With the band playing “The Victors” behind him and the cheer and dance teams running across the court to get in place for the Michigan men’s basketball team’s pregame introductions, Cazzie Russell walked out on to the court behind the Armstrong State players.
For the first time in his life, Russell was on the opposing side at a Michigan basketball game. It was an unfamiliar position for the Pirate associate head coach to be in during Michigan’s 77-49 exhibition win over their Division II foe.
This was a man whose jersey is retired in the Crisler Center’s rafters, a man who is No. 5 on Michigan’s all-time scoring list, and most importantly the namesake in the title, “The House that Cazzie Built,” a moniker for the Wolverines’ current home.
But being on Michigan’s opposing bench wasn’t the only unfamiliar position Russell was in — the whole experience itself was unfamiliar, a peculiar place for one of the most-acclaimed Wolverines to be in.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Russell said. “This is uncharted waters.”
Standing at midcourt was the man that made the construction of the Crisler Center possible, and it was completely new territory.
Russell played at Michigan until 1966, one year before the Crisler Center was built. He plied his talent in the Yost Field House, which is now Yost Ice Arena.
But Russell, of all the Michigan legends, had the biggest influence in the construction of the Crisler Center. And he almost didn’t come to Ann Arbor in the first place.
When Russell was picking colleges, it came down to three schools: UCLA, Cincinnati and Michigan.
“Oscar Robertson comes to my high school and says, ‘Well you got to go Cincinnati’, so I go up and take a visit, and then I visited John Wooden and UCLA,” Russell said. “Now, I had to narrow down my chances, and I’m wondering why I hadn’t heard anything from Michigan?
“So I prayed about it, and the Lord said to call Michigan.”
That call was just what Russell needed, and it turned out that Michigan had thought Russell lost interest. After the two sides reconciled, the Wolverines told him to come visit Ann Arbor. After a long visit and talk with then-Michigan coach Dave Strack, the rest was history.
Russell led the Wolverines to three-straight Big Ten titles, along with three-straight NCAA Tournament berths, placing third in 1963. Russell also garnered Player of the Year honors in 1966, which propelled him into the NBA Draft, where he was selected No. 1 overall by the New York Knicks.
The impact Russell has had is evident to most Michigan fans. But for Russell’s players at Armstrong State, visiting the arena where their coach’s jersey is retired contextualized just how great of player Russell was. It gave the Pirate associate head coach some validation.
“Kids hear about you,” Russell said. “It’s been 54 years since I came to Michigan, and they hear about you, and that holds them. Now you got to give them something that makes them know that you know what the hell you’re talking about.
“For them to see where it all started for me is a great feeling.”
Inside “The House That Cazzie Russell Built” on Friday night, Russell was given the floor before the game to say a few words to the Crisler crowd.
Russell used the time to ask the fans permission to let him be on the opposing sideline.
“When I left, I told myself I would never play or coach against Michigan,” Russell said. “Tonight, just give me this one game."
And while Russell’s one game ended with 28-point loss to the home team, Russell was just happy to be back.
“To be blessed to come here and play in 1962, and to be alive to come back here in 2016 to see that transformation,” Russell said, “all I can do is thank God for this gift.”