There were hot dogs, coleslaw and smiles on children’s faces as they posed for pictures with the teammates of their fathers and grandfathers. And for a few hours Saturday, the Michigan men’s basketball team was able to envelope itself in the stories and traditions that compose its history.
In a tent outside Crisler Arena prior to the football game, Wolverines past and present were brought together for the 2002 Michigan basketball reunion.
In an effort which began last summer, coach Tommy Amaker and his staff have worked hard to reestablish the tradition of the Michigan basketball program. An integral part to this rebuilding process has been inviting former players back to Ann Arbor for what Amaker hopes will become an annual event. In so doing, he hopes to create a more cohesive family atmosphere around the program.
“You have guys from the past who built the tradition who felt disconnected, and this welcomes them back into the family,” said Tim McCormick, who played at Michigan from 1981 to 1984. “It also shows the young players that there is a lineage and a history and it is their job to build it back to where it was.”
In addition to inviting former players back to Ann Arbor, Amaker has done several things to restore the unity and heritage to the Wolverines, including renovating the team lockerroom, restoring the uniforms to the early ’90s fashion, making championship banners more visible and establishing a basketball office in Weidenbach Hall.
Although many former players, including former “Fab Five” member Jimmy King, were seen at Crisler last year, the events of September 11th forced the cancellation of the reunion, which was to be held the weekend following the attacks. Thus, many alumni would have to wait a year until they were able to get back to Ann Arbor and meet Amaker in person.
“There is a family atmosphere here today and you realize that basketball at Michigan lasts a lot longer than four years,” said 1986 graduate and current assistant coach at Saginaw Valley, Butch Wade, of coming back to Michigan. “Its not just about basketball, it is about becoming part of a family.”
But some of the most prominent members of the Michigan family were nowhere to be found on Saturday, most noteably, members of the “Fab Five” and the other current NBA players.
While Amaker spent several years in a tradition-entrenched program at Duke, the idea of holding a reunion was not imported to Michigan from Duke. Rather, it is an idea that he and his staff came up with themselves and have developed over the past year. The event, he said, was something he wants to make distinctive to Michigan.
“No, there was nothing like this (at Duke),” Amaker said. “It was our concept, and it was something that we wanted to start here with a little tradition that we are trying to pull together.”
One of the most important aspects of the weekend for Amaker was getting his players to understand the importance of the tradition at Michigan and allow them to meet some of the people who formed that tradition. In addition to meeting former players, Amaker hoped that his young team also would be able to soak up the experience and sage advice that former players had to offer.
None of these players stood out more in the eyes of the Wolverines than the godfather of Michigan basketball, Cazzie Russell, whose No. 33 jersey is the only number retired by Michigan. Russell also led Michigan to 65 victories and seven NCAA Tournament wins in his three years with the Wolverines. He seemed to be the guest of honor, constantly having a group of people surrounding him and vying for his attention. Amaker even said that several players tugged on his shirt asking their coach to introduce them to the former Wolverine great.
“I think to have them here is great and they are all very excited to meet Cazzie Russell,” Amaker said. “I think they were just in awe because they know that there is only one number hanging in the rafters in Crisler and that is Cazzie’s jersey. So for them to get a chance to meet him was very special for everyone.”
Said Dommanic Ingerson of meeting the three-time All-American: “It is something you cherish and remember for the rest of your life. It is something that really gives me inspiration to play hard and be successful at the University.”
But the players were not the only ones impressed with the people they met this weekend. Russell was amazed at the size of all of the players he met at the reunion – especially the freshmen. But he did warn them that size must be taken advantage of, and stressed the importance of playing a team game of basketball.
“I may have scored a lot, but I wanted my teammates to understand that they were just as much a part of it because I couldn’t pass the ball to myself,” Russell said. “It works both ways and hopefully these young players will pick that up – that you can not do it by yourself. If you don’t work together and get along together, you are wasting your time because basketball is a very sensitive machine.
“Hopefully we can get that across to these guys.”
Amaker believes that if his players heed Russel’s advice, his Wolverines will start establishing successful traditions of their own on the court.