Cazzie Was Right Man at Right Time for U-M

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Here's an interesting question: If the Detroit Pistons had won the flip to see who got first pick in the 1966 NBA Draft, who would be the mayor of Detroit today?

I know that sounds a little out of the box, but that's the first thing that went through my mind Sunday when I read an article about Cazzie Russell's induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

The short story is that the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks had to flip a coin for the right to pick first in the '66 draft. The Knicks won and selected Russell. The Pistons had the No. 2 pick and drafted Dave Bing, a guard out of Syracuse.

The longer story is more convoluted.

Professional basketball was relatively new in Detroit. Fred Zollner brought the Pistons here from Ft. Wayne, Ind., in 1957, and the sport was trying to find it niche in the Motor City. College basketball, on the other hand, was just starting to realize the impact of television and racial equality.

At the time, Wolverine head coach Dave Strack already had the makings of a pretty good team, but he knew Cazzie could make this team a national contender. He made an all-out push to get Russell signed.

Today, head coach John Beilein would bring a young Cazzie and his family on campus. He would proudly show off the new Player Development Center, let them see the beautiful changes inside Crisler Arena and talk about Michigan's plans for expansion with a smile on his face.

Strack wasn't as proud of his facilities. He brought Russell in from Chicago's Carver High School, showed him Michigan Stadium then took him over to Yost Field House. He told him the facility was locked and he couldn't find his keys. Russell never did see the inside of Yost until he started as a student. It was a great move on Strack's part.

In 1963, Loyola of Chicago won the national championship with a thrilling 60-58 victory over Cincinnati. At the time, it was the largest TV viewing audience to watch a collegiate game. Loyola also had four black players starting. In the semis, the governor of the state of Mississippi and its state police tried to stop the game from being played due to an unwritten rule disallowing teams from Mississippi to play an integrated team.

As for the professional game, player recognition was important. The NBA used what was then called "territorial rights." If an individual played in or near the pro team's location, the NBA team could request the territorial pick from the league office. They wanted the same players who had made their mark at the university to make their mark with the local pro team.

In 1965, the Detroit Pistons used their territorial selection to take another U-M star, Bill Buntin.

Of course, the NBA would not allow a team to have that luxury two years in a row. But with Russell now available in 1966, the Pistons requested to have the pick for a second consecutive year. The NBA denied the request, and thus the flip of the coin took place with the Knicks getting Russell.

The Detroit Pistons and local Michigan fans were not happy. For three years, the name Cazzie Russell was synonymous with basketball in southeast Michigan.

In many ways, Cazzie was the Earvin "Magic" Johnson of his time. He was the player who could do everything -- he was a playmaker, he could shoot, hit the boards, handle the ball -- and he was 6-5. At that time, there were few if any players who could do everything Cazzie was capable of performing.

It was easy to see why Detroit needed his brand.

This Michigan team led by Russell was the first TV basketball team of its time. WKBD-TV, channel 50, was the first all-sports station in the city and Wolverine sports were one of its mainstays.

Each game was an event at Yost and on TV. The fans couldn't wait to watch the Wolverines even before tipoff. The Wolverines would run out of the tunnel, head straight for the basketball, and slam dunk as many times as they possibly could to fire up the crowd.

What Cazzie did for Michigan basketball is truly amazing. He put the Wolverines on the national map and laid the foundation for years to come.

The induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame is a testament to his skills and popularity. He was an amazing basketball player and is still an amazing Michigan Man.

Congratulations, Cazzie!

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