Remembering Cazzie Russell

Gatinho —  November 25, 2009

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“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 would be a precursor to guys like the Piston’s Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, and we’ve seen the boost guys like Eddie House can give their team.

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.”

Gatinho

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9 responses to Remembering Cazzie Russell

  1. Man, before seeing that photo I had no idea how long Kobe’s been in the league!

  2. Since the only Russel I knew was a Celtic, the text had me confused a couple times ;)

    Good read since I’m not really familiar with pre-Magic Lakers…

  3. Cazzie was an amazing shooter. Just to add to this, he was 6-6 and played SF. During the 1971-72 Laker championship season (I know I’m dating myself, but I look younger…really…) when Cazzie played for the Warriors, I watched him set up for a 20-foot jumper from the right baseline. Jerry West, who was 6-3, came out of nowhere and blocked the shot as he went flying out of bounds beyond the baseline. Unfortunately, the ball went right back to Cazzie, who rebounded the ball right in his tracks and calmly shot and made that 20-foot jumper.

    This illustrates two things: (1) it takes a really confident shooter to do that after you’ve been blocked by a “little” guard, and (2) West was amazing. He had loooong arms for a 6-3 guy and underrated jumping ability.

    The guy the Pistons chose as their 1st pick after they “lost” the coin toss to the Knicks ended up having a much better NBA career than Cazzie, a Hall of Fame career in fact, and now he’s Detroit’s mayor.

  4. BTW, Samy, thanks for the Onion link in the last thread. My stomach is still aching from all that laughing.

  5. Many thought Elgin would be the end of the 6’6″ forward…

    Thanks for sharing…

  6. Great post! I had never heard of Cazzie.

  7. Wow — terrific ! Cazzie !!

    I was a young boy in the Cazzie Russell days, but boy I sure liked him.

    I don’t remember specifics and was way too young to understand the game in any complexity at all, but I still smile to myself when I think about him.

    Thanks to this post, I now know why.

  8. Great post regarding the Lakers of the olden days… I really like posts like these.

    Hopefully later on in life, we may be able to write stuff like these also about the Lakers of our current generation who were absolutely talented and beloved, but possibly might get forgotten as time goes along. Let’s say.. like Ariza, or Fisher…. or Luke even.

    Our current generation owes it the future ones to pass on our fondest memories of our favorite Lakers with the teams we grew up with to them, just like what you guys are doing right now for us. Once again, great post.

  9. Sorry for the brief technical problems with this post, we are trying to correct.