When he arrived at the University of Michigan in 1962, Cazzie Russell didn’t expect to become engraved in the history of Michigan Basketball. Assistant coaches James Skala and Tom Jorgensen came to his neighborhood high school in the south side of Chicago to recruit him to the Michigan basketball team, telling him he would be guaranteed to play if he came to the University.
Russell later came to the University for a visit before committing for basketball. During his visit, Coach Skala attempted to take him on a tour of Yost Arena to woo him. Skala lost the keys that day, so the pair couldn’t get into the arena. Russell committed regardless.
This weekend, Russell will be coming back in honor of the homecoming game.
“I ended up coming to Michigan, which was a real blessing because I was told by Coach Skala, he said, ‘If you come to Michigan you can play.’ I enjoyed his visit and enjoyed his honesty,” Russell said. “To come visit me and try to get me to go to Michigan was a fond memory of people taking interest in you as a person.”
Russell would go on to set the school’s record for single-season scoring as a sophomore, breaking it as a junior and again as a senior, becoming a three-time All-American and one of the greatest players in Michigan basketball history.
After his time at the University, Cazzie went on to play for five National Basketball Association teams including the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He earned an NBA championship and was named an NBA All-Star player. From his time at the University, he was the National College Player of the Year of 1966 and had his jersey number 33 retired from the team.
“I am a part of history,” Russell said. “They have blessed me by retiring my number.”
Martin Vloet, founder of Michigan Stadium Products, invited Russell back to campus in honor of the launch of his latest product, a pen made from wood from the arena where he used to play. Vloet came upon the original redwood bench seats at The Big House, which were installed in 1927, during the repurposing of the stadium in 2010. The redwood seats were going to go waste. As a fan, Vloet said he couldn’t sit by and let this happen.
“When I saw what was bound for the dump, I figured someone’s gotta save this … I felt like I had to take some of it with me,” Vloet said. “I wanted something to maintain that connection … I’ve had a passion for Michigan sports for a long time.”
He salvaged the bit of wood he could and turned it into multiple limited-edition products to sell to fans who wanted to have a piece of Michigan history with them. Once the University had licensed and authenticated the wood, Vloet turned it into pens, bottle openers, cufflinks, pendants and bracelets. He said what makes his product special is the limited amount of material to use, and therefore, an exclusive amount of product he can sell.
“It’s a piece of Michigan Stadium history, which is really nice because it’s something even donors who are giving tens of millions of dollars can’t find somewhere else,” Vloet said. “Really just something for Michigan fans to connect with and to hold on to. The material is so limited that we wanted to reflect that in a product.”
In early 2019, Vloet decided to move into basketball-inspired products to appeal to a wider Michigan fan base. He found the final few boards of the original hardwood floors of the Crisler Arena that had been installed in 1967. The Crisler Center has been dubbed “The House that Cazzie Built” after he led the team to victory at the Big Ten Conference championship three years in a row. Though he never played in the arena, Russell grew the Michigan fanbase beyond the limits of the Yost Field House, where he originally played.
“We wanted to tie it to the Crisler,” Vloet said. “There is so little of it (Yost Field House) that we wanted to try and attach it to the history of Crisler Arena, so on a whim I looked up Cazzie Russell. I wanted something that went all the way back in history, the same as the flooring did and I sent a couple of letters to Cazzie (and said) we wanted to build something on the history of the program.”
The wood floor of the original Crisler Center was salvaged and turned into a dedication wall inside of the current Crisler Center. The remaining few feet of wood saved by Vloet will be turned into 266 limited edition pens to commemorate Russell’s legacy at the University and on the team.
“I think (the pens are) a nice tribute to history,” Russell said. “I am glad and humble about that. I think I also have gotten some wood from the two arenas that have sent to me: the floor from Yost and a piece from the renovation of Crisler. When I walk in (the Crisler arena) and get on the escalator and went up there I almost cried because when you go up there and you look at that, that really reminds me of coming to Michigan in 1962.”
Russell calls himself a Michigan man and is looking forward to his return to campus.
“I am a Michigan man,” Russell said. “I went to Michigan. I am a part of history. I want to be there for the reunion … I am truly grateful for the opportunity to come back to see everyone and to be involved in the homecoming atmosphere.”
Russell discussed the story behind the famous picture of him standing in the construction site of Crisler Center. He said when the picture was taken, the team had just finished two good years for Michigan basketball and were hoping to play in the new arena senior year. Something went wrong with the roof so Russell didn’t get to play in it while at Michigan, but he did get the chance as a rookie for the Knicks.
“I took a picture in the first Crisler Arena hoping to play there,” Russell said. “ … I played in it a year later as a rookie for the Knicks … and the people were so wonderful, they gave me a five minute standing ovation; sometimes I wish I can go back and replay that because it lets you know how blessed you are to be a part of history. It really is a great feeling … to say, ‘Thank you for your years of playing and your dedication to making Michigan good.’”
Russell said Ann Arbor has changed a lot since he played. He said there used to be nothing but train tracks where the Crisler Center is located.
“I came to Michigan in 1962 when a lot of the stuff that is built now was not built,” Russell said. “I am excited about it. Ann Arbor is somewhere very special because when I look back over what has happened in and around Yost, it was nothing but train tracks over there … I’ve been blessed to be 75 where I can enjoy that and look back over it.”
LSA junior William Rieck, an avid Michigan basketball fan, appreciates Michigan Stadium Product’s mission and devotion to history.
“I think it’s awesome,” Rieck said. “Cazzie’s legacy in Ann Arbor is still felt in the program today, and repurposing Crisler’s old hardwood is a great way to remember the past and get excited for the future of Michigan Basketball.”
Vloet said the next step in the expansion of his business is the move into hockey with acquired wood benches from Yost Field House.
“I want to find some new avenues, and some people like sports, and Michigan Stadium is a temple of college football and I look forward to expanding a bit and looking to do more,” Vloet said. “I picked up the original seats from Yost, so I have two or three long bench seats.”
During Russell’s visit, he will be doing a public signing session and tailgate, in addition to reuniting with his teammates of 1964 and 1965. He said they are all now between the ages of 75 and 80.
Russel said he is very excited to meet with new basketball coach Juwan Howard and watch the Iowa game from a box on Saturday.
“I am very, very grateful God gave me a chance to play for Michigan and I got to do something to help people enjoy winning because I am a tough loser,” Russell said. “I don’t like losing. But it was a real pleasure for me to play for Michigan and I hope they feel the same way.”