Interview Conducted 10/21/2008
Few athletes can lay claim to having an arena or stadium affectionately named in their honor. Cazzie Russell is one of them.
A legendary basketball prodigy from Chicago’s Southside, Russell arrived onto the city’s basketball scene when he led Carver High School’s Junior Varsity program to the Chicago city JV Title in 1960.
By his senior year, Russell paced Carver High School to the Chicago city title in 1962, averaging over 25 points a game.
As one of the most coveted senior prospects in the country, Russell received offers from over 50 college basketball programs. He narrowed his choices to UCLA, Marquette, Cincinnati, and Michigan.
Cincinnati sent Oscar Robertson, by then an NBA star with the Cincinnati Royals, to Carver High School to visit with Russell.
RUSSELL: “I had a tough decision because Oscar Robertson came to my high school. I idolized the way he played of course because we were the same size.”
Russell visited Michigan in the spring and developed a friendship with his tour guide, freshman Bill Buntin.
RUSSELL: “I was comfortable with Bill Buntin who was my host. As a young player coming out of high school, it was important to feel comfortable with [another] guy being from a predominantly black area.”
Russell ultimately chose Michigan because the basketball program was in a rebuilding stage.
RUSSELL: “It was basically a football school, so there probably wouldn’t be a lot of pressure. That was one of my major decisions.”
Russell led Michigan to three Big 10 titles, averaging 27.1 points per game in his career. He was a three-time AP All American.
The Wolverines made it to the NCAA Finals against UCLA in 1965 behind the tandem of Buntin and Russell, but ultimately lost 91-80. Russell scored 28 points in the game.
The following season, Russell was named AP College Basketball Player of the Year. He averaged 30.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
During Russell’s three years, tickets to Michigan games at Yost Field House, were difficult to obtain. Yost Field House, which was a small multi-purpose gymnasium built in 1923, could not accommodate the crowds who wanted to see Russell play.
Michigan’s athletic program decided to break ground on Crisler Arena in 1965, which holds over twice as many fans as Yost Field House. It opened two seasons after Russell finished his career at Michigan. The Arena is unofficially referred to by Wolverine fans as “The House That Cazzie Built.”
The 1966 NBA Draft was the first year that the league did away with their prior system of territorial picks, which allowed franchises to forfeit their draft pick so they could select a local player to boost attendance.
Instead, the teams with the worst record in each conference had a coin flip to determine who would have first choice.
RUSSELL: “It was a coin toss between the Pistons and the Knicks, Dave Debusschere [then a Piston] called tails and it fell on heads. New York got the first pick.”
The Knicks selected Cazzie Russell with the first overall pick.
The 1966 NBA Draft was hardly a spectacle like today. No tailor-made suits, no television cameras, and no Green Room. In fact, there was no meeting place for draftees.
RUSSELL: “I heard the coin toss on the phone, and that was about it. New York won it. There was no platform, no dressing up, and no hats and suits.”
Though some athletes find the city of New York as an overwhelming fishbowl, Russell loved it right away. He refers to it as “The Mecca of Basketball.”
RUSSELL: “I thought it was great. The people were very knowledgeable about the game, of course the newspaper coverage was something to behold, and there was Madison Square Garden. I got my first taste of it when Michigan played Princeton and there was 19,500 people and I was in awe. Now here I was to be blessed to play pro in New York to make a living.”
Russell played five seasons in New York. As an integral player off the bench averaging 11.5 points per game, he won an NBA World Championship as a reserve for the 1969-70 Knicks.
In 1971, Willis Reed was injured and Head Coach Red Holzman needed a post player. He traded Russell to the Golden State Warriors for future Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas.
RUSSELL: “I thought [Golden State] was a great match. I enjoyed playing for Al Attles. San Francisco was really my kind of area. New York can kind of close you in at times.”
“The weather was great in San Francisco. I lived down in San Mateo and golfed a little bit.”
“I enjoyed playing with Nate Thurmond, Clyde Lee, and Jeff Mullins.”
“My first game with the Warriors was on the road against the Boston Celtics and we beat them. I think I had 15 rebounds that game. Nate Thurmond gave me a hard time about those rebounds. He said, ‘You stay out of there. That’s not your job!’ I had a good rapport with those guys.”
“My only regret was I got there the year after they wore the jerseys with ‘The City’ on them.”
Russell had two of the best seasons of his career with Golden State, averaging over 20 points per game in 1971-72 and again in 1973-74. He was selected to the 1972 All Star Game.
In 1974, Russell had an acrimonious split with the Warriors when they refused to resign him to a long-term, no-cut contract.
RUSSELL: “The Warriors could have kept me. They could have allowed me to finish my career there which is what I wanted to do. I’ve been upset with the Warriors ever since.”
“They had some doubts about my value and whether or not I could get a no-cut.”
“That doesn’t even sound fair. I must be missing something here. I was considered one of the top small forwards in the game at that time, shooting the ball, running the floor, and being in good shape.”
“I was so hurt that the Warriors could have given me a no-cut contract for two to three years, So I opted for free agency. I was one of the first guys to ever go out on the free agent market.”
Russell signed with the Lakers, starting all three seasons he was with the team.
He was ready to come back for the 1977-78 season, when Head Coach Jerry West cut him one week before the season began.
RUSSELL: “I thought I had been a pretty respectable young man, no drugs, no alcohol. I always worked out and kept in good shape. I always did what I was told and thought I was very professional. I worked hard and I conditioned. You would have thought that would have accounted for something.”
“They do things in that league that really make you wonder.”
With every team’s roster essentially set, Russell had to scramble to find a team to play for. He signed with the Chicago Bulls and spent his final season there, playing in just 36 games.
Russell said that in retrospect, he should have became a full-time basketball analyst instead of coming back to play his final season.
After his NBA career, he spent time coaching in the CBA, became an analyst for CBS’s “Game of the Week” and taught school in Columbus, OH.
In 1988, he received a calling to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
RUSSELL: “I tried to run from it because I know what that entails, but it gave me a chance to rededicate my life because I had made some mistakes before that.”
Russell received counsel from his pastor in Columbus as to how to run a church, minister effectively, and make a difference in people’s lives by sharing the Gospel.
RUSSELL: “As an ordained minister, there’s a certain lifestyle, and there’s a certain way the Lord expects us to conduct ourselves. It’s one thing to talk about it and another thing to live it.”
“You make mistakes, but thanks be to God who can forgive us and we can repent of our sins. The Lord forgives us and we try to straighten up our lives then. Are we going to miss the mark? Sure. But we have an advocate on our side who is pleading our case.”
“To be saved and to be forgiven is the way it is. That’s the relationship I have with Jesus Christ who has forgiven me from the mistakes I made.”
“The one who has blessed me with the gift to play the game has also blessed me with the ministry to preach about eternal life. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
While Russell was working as a minister in 1995, he received an unexpected phone call. Richard Rowan, who was the president of Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) at the time, read a “Where Are They Now?” feature about Cazzie Russell.
Rowan talked with Bernie Casey, a mutual friend, to see if Russell might consider becoming the Head Coach of their Division III Men’s Basketball Program.
Through Casey, Rowan and the SCAD administration were able to get in touch with Russell and they invited him down to Savannah, Ga. so he could look at the school.
RUSSELL: “They told me where they’d like the program to go and what they were all about.”
“When they told my wife what kind of weather they were having in Savannah versus the kind of weather we had up in Columbus, I kind of knew they had my wife’s ear.”
“I went back to Columbus for three or four days and I prayed about it. This is where the Lord has directed me.”
Russell is now in his 13th year at SCAD, which will likely be his last. He found out the Friday before Labor Day that the school intends to disband the men’s basketball program, now a member of NAIA Division II, effective 2009-10.
Immediately before this interview, Russell met with current school president Paula S. Wallace to discuss the discontinuation of the program.
RUSSELL: “I was blessed to meet with the president, so we’ll see what happens.”
Even if this is Russell’s final year with SCAD, he looks back on his coaching career with fondness.
“It’s been great to be able to give something back to the game I enjoy.”
“I’m a professor, but I just wear shorts.”
“My Way: The Cazzie Russell Story” (Part One)
“My Way: The Cazzie Russell Story” (Part Two)
Cazzie Russell Links:
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