Cazzie Russell welcomed back to his house

Marissa McClain/Daily
Former Michigan star Cazzie Russell visited the new-look Crisler Center last weekend. Buy this photo

By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 9, 2012

There was once a time when Michigan Stadium seated a meager 101,001 fans.

Back then, the Michigan basketball team played its home games at Yost Field House — since converted to the ice arena — which offered all the glamour and charm of playing in what was essentially a barn with a hardwood floor.

But in 1964, a 6-foot-6 Chicago native named Cazzie Russell took Ann Arbor by storm and forever changed the basketball culture at Michigan. He set the program’s single-season scoring record in each of his three seasons with the Wolverines, earning All-American status twice and leading the program to three Big Ten Championships and two Final Four appearances.

Russell’s collegiate résumé was nearly perfect, but the home of Michigan basketball was not. With growing expectations for the program came a growing fan base, one that Yost Field House could no longer feasibly sustain.

On Dec. 2, 1967, the Athletic Department opened the doors to the brand new Crisler Arena, dedicated to former Michigan football coach and long-time Athletic Director Herbert “Fritz” Crisler. The arena comfortably held 13,684 fans, and it justifiably became known as — at least in Ann Arbor — “The House that Cazzie Built.”

Though Russell would never play on the hardwood that he inspired — he was chosen as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1966 NBA Draft and was already playing for the New York Knicks when it opened — his impact on the program was tremendous.

“When Cazzie Russell’s being recognized for what he did for this program — because keep in mind we’re talking about ‘The House that Cazzie Built’ — when I heard that he was being inducted to the college basketball Hall of Fame, we had to be there,” said Athletic Director Dave Brandon on Sunday of Russell’s February 2011 induction. “He’s an outstanding guy. … Not just a terrific, iconic, legendary basketball player, but just a wonderful man.

“I can’t wait to reintroduce him today. I think people will get a goosebump moment when they see No. 33 hanging in the rafters and he’s standing at center court.”

During a media break in the first half of Michigan’s victory over Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, the PA invited Russell onto the court, where he led the crowd in a couple rounds of “The Victors.” It was a major step in Brandon’s initiative to reconnect with former Michigan athletes.

And when Russell came back, he brought with him a wealth of postseason experience at the college and professional levels. He won the Big Ten Championship every season he wore a maize and blue uniform, and he led his 1965 team all the way to the NCAA Championship, edging Vanderbilt by two points in the Final Four before losing to John Wooden’s UCLA in the title game.

With the Knicks, he won an NBA title in the 1969-70 season, playing an integral role filling in for an injured Willis Reed and becoming known as one of the league's best sixth men.

For a program that’s searching for a return to national prominence, Russell could serve as the ultimate ambassador. Before the contest with Wisconsin on Sunday, he had an opportunity to talk to the team and impart his winning wisdom.

“The formula to winning on a consistent basis is to keep relying and trusting in your teammates — embrace what they bring to the table,” he said. “But don’t let anybody come in your house and play harder than you play and beat you.

“Don’t let anybody come between you and your teammates.”

Surely, the message of that speech has a familiar tone for Michigan fans who remember former football coach Bo Schembechler’s famous emphasis on “the team, the team, the team.”

And though Crisler Arena (recently renamed Crisler Center with the opening of the adjacent Player Development Center) is currently undergoing a major renovation, the Michigan basketball program and its fans seem enthusiastic about finally embracing its colorful history.