First Rookie of the Year...Big East Conference
St. Johns University
David Russell was a star at Bellport High School in the late 1970s
when Lou Carnesecca came to recruit him and teammate George Garrison
Russell wanted to stay close to home so his mother wouldn’t have to travel around the country to see him play.
Unlike other coaches, Carnesecca didn’t promise him a spot in the starting lineup, which stuck with Russell.
Russell noted that not many people could make his mother feel comfortable.
“He really made her comfortable so I knew I was making the right decision,” Russell told the Chronicle last Friday.
He made his impact known right away.
“This Russell is awesome,” Oral Roberts head coach Ken Hayes told Sports Illustrated
after the Redmen won in Russell’s first college game.
“I don’t know where he came from on dunks. They may have to invent a new foul: in air too long.”
At 6 feet, 6 inches, Russell had terrific leaping ability. Russell was named
Big East Rookie of the Year, averaging 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game,
with St. John’s spending more than a month ranked in the top 10.
He remembers a loss to eventual-champion Louisville and Darrell Griffith, aka Dr. Dunkenstein.
“I thought I jumped,” Russell said. “This dude jumped out of the sky. I’m like, ‘Oh my God.”
In his sophomore season, he was named an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press.
Russell worked with Hall of Famer Willis Reed, as the Knicks legend was a volunteer coach for a year at St. John’s.
“For him to have a bum knee, he still moved around pretty good,” Russell said.
Russell didn’t consider himself a big man but with his leap the Redmen played him in the middle
and Reed taught him how to defend and stay in front of his man.
It was welcome advice as opponents started to game plan to stop Russell.
Chris Mullin entered St. John’s and Patrick Ewing entered Georgetown, giving the conference two marquee figures.
“I was really fortunate to play with great veterans,” Mullin said. “I played with Bob Kelly, Kevin Williams,
David Russell, Billy Goodwin and Trevor Jackson.
All guys that were great players, experienced, had great work habits,
great practice habits and really nurtured me along as a freshman and sophomore.
I looked up to them. They were the leaders of the team and I just kind of followed them.”
The first time they met, Madison Square Garden was packed with fans still trying to get in outside. Georgetown took a 41-9 lead and won by 30.
“He was so intimidating,” Russell said of Ewing. “When I jumped up against him I thought, ‘This is going to be a long night against this guy.’”
In Russell’s senior year of 1982-83, the school produced one of its best teams.
The team was as high as No. 3 in the rankings and won the Big East title over Boston College.
Russell recalled a comeback win in the conference semifinal against Villanova one of his most memorable games.
St. John’s advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before being upset by Georgia.
The loss still lingers. Russell said he had lunch with Carnesecca in December and the coach was saying how the Redmen should have made the Final Four.
Russell scored 1,753 points in his four seasons at St. John’s, third-most in school history at the time. He’s now ninth.
He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets. Head coach Doug Moe had a message for him on the first day of practice:
“I’m definitely making you throw up.” Star scorer Alex English told Russell the coach liked him, which was why he was so tough.
Russell’s reply: “This dude hates my guts.”
The Nuggets waived Russell and he went to Europe to play for 16 seasons.
There were training camp workouts with the Knicks and Bulls but he never played in the NBA.
“They play too many games with you,” he said. “They take you for that ride, you think you’re going to sign,
and then the next morning you get the call and they’re sending someone to the office and you know you’re getting waived.”
Russell became a social worker with a therapeutic program but became tired of dealing with parents and the court system after 10 years of it.
Russell, who lives in Inwood, LI, works forthe Long Island Rail Road for the last 21 years. He works at the Hillside Facility in Queens.
“Every college player’s dream is to play in the NBA but there’s a life after that,” Russell said. “Trust me.”
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