fourth-leading scorer on the team and made some big buckets for Utah on the way to a rematch with Jordan and the Bulls. No need to go over what happened in that series, right?
Russell later became Jordan’s teammate in Washington
Following the loss to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in ’98, Bryon Russell played four more seasons in Utah and had some of the best years of his career. Unfortunately, the Jazz never made it back to the NBA Finals as Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers and Tim Duncan’s Spurs took over the Western Conference. And speaking of Kobe Bryant, you can thank Bryon Russell for at least a small part of his career. Who do you think was hounding Bryant when he put up those airballs early in his career, you know, the ones that made him want to become a better player? That’s right, Bryon Russell.
Russell left Utah in 2002 and spent one season with the Washington Wizards, where he teamed with none other than Michael Jordan. Can you imagine those practices? How many times do you think MJ got at Russell about “The Shot?” We’ve all seen how ruthless Jordan can be at practice and that had to be torture. Russell then spent one season with Kobe in LA and closed his career with the Denver Nuggets.
Bryon Russell played 13 seasons in the NBA, averaging 7.9 points (9.9 in the postseason), and made more than $25.8 million. That’s a solid career right there.
Where is Bryon Russell today?
Bryon Russell knows his place in NBA history. He’s the guy that will always be linked to that shot and he accepts that. He still maintains, and he isn’t the only one, that Michael Jordan pushed off but there’s nothing he can do about that, just like there wasn’t much he could do in 1998.
Russell now lives on the outskirts of LA in Woodland Hills, where his son plays high school basketball, and runs his own business. But he remains a beloved figure in Utah and constantly comes back for Junior Jazz basketball camps and is in constant contact with John Stockton and Karl Malone. He loves coming back and meeting and helping the new era of Jazz talent and attends quite a few games.
But with no games currently being played due to COVID-19, there’s not any basketball for him to watch outside of the old clips from The Last Dance and something tells me he won’t be watching the final two episodes. But the rest of us will be watching and we’ll certainly see plenty of Bryon Russell. Let’s just hope they get his name right.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference