Feb. 17, 2013
By Morgan Bailey, U-M Public and Media Relations
Hanging in the rafters of the newly dedicated Crisler Center, with an individual spotlight on each one, are banners that represent some of Michigan basketball's proudest moments; Big Ten championships dating back to 1921, NIT championships, NCAA Final Four appearances, and of course, the 1989 national championship. Most notable about the Big Ten championship banners are the three consecutive years from 1964-1966, when the Wolverines remained at the top of the league, led by 1966 National Player of the Year Cazzie Russell.
In his three years as a Wolverine, Russell practically wrote the Michigan record book in any way he could; his 30.8 ppg average in the 1966 season remains the highest scoring average at Michigan, as does his 27.1 ppg career average. In just three years, Russell set a new record for total career points with 2,163, breaking the previous record held by Bill Buntin by 439 points. Described as having "great hands and fine shooting skills," Russell played any position on the court and was the pivotal member of the consecutive Big Ten champion teams that also went on to the NCAA Final Four in 1964 and 1965.
The excitement that rose around Michigan basketball while Russell was a Wolverine inspired then-athletic director Fritz Crisler to construct Crisler Arena, commonly referred to as "The House that Cazzie Built." Prior to the opening of Crisler Arena in 1967, the Wolverines played on a removable floor in Yost Field House. Forty-six years after the original opening of Crisler Arena, the basketball facility has been renovated into one of the premier facilities in the nation. With the board of regents in attendance at the game against Penn State Sunday afternoon (Feb. 17), along with University president Mary Sue Coleman, current athletic director Dave Brandon, and perhaps most importantly, Cazzie Russell himself, the University of Michigan proudly rededicated the new and improved Crisler Center.
"It is a real blessing to be back," Russell said Friday night (Feb. 15) at one of the Return to Crisler event. "It's really humbling. My mind starts to wander back on the years when I played at Yost Field House, and you see what's happening now -- what a tremendous transformation. If you look at what the players have access to now, with nutrition and conditioning, the sky is the limit for them."
As fans enter Crisler Center in the northeast entrance and ride the escalator up to the concourse level, they are greeted by a wall dedicated to Russell. With a large picture of the National Player of the Year extending his arms wide with a basketball in each hand, standing in the construction site of the soon-to-be Crisler Arena, the wall proudly commemorates the house that Cazzie built.
"It is such a great feeling to see the picture that I took back in 1965 standing in the middle of Crisler Arena," Russell humbly remarked. "To have them put that picture on the wall, it's a real blessing and really humbling. There was a lot that went behind that picture -- there were a lot of guys that helped build this arena. I don't have the words to describe what I felt riding up the escalator and seeing that wall. All I can say is that I thank God that I played with a lot of great guys that were able to win. That's what it was all about -- it's about teamwork and winning, and that was great."
"I had some great teammates," Russell continued. "We won the Big Ten title in 1964, '65 and '66; we went to the Final Four two out of my three years. There are some great memories, and I just feel very blessed. I thank God for the gift of being able to play and to play with a lot of great guys, and then to come back and have it be remembered, it's a real honor."
After his historic career as a Michigan Wolverine, Russell was drafted as the No. 1 overall selection in the 1966 NBA draft. He played twelve seasons in the NBA and was a member of the 1970 NBA champion New York Knicks and played in the 1972 NBA All-Star Game while he was with the Golden State Warriors. Among the Big Ten championship and NCAA Final Four banners in the rafters of Crisler, are five jerseys that have forever been retired into Michigan basketball history. Cazzie Russell's very own No. 33 jersey, however, was the only number to be officially retired in 1989. Fittingly enough, 1989 was the year that the Wolverines won their very first national championship, led by forward Glen Rice, whose No. 41 jersey hangs proudly in the air with Russell's as well.
Glen Rice was a member of the Michigan men's basketball team from 1985-1989, and he was a starter for three of those four years. If Cazzie Russell wrote the Michigan record book in the 1960s, Rice rewrote it in the 1980s. Rice remains at the top of Wolverine history with career points (2,442), single-season points (949, 1988-89) and single-season three-point field goal percentage (51.6 percent, 1988-89), along with several others. Most notably, Rice scored 184 total points in the 1989 NCAA Tournament when the Wolverines won the national title. His scoring performance in that tournament remains an NCAA record, and it earned Rice the tournament's Most Outstanding Player accolades.
Also in attendance for the dedication festivities on Sunday (Feb. 17), Rice commented on the newly renovated facilities. "I'm looking at Crisler Center now, and it is unlike any place I have been in before. So many amazing things have been done to this place -- it still feels like home, but everything looks new."
Every day as the players walk into the locker room, they pass a quote by Rice painted on the wall; "We all had faith. We all believed we were put here for a reason -- to accomplish something special," Rice historically said after winning the 1989 national championship. Rice saw his inspirational words for the first time this week and was overcome with emotion.
"I fought hard to keep tears back, it was very emotional," Rice commented. "It brought me back to when we were en route to win the championship; to see those inspiring words on the wall like that, I can't put it into words."
Displaying the humbling qualities of a true Michigan Man, Rice laughed when asked about his legacy at the university. "I've never been the one to take credit for just me," Rice remarked. "My legacy was built on my teammates; my teammates helped build who I was as a basketball player and as a man. It was a blessing to be with those guys. My legacy was Michigan, and anything that you think Michigan is about, that's what I try to embody in myself."
Both Russell and Rice have left their legacy as a University of Michigan Wolverine, and the success of the program can be traced back to those two pivotal players.