VandyMania: Russell, this Vanderbilt team finally looks like a veteran team. You've got ten guys back from last year, and it's a team that has gotten to know each other very well. You went to Spain in August. How are you guys feeling at this point about the possibility of this year being a breakout year?
Russell Lakey: The extra practice in going to Spain has really given us a head start over the rest of the competition. Right now we're just focusing on taking care of the little things, like defense, rebounding. Right now the way things are going, our future is really limitless. We're just trying to put ourselves in a position to do well.
VM: Last year ended with a bad February, but you had a pretty good showing in the SEC Tournament. What was the team's mindset coming off that season? Did you get a little bit of hope from that good performance in the tournament?
Russell: Yeah, that showed what we're capable of. We beat a very good Alabama team, then played a very tough Kentucky team, maybe the best team in the country at the time, and played them tough. Coming off those two games, we got a little confidence coming into the season. Over the summer several guys made great strides-- Mario Moore, Julian Terrell-- I think they're going to do great things this year. Our team's a lot deeper than it's ever been.
VM: Has Coach Stallings asked you as a senior point guard to do anything in particular over the summer to be a leader? And what did he ask of the team as a whole?
Russell: He just asked us to be there for one another, and to give it our all. In the past sometimes we strayed from our goals. He's told me to be sort of like a coach and a player at the same time-- be there for the teammates and help them along. Every team needs a leader, and that's what I'm trying to be.
VM: In your mind is it really that big of an advantage to have that extra practice? Has it really put you that far ahead, compared with the other seasons you've been here?
Russell: Oh, definitely. Any time you have extra practice, it helps. Not only the players, but the coaches really benefited from that practice. When practice started, we just rolled right into it instead of staggering out of the blocks.
VM: Tell us a little bit about your growing up, your family-- at what point did you finally realize you were pretty good at this basketball thing?
Russell: I grew up in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. I had an older brother who was four years older than me. When he started picking up the basketball, I started picking it up too. I started playing going down to the local Crenshaw YMCA. I played there from about age 6 through about 15. Eventually I started playing traveling ball, I played for the Crenshaw team, which my Dad coached. I moved on to DBA, and to the [AAU] L. A. Rockfish. When high school came, I decided to bus out to Harvard-Westlake, because I thought that gave me the best opportunity for academics and athletics. It's a private school in Studio City, California. The coach was Greg Hilliard. I played as a freshman, and my sophomore year the star player on the team tore his ACL, so that pretty much put me in the role of leader and leading scorer. I got a few letters after my sophomore year, and that's when I first realized I actually had a chance maybe to get a scholarship to college.
VM: Tell a little more about your experiences playing AAU ball.
Russell: The L. A. Rockfish are an Adidas-based team. I played with them my sophomore and junior year summers. We went to the Vegas Big Time, the Bob Gibbons, and things like that.
VM: Were you more of a scoring point guard in high school than you are now?
Russell: Yeah, on my high school team I had to be more of a scorer. On my travel team I had great talent surrounding me. So coming to Vanderbilt and being more of a distributor wasn't that great of a transition.
VM: Mario Moore has made tremendous strides. You could really see him coming on last year as a point guard. Will that change your role, or what you think Coach Stallings will be expecting of you?
Russell: Coach is still expecting me to be a leader on the team. Whatever he needs me to do for the team to win is what I'm going to have to do. Mario has made great strides, and for us to win, we're going to need him on the court. I know what he can do, I know what I can do, and I know what our team can do. With him coming on and having such a great summer, I just see it adding more weapons to our team. We need all the weapons we can get! With him and Julian and Corey [Smith] really coming on, it will help our team a lot.
VM: You guys hang out together off the court and do a lot of things together. Talk about the bonds you guys have developed among yourselves.
Russell: I don't think I ever go ten minutes without hanging out with someone on the basketball team. We're just always together, and that's the way we like it. On weekends, during practice, before practice, after practice, dinner, lunch... it seems like we're always together. That's helped us a lot this year with chemistry, being able to communicate on the court. Being able to yell at someone, and yet knowing that they'll be there for you and care for you. They don't take it personally because they know you're just trying to help them out. We get to know each other not only on the court, but also in our personal lives. That's going to help us a lot.
VM: Has the athletic department restructuring affected you at all? Is it something that you even think about?
Russell: It doesn't concern me at all. We still have a basketball program, still play in the best conference in America. Memorial is still there, and as long as there's a ball, we're gonna be playing.
VM: But you were saying that you guys are so close, you might not mix in with the students quite as much. Do you think this will change that, or do you think it really won't change much at all?
Russell: I think it will give us the opportunity to interact with students more. Basketball does take a lot of our time. It's a very demanding sport. It's a bottom-line world, and we have to do whatever it takes to win games. We still go to class. We still participate in activities when we have time. But sometimes when you come back from practice, you're just tired, and you have to go to sleep. You're not going to be able to do all the things normal students can do. You have practice, weights and conditioning, and it's just not feasible for you sometimes. This blending in with the students should help us, and it should open the eyes of the students to what we go through. It'll let them see how much hard work and effort we put in, in order to play basketball.
VM: So maybe they're a little more encouraged to be there when you play?