Cazzie Russell and the next steps of the Michigan basketball program

Sunday, October 6, 2019 - 8:01pm

Cazzie Russell, who led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten titles and two Final Fours in the 1960s, signed autographs in Ann Arbor for fans on Friday.

Cazzie Russell, who led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten titles and two Final Fours in the 1960s, signed autographs in Ann Arbor for fans on Friday. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

As he sat there embracing both old and new fans of Michigan basketball, Cazzie Russell didn’t miss a beat. Despite not having donned a Michigan jersey since 1966, the Wolverine legend’s presence loomed just as large.

Signing autographs as part of the release of a line of Michigan basketball memorabilia on Friday, Russell sat there as a beaming fan regaled him with a tale of his first Michigan basketball game — a rousing affair in which the legendary guard dropped 48 points. 

Next up was a woman who clung onto a framed old newspaper article portraying Russell headlining that year’s All-America team — a squad that included current Miami Heat President and NBA legend Pat Riley. 

Russell, sitting at a table with a 20-foot photo of himself standing in the midst of a construction site that would become Crisler Center in the background, was as chipper as ever. His presence in Ann Arbor harkens back to the early chapters of the basketball program’s successes and calls for a moment of reflection before it’s set to enter a new era — one marked by freshly minted head coach Juwan Howard.

Recognizing the potential impact a visit with a program legend could have on his team, Howard brought Russell in to talk with his players last week. While Russell’s drop-in may have been more of a formality, a nod to the two-time consensus first team All-American player, there is no doubt his mere presence elicited ideas of the heights to which a Michigan player can soar.

After all, this is the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft, the 1966 College Player of the Year and the man who led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten titles and two Final Fours. When the Crisler Center construction was eventually completed, they dubbed the new stadium, “The house that Cazzie built.”

With that pedigree, it’s unsurprising that Russell has kept up with the program.

Following the team since his departure to the NBA in 1966, Russell was quick to share his thoughts on the decision to bring on Howard to stand at the helm. And judging by his questions, Russell is just anxious as the rest of us to see what Howard’s squad is going to look like.

“I think that it’s a great hire for several reasons,” Russell told The Daily. “It always was a dream of mine to come back and coach at my alma mater. It’s gotta be a great feeling, having played here.

“He seems to be well aware, very cognizant of where he is in terms of this program. So it’s good. I think he’s going to do well, of course we need to wait and see what type of game would he like to play. Up-tempo, how his team’s gonna be defensively? Will they do a good job of implementing some inside and outside stuff and not just specifically one facet?”

Perhaps Russell’s time with the program could lend some answers to his own questions. But he’ll be the first one to tell you that that was then, and this, as it goes, is now.

It may be an understatement to say that college basketball and the Michigan program specifically have changed since the ‘60’s. The three-point line wasn’t even added to NCAA courts until 1986.

“I drove around to look at even the great improvement down by the athletic department,” Russell said. “I mean, that’s a city within a city. A lot of things have changed, and you look at the impact of the changing of time, and what things are necessary to keep up with the program and keep up with other teams. 

“There’s a lot of things you have to do to stay competitive, so I get a chance to look at all this. I mean your own catering service. I mean, man, please!”

Now, all Russell can do is sit back and see the manifestation of the blood, sweat and tears he left in Ann Arbor.

After the signing session, Russell got up and went over to a reunion dinner with the remaining members of that 1966 team — a tradition upheld since their graduation. And among the shared laughs, food and drink, it was inevitable that the conversation turned to legacy and how those players have left their mark on Michigan history.

“It’s fascinating to me to see this progression and then to think back on 1962 up until now, but you’re part of that history,” Russell said. “You look at everything, and maybe, just maybe, you might’ve had an impact or influence on things getting started in this direction. So you think back about how blessed you are to reflect about this history. 

“No matter what anybody says, they can’t take away from the fact that you were a part of this history.”