“To be able to take over a game and be influential is a great feeling.”
Dubbed “Mr. Two-two-two-points” by legendary Times columnist Jim Murray , Cazzie Russell was a singular talent with a unique set of skills. Cazzie would make his name as a 6th man with a knack for coming in and filling it up. A streak shooter and crowd favorite, his NBA and basketball career would take him through many cities, one of which was the City of Angels.
As a standout at University of Michigan, he led the team to two Final Four appearances and was such a draw for the football-loving fans that the University built a new building. Crisler Arena, dubbed “The House that Cazzie Built” even though he would never play there, would signal the arrival of basketball at a historically football dominated school.
Yet another infamous NBA draft coin toss would decide the first pick in 1966. The flamboyance and spectacle of today’s draft day were not a part of Cazzie’s sojourn.
“I was standing by a payphone listening to the Knicks and the Pistons flip a coin.”
Cazzie would spend the first 4 years of his career with the Knicks, winning a championship in the year that Lakers felt that they might finally break their streak of despair that would define the ‘60’s. To Laker fans, the infamous “Willis Reed Game”, another 7th game heartbreak defeat, would add yet another scar to their so-close-yet-so-far fan experience. Cazzie wasn’t a deciding factor in that game, though he averaged 10 points those playoffs, due to Walt Frazier, the game’s true hero with 36 points and 19 assists, dominating the game. Russell would mark only one field goal presumably stuck to the bench as Frazier would play almost the whole way.
But even though Russell was a player on the rise, the Knicks would trade Russell to the then San Francisco Warriors the following season.
”Cazzie could score on anybody and from all over the floor,” former Warriors teammate Jim Barnett said. ‘‘I never saw anybody shoot the ball with less trajectory yet have so much success with it. It was the most amazing thing. He had a very flat shot but it was the softest shot on the rim I’ve ever seen. He always got bounces.”
Russell would see some more consistent time and contributions and enjoy the new surroundings of Northern California. He would make his only All-Star appearance while playing in the Bay but would be miffed by the Warriors failure to offer him a “no cut” that was becoming so coveted by the nascent free agency that was beginning to define the NBA.
“I was so hurt that the Warriors could have given me a no-cut contract for two to three years, So I opted for free agency. I was one of the first guys to ever go out on the free agent market.”
He would sign with the Lakers and find a team in transition. It was the mid ‘70’s and the shine from the ’72 team’s historic run had dimmed as Cazzie was signed and proceeded to get injured, watching the team have one of it’s worst seasons at 30-52 and seeing them fail to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
Not only was Russell one of the first to test free agent waters, but his ankle injury would see him make a shift in how he ate and trained, another idea that was ahead of it’s time.”
“He treats his body as if it were something that might leave him if he took it for granted.”
But a new arrival in the form of Kareem the following season would mean the future was bright for Laker fans.
“When Cazzie is hot, he could score from a locked room.”
Cazzie would play three seasons as a Laker, averaging 14.5 pts in 26.8 minutes. His stats would sometimes reflect the production of a player that played triple the minutes. As he checked into a game, the Forum faithful would slide forward on their seats.
“Some nights Cazzie throws in so many points so fast the scoreboard is two baskets behind.”
When Cazzie came in the shots would go up. And this was before the days of the grind-it-out-every-possession-is-precious NBA. It was a fast-paced game and when Cazzie came in the pace quickened.
Cazzie was hailed for 6th man abilities and would define a new type of reserve. He wasn’t in the game to slow the opposing teams top scorer a la Michael Cooper. He came in to “punch a hole in the basket quickly, so that the temporary logjam of air balls isn’t terminal. Cazzie has to come in and get the team out of handcuffs.”
If Coach Sharman wanted offense in he brought in Cazzie. If he wanted defense, he brought in an energetic reserve named Pat Riley or even possibly young guard Stu Lantz.
Cazzie Russell, a pivotal part of the NBA’s history, and a Laker to remember.
“I feel good about what Cazzie has done. I feel good about myself physically and mentally. I feel good that I got to do something I enjoy and get paid for it. I got a scholarship for it, an education.”