Cazzie Russell: Can He Make It in the Pros?

[Today, most basketball history types credit the ABA with inflating pro basketball salaries. I don’t disagree, but I would add an important asterisk. In September 1966, a full year before the ABA rolled out its a red, white, and blue basketball, the New York Knicks signed University of Michigan All-American Cazzie Russell to a then-shocking $200,000, multi-year rookie contract. The story behind Russell’s big payday can wait for another day (it’s in my forthcoming book on the NBA-ABA years), but suffice it to say that Knicks’ president Ned Irish wanted to create some buzz around Russell coming to town to keep up with the Namaths and the Mantles. He did it by paying Russell like a Namath or a Mantle. In this article, from the 1966-67 Basketball Annual magazine, we briefly revisit the coming of “Snazzy” Cazzie Russell to New York and his many comparisons to Oscar Robertson. The byline belongs to the prolific Sam Goldpaper.]

So popular was Russell, this book was published about him coming out of Michigan.

Every year the pro basketball clan gets together in supermarket fashion to replenish its ranks from the available collegiate talent. 

It was at these collegiate drafts the coaches, general managers, and owners called out, “Jerry West of West Virginia; Bill Russell of San Francisco; Bob Cousy of Boston College; Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas; Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati; and Elgin Baylor of Seattle.” 

These selections turned collegiate stars into National Basketball Association superstars. 

Last May, Eddie Donovan, the general manager of the New York Knickerbockers, cried out, “Cazzie Russell of Michigan.” Donovan had first pick since the New Yorkers finished last in the Eastern Division and won the coin toss from Detroit. The Pistons record was even worse in the Western Division. 

At a nearby table, Fred Zollner, whose money had kept the Detroit franchise alive, and his coach, Dave DeBusschere, looked as if they had lost their best friend. Both expected that Cazzie would become Knick property the moment DeBusschere called “heads” and the $20 gold piece came up “tails.” Still, hearing it officially hurt.

Both perennial weak sisters of the NBA needed Cazzie but for different reasons. 

Even since the Knicks were organized in 1946-47, they’ve been searching for a superstar cut from the generous pattern of a Chamberlain, a West, a Bill Russell, a Cousy, a Baylor or an Oscar Robertson. It could very well be that they have finally found him in Cazzie. The 21-year-old basketball wizard is reputed to have all the makings of the next Oscar Robertson. 

This, the basketball world interprets because Caz averaged 30 points per game, that he is also a playmaker, a dribbler, a ball handler, a rebounder—a complete court operator. These, of course, are Robertson’s traits with the Cincinnati Royals, as they were when the Big O came out of high school in Indianapolis to lead the University of Cincinnati to 79 victories in 87 games over a three-year span and establish 13 NCAA records. 

In Detroit, Russell’s talents would have helped the Pistons’ bid to get out of the cellar. But that was secondary. The Detroit franchise saw $$$ signs every time it thought of Cazzie Russell. 

The NBA measures its financial success by the actual money taken in at each game, rather than attendance. Last year, the Pistons did a $5,000 nightly average at the gates as compared to the league tops of $31,000 by the Los Angeles Lakers and the $22,000 average by the Knickerbockers. At that, the Pistons gate was up $1,200 a night from a year ago. 

Detroit, with an NBA franchise since 1957-58, has never made money. It’s been common knowledge around the league that to Zollner the making of autopistons is his business and basketball his hobby. 

Cazzie could have spelled out important $$$ for the sick Detroit franchise. He showed that when he pumped life into the University of Michigan’s basketball program. Football was always the big sport at Ann Arbor and a money maker too. Since Russell arrived on campus, basketball bounced its way into sharing the limelight. 

Caz brought out the crowds in such numbers that during his senior year, University officials made plans to build a new 15,000-seat field house. Russell’s relationship with this project can be paralleled to Babe Ruth and the Yankee Stadium, often referred to as the House that Ruth built. It also recalls that Oscar Robertson started the turnstiles clicking at the University of Cincinnati and after that with the Cincinnati Royals. 

While Oscar was playing for the University of Cincinnati, the Bearcats drew 805,159 to their home games. Before he donned a Royal uniform, Cincinnati drew 58,244 customers to some 30 home games. In Oscar’s freshman year in the NBA, the Royals’ attendance jumped to 207,020.

The 6-5 ½, 218-pound Russell had the All-America stamp since he graduated from Chicago’s Carver High School. He was first named an All-America in his sophomore season, when he averaged 24.8 points per game. His 25.6 average earned him repeat honors the next season and as a senior, he was not only named to every All-All team but was also selected as Player of the Year. Last season, his 30.6 point average was third best in the nation. 

Every time the NBA met, the Detroit management sought to get the league rules changed and the territorial draft selection restored at least for the one season when Cazzie would be available. It was knocked down every time and the Pistons lost the toss, so instead Russell will wear a Knicks uniform. 

That was okay with Dave Strack, his Michigan coach. Soon after the NBA draft, Strack dispelled any thoughts anyone might have had that Russell might have just been a college flash and things would be different with the big boys—the pros. 

“I don’t think the Knicks know what they got,” said Strack. “He will amaze everyone. He hasn’t even scratched the surface of his abiity.

“He’s a hard worker and he learns quickly,” added Strack when the talk shifted to whether Cazzie will be able to play Oscar Robertson for example. “Don’t forget, Oscar has to play him,” interjected Strack, as a big smile broke across his face. 

That was enough to conclude that Strack has great confidence in his man. “We’ve played him at guard,” said the Wolverine coach, “because he would have the ball more, and we always knew something good would happen when he had it. He’s tough enough, big enough, strong enough, and smart enough.”

Strack feels Russell might make it as big as Robertson. “They’re good friends. Cazzie holds him in great esteem,” added Strack. “When you speak of Oscar, you speak of a great one.”

Russell has long followed Robertson’s career. “I watched Oscar play when I was in high school,” Cazzie told reporters when he came into Madison Square Garden for the 1964 Holiday Festival in a game which pitted him against Princeton’s Bill Bradley. “Oscar has always been my idol,” offered Caz. “He does more than just shoot a basketball.”

Oddly enough, while the basketball world continues to debate whether Cazzie will eventually fill Robertson’s shoes, one thing is certain: Russell, at least, has worn them.   

It was when he was a high school senior and being romanced by more than 70 colleges that Cazzie met Oscar at the University of Cincinnati. The two were having dinner together when Cazzie ask the question. 

“Have you tried those low-cut sneakers?” 

“Yes,” said Oscar, “I like them. Have you tried them?”

“Uh-huh,” said Cazzie. 

“What size do you wear?” Oscar asked. 

“Fourteen,” Cazzie replied.

“Same as me,” said Robertson. “I got a pair that you can have.”

Cazzie took the sneakers and wore them with pride for more than a year. He filled them well and when they were worn, he didn’t discard them. He kept them with his prized possessions. Cazzie Is somewhat of a hero worshiper.  

When the pro scouts were out beating the collegiate paths looking over the talent before the NBA draft, one of them described Cazzie, “as just a bit behind Robertson in every category. 

“His major weakness, that of so many college stars, is defense,” he said. “Michigan plays a man-for-man defense, but Cazzie plays a one-man zone.” He then went on to explain the reasoning behind it. “A college standout of his caliber can’t afford to take a chance of fouling out.”

Russell didn’t get started playing basketball until he was 14, and that’s considered a very late beginning. His strict religious parents prevented him from an earlier start because they didn’t permit him to stay out late at night. 

“My parents said I had to be in by 8 or 8:30 and the recreation building, where the guys played, was open 7 to 10,” said Cazzie explaining his late start in the game. “I never got a chance to practice. But finally I rebelled to a point where they had to let me stay out or I’d just bounce the ball in the house and drive them crazy.”

It didn’t take him long to catch up, partially by diligence and partially by persuading the janitors at his high school to leave the gymnasium doors open late at night so he could practice. 

Caz still drives himself, almost compulsively. In a way, he’s obsessed by his sport. “There were those days when Cazzie insisted on working out before every game we played,” recalled Strack. “He would work out by himself and insist it would improve him. I wasn’t particularly crazy about the idea, but he was right. Caz felt it helped him, so he did it. He fully enjoys playing and plays so well.”  

The Knicks made Cazzie their first pick for much of the same reason. “We came to the draft looking for the best basketball player available,” said Donovan, “and since we had the first choice, it had to be Russell. He has the body, the strength, and the basketball knowledge.”

There was more to it than that. The Knicks had Caz well scouted for a long time. Red Holzman New York’s chief talent seeker, followed him around for a few games. Donovan and Knick coach, Dick McGuire, joined the scouting party later on.

The Knicks were impressed by Russell’s manner of taking charge. He showed them that he was the type of player who wants the ball when the game was on the line. Nobody had to tell him to ask for it. The fact that he won MVP honors in the East-West All-Star Game and the AAU tournament in Denver help too. 

“Two things I especially liked about him in Lexington (East-West game),” said the Knick coach. “He gave me the impression he wants to play and, at the same time, appears to be enjoying himself. Also, he changes the tempo of the game. When he entered the game, his team was losing, minutes later they were ahead.”

At the draft meetings, each league city is assigned a table. It was easy to hop from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, or from St. Louis to New York in a matter of seconds. But, whether the stopover was at the Detroit, Boston, or Chicago tables, the topic of conversation was—CAZZIE RUSSELL. It was as if his name was lit up on an imaginary marquee over each of the ten league cities.   

Some compared him to Robertson. Others guessed that he was the Shining Knight who has come to free the Knicks from the deep, dark NBA cellar. Finally there were some who were concerned about Cazzie’s role in the pros. 

“It’s kind of hard comparing him with Oscar,” said Al Bianchi, assistant coach to Johnny Kerr at Chicago, the NBA’s newest franchise. “There’s no doubt that Caz was great in college, but Oscar is Oscar. When he does something, it’s almost like he was demonstrating at a basketball clinic. He executes so perfectly.” Bill Sharman, the new San Francisco Warriors coach concurred, and Kerr also shook his head in approval. 

Bill Russell, who replaced Red Auerbach as the coach of the Boston Celtics, took a different approach. “The Knicks have improved tremendously the past few years. Cazzie will be a great help to them. Not so much because he’s a great player—he’s very good—but because they need just one good player to the turn the corner.

“I think the Knicks will bring about a five-team race for the Eastern Division title for the first time. That’s how much improved I think they will be.”

A doubter echoed concern about Cazzie’s role. His size makes him a middle-of-the-roader—too big for the backcourt, not big enough for the frontcourt. 

“That’s what’s good about him,” Bill Russell said. “He could do everything so you can play him where he’s needed. If the guys in the backcourt are doing well, you put him in the corner. If the big guys are hitting, you put him in the backcourt. That’s what we do with John Havlicek.”

The next Oscar Robertson, a John Havlicek, or just plain Cazzie Russell, the Knicks got themselves a player who is strictly theatre in a basketball suit. 

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