Without question, the most famous basketball player who ever played at the University of Michigan and the one who had the greatest impact on the program was Cazzie Russell, the school’s only three-time All-America guard who led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten Championships in the mid 1960s and Final Four appearances in ’64 and ’65.
When you consider that between 1918 and 1962 Michigan had won just four Big Ten titles, the first three in the roaring twenties and the last in 1948, you can see that Russell put Michigan basketball on the map.
With his flamboyant moves, spectacular rebounding, and artistic dunks, Russell dominated college basketball and was selected as the consensus player of the year in his senior season when he averaged 30.8 points a game.
Nearly a half century later, Russell still holds school records for the highest career scoring average (27.1 points) and the highest scoring average for a season. (30.77 points in ’65-’66).
While Russell brought the crowds to a fever pitch with his play, based upon the huge popularity of the basketball program with its consecutive sellouts at tiny 6,500 seat Yost Fieldhouse, during the ’64-’65 season a decision was made to build a new arena.
“We got to the point where a lot of important Michigan people couldn’t get seats to the game and that’s what really triggered a new arena,” Russell’s coach Dave Strack, (who died recently) told me a few years ago.
Two years later, 13,751-seat Crisler Arena opened up a year after Russell graduated. To this day, it is still referred to the “House that Cazzie Built,” an unofficial honor that Russell has called “very humbling.”
“Cazzie had the great ability to adjust anywhere on the basketball floor and score from anywhere,” Strack told me. “We would also run him into the low post or play on the wing. He also brought great enthusiasm. I believe the first dunk I saw anybody take in competition was Cazzie at Butler. He beat his man and slammed that damn thing through. I said, ‘oh my goodness gracious what was that?’”
In his very last home game at Michigan, the Wolverines captured their third consecutive Big Ten title with a 11-3 record when Russell scored a school record 48 points in a 105-92 victory over Northwestern.
“I remember the night before I didn’t sleep well since I was getting ready to end my college career with the opportunity to win the Big Ten,” Russell told me. “But my teammates turned me loose and got me the ball.” After the game, Russell signed autographs and took pictures with his adoring fans, who would never see the Michigan legend play at Yost again.
There were high hopes that Cazzie’s fans would be able to see him play with the Detroit Pistons in Cobo Arena.
For the 1966 NBA draft, the first two picks in the draft belonged to the teams that finished last in each division with the order determined by a coin flip. So that year, the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons would rely on the fate of the flip of a coin to determine who would win the grand prize, Cazzie Russell.
The year before the Pistons had drafted Russell’s former teammate Bill Buntin, a powerful center, and they knew that if they could land Russell, the “Dynamic Duo” would pack Cobo Arena and solidify pro basketball in Detroit. (Buntin would only play one year in Detroit before dying of a heart attack in 1968 at age 26 while playing a pickup basketball game.)
I was listening to it on the phone and I heard Dave DeBusschere (Piston’s player-coach) call tails,” said Russell. “It turned out heads and I just remember this roar that went up in the background.” (the announcement was made in New York.)
Yet as it turned out, the Pistons ended up getting the better player after selecting Syracuse guard Dave Bing.
During a 12-year NBA career, that included a world championship with the Knicks in 1970, Russell averaged 15.1 points per game with New York, Golden State, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Chicago Bulls.
Meanwhile, Bing, who eventually became the Mayor of Detroit after a successful business career, won the Rookie of the Year in his first season, was selected to three All-NBA Teams, seven All Star games, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame while being named one of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History” as part of the league’s 50th Anniversary in 1996.
Unlike Russell however, Detroit’s first African-American basketball superstar never won a world championship.
But with Cazzie Russell’s legacy at Michigan intact and Dave Bing’s Hall of Fame playing career, Southeastern Michigan won on all accounts.