Jim Russell's life story might be playing at a theatre near you someday.
A native of Vietnam, Russell spent the first nine years of his life in a country ravaged by war. He was born a twin to a single mother who couldn't afford two children so she gave him up for adoption. At the age of 5, he was taught to carry a gun to protect his family.
At age 9, Russell and his new family immigrated to the United States. In America, he immersed himself in different athletic activities but basketball was the sport that became part of his fabric. Standing 5-foot-6 in his sneakers, it became abundantly clear to Russell that his future in basketball was probably as a coach.
Gerald Russell, his deceased adopted father, would be proud of the coach that his son has become. On Friday, March 3, in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference/Region 13 men's basketball tournament at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Russell won the 400th game of his 19-year career as head coach of the Central Lakes College Raiders. Russell attained the milestone when the Raiders beat St. Cloud Technical College 99-97 in two overtimes in the quarterfinals.
"It didn't hit me until (Sunday) night, when I put my head down and said, 'Wow,'" Russell said Monday. "After receiving tons of texts and emails, I didn't realize what an accomplishment that was.
"My father taught me a long time ago to find something you love and get paid for it. I think I've been fortunate that I found that and I wish he was here to see it."
After the Raiders finished third in the tournament, Russell's career mark stands at 401-160 (.715 winning percentage). He has never had a losing season at CLC and is the program's winningest coach ever. His teams have played in 18 state tournaments, won seven division titles and played in two NJCAA Division III National Tournaments.
Russell, 52, has been named Region 13 Basketball Coach of the year twice and MCAC Basketball Coach of the Year five times.
Why continue to coach at a 2-year school where there are no athletic scholarships and the turnover in student-athletes is a constant? Russell, who's also the Raiders' golf coach and director of athletics, believes he just fits at CLC.
"The bottom line is I love what I do," he said. "I feel very comfortable giving kids direction in their lives. Somebody gave me an opportunity to coach, I'm giving these kids an opportunity to get their education and play ball."
Throughout his basketball journey, Russell has had mentors for whom he is grateful. His reaction to 400 wins is "grateful, surprised and shocked" but his journey is more than about numbers. One of his career highlights was having his son, Jacob, play for him this season.
"One of the biggest things is just remembering the things that you started, where it's gone, who's been around, who's gone through the system," Russell said. "People always told me you should surround yourself with good people. I'm fortunate to have done that, to have that support around me here."
Russell has built CLC basketball into a destination program. He realizes it doesn't work out for every player here but he strives to give young men an experience they will treasure.
"To do that, you have to provide some pretty good values, core values," Russell said. "You want kids to be successful, you want them to accomplish what they want to do when they get here, and I think we've done that. We've laid the groundwork for them, taught them what this school is about, what this community is about. I think people will help you if you work at it and I think the kids realize that."
Russell has considered opportunities to move on but the lakes area has become home for he and his wife, Nancy, sons Jacob and Michael, and daughter Courtney.
"I was always told a job's open probably because it's not a perfect job," Russell said, "so you've got to make it perfect. Look at all the changes we've had in administration, but we're still here. The values are set, the core is set, and I'm still here.
"I haven't changed. As a matter of fact, I probably work harder because the challenges have become more difficult, but I think the bottom line is the kids. That's what I love the most is the kids."
CLC's Jenkins MVP
The Raiders' Keonte' Jenkins was named the MCAC's most valuable player this season. The 6-foot, 135-pound freshman from Horizon High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., averaged 22 points a game, which led the Northern Division, and ranked 12th in the nation in Division III.
Jenkins, who arrived at CLC thanks to Gary Arrington, a former Raider player, transferred to CLC from Division I Delaware State University and became eligible after Christmas. In 21 games, 19 starts, he shot 44 percent from 2-point, 34 percent from 3-point and averaged 82 percent at the foul line. He led the division in scoring and 3-point shooting (38-for-100).
Jenkins is the first player Russell has coached who has won the award.
"To me it's an unbelievable accomplishment," Russell said. "He's a very gifted kid, a very talented kid. ... He's grown to become not only a team player but to accept his role. He had to give up a lot of what he's capable of doing.
"To be recognized by all the coaches who voted for him, that says a lot about his character. But it also says a lot about his teammates."
Story originally appeared in Brainerd Dispach, 3/6/17